The Ancient Greeks Were the True Masters of Obscenity

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Byline: James Robson Senior lecturer in Classical Studies, Open University

IT'S NOT often that Latin poetry makes headlines. But it was claimed this week that financier Mark Lowe quoted a "vile" and "humiliating" line of the Roman poet Catullus -- irrumabo vos, et pedicabo vos -- in an email to young female job-seeker Ariane Gordji. In the course of a lengthy email exchange, Gordji had quoted some biblical Latin: diligite inamicos vestros, "love your enemies". Lowe's reply was less cutesy: "I shall face-f*** you and b****r you."

I hate to give such banter any encouragement but as a classicist I secretly find myself admiring Lowe's style. In reply to a pious exhortation by St Paul to love thy neighbour, he cites a reaction far more typical of the ancient world: if someone hates you, hate them back. In the poem which Lowe (slightly mis)quotes, Catullus is getting back at his critics -- hence the plural, vos.

What is striking to modern eyes is the combination of poetry and obscenity: putting the two together seems as wrong as sitting your grandmother down with a drunk. But Latin poetry wasn't all myths and heroes. Roman epic, saucy erotic poetry and the obscene poetry of insults all find their origins with the Ancient Greeks, whom the Romans copied and refashioned when it was their turn to be the great European power. And it is the Greek poets of the sixth and fifth centuries BC who were the true masters of obscenity.

For the Greeks, obscenities were not "dirty", they were simply words you could use to cut to the chase. With them you describe what it was like sleeping with your rival's girlfriend ("I was f**king away . …


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