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Catullan Choreia: Reinventing the Chorus in Roman Poetry

Lauren Curtis

This paper contributes to the panel’s presentation of new perspectives on ancient music by offering a case study in the cultural and literary heritage of Greek choreia in the Roman world. Drawing on the wealth of interdisciplinary contributions that have enriched our understanding of the Greek chorus’ religious and ritual function (Henrichs, Csapo), musical and bodily aesthetics (Peponi), and role in the social and economic transformation of ancient Greece (Kowalzig), my approach investigates the reinvention of choreia as an imagined space in Roman poetry where questions of cultural and literary transformation are explored. To illustrate my approach, I propose a new reading of Catullus 63, the strange narrative of Attis’ castration and transformation into a priest of Cybele. My reading draws attention to the poem’s engagement with traditions of Greek choreia, suggesting that the poem’s narrative arc self-consciously dramatizes its own encounter with Greek performance culture. It then argues that, as one of the earliest Roman poetic texts known to enact a detailed reading of Greek choreia, Catullus’ lexical choices create a hybrid world of Greco-Roman song and dance that complicates even further his presentation of Attis as a creature impossible to define, evading categories of gender and ethnicity.

Catullus 63 has long been considered “performative” in some sense: its galliambic metre and lengthy, impassioned speeches led Newman (364) to call the poem a “quasi-script” for a virtuoso pantomime performer. While we can only speculate about the poem’s performance history, I suggest in the first half of my paper that the poem’s narrative engages in an ongoing interplay between the dynamics of soloist and group, at the climax of which is Attis’ self-invention as a chorus leader. From a ragged band of exiles (exules, 14), Attis’ followers are transformed into a ritual performance group engaged in the worship of Cybele with dance, song, and her traditional musical instruments, and Attis is characterized as the leader of a thiasus (28) and a chorus (30). The way in which this transformation is narrated suggests the self-consciousness with which Catullus reflects on his own relationship with Greek traditions. It is when Attis begins to imagine the Maenads who worship on Mt. Ida, and then when Attis and her followers rush to meet them, that their own transformation into a chorus of Cybele takes place. Lexical echoes show how these new followers of Cybele begin to imitate the actions of the worshippers they have heard about, modelling their new identity on this performative paradigm.

Having established Catullus’ close engagement with traditions of choral song and dance, the second half of my paper considers in more detail the poem’s language of choreia. Catullus’ lexical choices, I suggest, explore how choreia takes on new cultural valences when expressed in Latin. The choral worship of Cybele that the poem imagines as already existing on Mt. Ida is described with Greek loan-words that emphasize the exotic non-Roman atmosphere of the poem (e.g. thiasus, Maenades, tympanum, cymbalum). The performances of Attis and her companions are more complicated: they are characterized both by hellenizing vocabulary and by words that possess particular resonances in the Roman sphere, especially the much-repeated word dux and the dance term tripudium. Both these words strongly signify the performance of masculinity. Dux is a loaded word in the Roman military sphere, and is brought into service by Catullus here, for the first time in Latin poetry, to communicate the role expressed by the Greek term choregos. As for tripudium, outside this passage the word refers specifically to male dances, usually those that are military in nature (Alonzo Fernández, 248-83). As has been demonstrated by Skinner, Harrison and others,

Attis’ uneasy relationship with categories of gender and ethnicity lie at the heart of this poem. Catullus’ characterization of Attis’ choral worship as hovering between the boundaries of male and female, Roman and non-Roman, therefore implicates the language of performance in the poem’s poetics of identity. 


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Ancient Greek and Roman Music: Current Approaches and New Perspectives

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