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Dating the Catalepton: How Servius Misread Donatus and Created the Collection

Dave Oosterhuis

In her recent book, The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake (2012), Irene Peirano devotes a great deal of attention to the Catalepton. This diverse collection of fifteen poems, transmitted as part of the Appendix Vergiliana, presents itself—and often has been accepted—as Vergilian juvenilia. Peirano successfully makes the argument that these poems are better understood as part of the literary reception of Vergil in antiquity—“fakes” created to engage with the same questions we find in surviving Vergilian exegesis such as commentary and biography. This approach sidesteps the centuries of contentious Echtheitskritik and emphasizes the value the Catalepton as witness to and exempla of ancient Vergilian criticism.

The question then becomes one of date and it is here that Peirano underestimates the difficulty involved in dating the poems. She characterizes the Catalepton as the product of a single author—identified with the author of Catalepton 15, the sphragis of the collection—and declares Donatus as the terminus ante quem for the work since he lists it among Vergil’s juvenilia. (Whether this list goes back to Suetonius, Donatus’ major source, is, of course, a debated question.)

A close examination of relevant passage and its corresponding passage in Servius shows that Servius has misread Donatus, with serious consequences. Donatus provides the following list:

deinde catalecton et priapea et epigrammata et diras, item cirim et culicem, cum esset annorum XVI…scripsit etiam de qua ambigitur Aetnam.

                                                                        Donatus 56-57, 65 (Brummer)

Then he wrote the Catalepton, the Priapea, the Epigrams, the Dirae, and likewise the Ciris and the Culex, when he was sixteen years old. He also wrote the Aetna, about which there is some disagreement.

(There are a number of textual issues with the age Donatus gives here but they are irrelevant to the discussion at hand.) Servius offers a slightly different list:

deinde scripsit etiam septem siue octo libros hos: Cirin Aetnam Culicem Priapeia Catalepton Epigrammata Copam Diras.

                                                                              Servius 1 (Thilo & Hagen)

Then he also wrote the following seven or eight books: the Ciris, the Aetna, the Culex, the Priapea, the Catalepton, the Epigrams, the Copa, and the Dirae.

Servius is confused about the number of works because he has misread Donatus. It is this misreading that created the Catalepton as we know it.

Prior to Servius ‘Catalepton’ was not the title of a work by Vergil. Instead κατὰ λεπτόν was an adverbial phrase used by Donatus to describe the style of various poems of Vergil’s. The catalecton et priapea et epigrammata found in Donatus is a mistransmission of κατὰ λεπτόν: Priapea et Epigrammata. Vergil wrote Priapea and epigrams κατὰ λεπτόν—the Greek phrase being attested in Latin to mean both “in detail” and “in the Alexandrian/Neoteric style.” It is due to this transcription error that Servius, knowing nothing of the Appendix firsthand, treated the phrase κατὰ λεπτόν/catalepton as a title. Thus the idea of a separate work, a Catalepton, was born, which did not actually appear in the manuscripts in the twelfth century.

Thus Donatus cannot serve as a terminus ante quem for the Catalepton. Outside of Catalepton 2, which was familiar to Quintilian and Ausonius, none of the poems are referenced in antiquity. Some may indeed date from the period between Vergil and Donatus that Peirano identifies as a fertile time for pseudepigrapha. That argument will have to be made from other evidence than Donatus, however.

The content of the poems argues against single authorship as well. The poems do speak in a pseudo-Vergilian voice, but that voice is not consistent and neither is the “autobiography” that it sketches. The author of the editorial sphragisCatalepton 15—is not the author of the entire collection. He is a collector, at some date yet to be determined, who presents to the reader the collection that Servius inadvertently summoned into being via his misreading of Donatus.

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Receptions of Classical Literature in Premodern Scholarship

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