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Salty Sequences in Catullus and Meleager

Charles Campbell

Salty Sequences in Catullus and Meleager

Since HEZEL (1932), Catullus’ extensive engagement with Greek literary epigram has become the object of much scholarly attention.  LAURENS (1965) and GUTZWILLER (2012), inter al., have illustrated intricate allusive connections between carmina and one or more literary epigrams, while HUTCHINSON (2003) has illustrated broad-based topical similarities between the two corpora.  Comparatively little attention has been paid, however, to Meleager’s influence on Catullus qua editor, a complex dimension of Meleagrean art illuminated by GUTZWILLER (1997).  VAN SICKLE (1981) has argued that the opening and closing of the corpus Catullianum recall Meleager’s opening and closing poems, while CLAES (2002) has suggested--though without further illustration--that Catullus learned the principles of “concatenatio” from Meleager.  This paper aims to substantiate this latter view by showing that carmina 12-14 of Catullus, already identified as a thematic sequence by FORSYTH (1985), are modeled as a group after a particular series of poems from Meleager’s Garland, AP 6.300-303.

I begin with a brief consideration of Catullus cc. 2 and 3.  WHEELER (1934) pointed out that these two poems take a long sequence from Meleager’s Garland (AP 7.189-198) as their point of reference.  It goes unmentioned in the commentaries and standard works that the the adjective acris (c. 2.4, et acris solet incitare morsus) reproduces phonetically the Greek ἀκρίς (“grasshopper”).  This noun constitutes the “keyword” of the Meleagrean sequence Catullus is imitating, appearing no fewer than ten times in the series AP 7.189-198.

In the second sequence of epigrams I will consider, AP 6.300-303, the corresponding keyword is ἅλς.  This sequence comprises poems by Leonidas of Tarentum (6.300 and 302), Callimachus (6.301), and Ariston (6.303).  6.300 is Leonidas’ own ex voto to Aphrodite, a thanksgiving for saving him from illness; 6.301 is a punning dedication from a poor man to the gods in return for saving him from a “storm” of debts; 6.302 is Leonidas’ outburst at the mice who are invading his hut and stealing his grain; 6.303 is Ariston’s adaptation of 6.302, with the poet no longer concerned about the theft of his grain, but rather of his books.

On the one hand, there is a set of formal parallels with Catullus 12-14:  the thieving mice of AP 6.302 turn into the thieving Marrucinus of c. 12; the prohibition in AP 6.302 is inverted into a dinner invitation in c. 13; AP 6.303 and c. 14 concern physical books of poetry. 

But there is a more complex thematic dynamic pivoting around the word “salt” (ἅλς/sal).  In each sequence, this term acts as a keynote running through and unifying the poems, rather like ἀκρίς/acris above.  It forms part of the connective tissue of the Meleagrean sequence:  the juxtaposition of AP 6.301 and 6.302 draws attention to two different uses of ἅλς:  Callimachus’ creates an elaborate pun:  salt stands by synecdoche for “sea” and is punned against salt as a chief component of a poor man’s diet.  For Leonidas, meanwhile, salt (paired with bread) is a symbol of the poet’s principled “ancestral” poverty.

The ambiguity between the ethical tenor of Leonidas and the irony of Callimachus is reproduced in the Catullan sequence.  In c. 12, Catullus indignantly asks the napkin thief Marrucinus Asinius, hoc salsum esse putas? (Do you think this is “salty”/clever?).  In c. 13, Catullus is so poor that Fabullus will even have to bring salt, ordinarily the cheapest part of the meal.  As NAPPA (1998) argues, Catullus in cc. 12 and 13 is making a larger, quasi-philosophical statement about the values of friendship, using the napkin and the dinner, much as Leonidas uses his salt, as symbols of an ethical standpoint.  This statement, I suggest, is reinforced on the level of meta-poetics in c. 14, as Catullus threatens to repay his “salty” friend Calvus, who has sent a book of bad poetry as (what he considers) a witty Saturnalia gift (non non hoc tibi, salse, sic abibit).

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Hellenistic and Neoteric Intertexts

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