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Priapeum non est: A Reconsideration of Poem 61 in the Carmina Priapea

Heather Elomaa

Poem 61 of the Carmina Priapea stands out as a poem that, at first glance, defies the generic norms of the priapeum: it is the defensio of a barren fruit tree with no mention of Priapus and no obscenity. CP 61 is, therefore, not “Priapic,” when “Priapic” is reduced only to sexual humor. In this paper I offer a new interpretation of CP 61 that broadens what it means to be “Priapic” in the Carmina Priapea.

Scaliger (1573) said outright that CP 61 is not a priapeum: mirum autem hoc Epigramma, quod Priapeum non est, huc alieno loco immissum esset. However, scholars since his day have offered the following conclusions for its location in the collection: it is a “stylistic excursus” introduced in the previous poem, CP 60, which compares apples to poems (Callebat 2012); the tree is standing next to a shrine of Priapus (Parker 1988); or the apple tree itself embodies Priapus (Littlewood 1968). Verbal echoes unite CP 60-62 as a cohesive unit (Goldberg 1992), and CP 63, a poem in which Priapus laments his lot in life, seems to pick up on the complaints made by the apple tree in CP 61.

These conclusions get us closer to understanding CP 61, but still leave much to explore. The tone of CP 61 hardly seems resonant with the obscenity that is otherwise prevalent in the collection. It is this same obscenity that has secured the position of CP 3 and 7, and likewise CP 12, in the collection, despite the absence of Priapus in these pederastic and satiric poems (Buchheit 1962; O’Connor 1989). By drawing on parallel scenes in Catullus’ polymetrics, love elegy, and verse satire, I suggest that CP 61 presents a kind of “Priapic” that we see traces of in other Priapus narratives (Tib. 1.4; Hor. Sat. 1.8) as well as non-Priapus narratives (Cat. c. 38; Prop. 1.16). The apple tree’s fixed location and the abuse it claims to suffer from poem-dedications evokes Priapus’ basic function as a stationary god who is forced to withstand the elements. Like the elegist, the tree is downtrodden and powerless. Like the satirist or Catullus in his polymetrics, it is irritated by its surroundings and motivated to criticize them. The poetry of Priapus is poetry of vulnerable inertia, which is at the same time satiric, elegiac, as well as Priapic.

What emerges in the cycle of which CP 61 is a part is an opportunity to read beyond the generic limits of epigram, as recent work has begun to do with emphases on other poems in the collection (Uden 2010). There are strong echoes of elegy, satire, and Catullus’ polymetrics in CP 61, not only in its most immediate subject matter, but also in its undertones and flavoring of broader lyric, elegiac, and satiric motifs. Buchheit names elegy and satire as the two genres that envelop and transform the priapeum (Buchheit 1962). Through a closer look at CP 61, one is able to see that the trajectory of priapea does not go directly from Greek priapea to the Carmina Priapea, but rather, includes these non-epigrammatic Priapus narratives. The existence of Greek and early Roman priapea (poems in dedication to Priapus) shaped Augustan and Imperial treatments of Priapus, and the Carmina Priapea, coming after these texts, was itself shaped by these non-epigrammatic accounts. CP 61 breaks up the monotonous repetition and unsavory obscenity that have been frequent criticisms, and instead, helps us to read the Carmina Priapea as a cohesively designed poetry book that is enriched by the inclusion of elegiac and satiric motifs.

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On the Boundaries of Latin Poetry

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