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A Taste for the Mentula: Female Critics in the Carmina Priapea

Heather Elomaa

The first proem of the Carmina Priapea [hereafter, CP] speaks both to a reader (lecture; 1.1) and to a viewer (aspicis; 1.8), as if to suggest that by reading the CP one also becomes a viewer of Priapus’ physical form as a statue. Throughout the book we continue to see potential readers overlapping with viewers—the majority of whom are women. Much attention has been given to women in the CP in their capacity as depraved dedicatees or virtuous antitheses, but not as evaluators of literature and art. This paper examines those passages in the CP in which women respond to Priapus. I argue that the poet of the CP conflates female aesthetic and sexual responses in order to complicate what it means for a reader of the CP to have a “taste” for Priapic poetry.

Recent scholarship has explored to good effect the aesthetics of written and artistic representations of Priapus. Stewart (1997; 2003) has identified the Roman Priapus as “bad art,” which he sees reflected in literary and artistic sources. Höschele (2008) and Prioux (2008) have explored how the CP engages with the Alexandrian aesthetic tradition. They urge us to be mindful of the way in which Hellenistic poets explore statues as champions of poetic styles and play with sculpture as a channel for aesthetic criticism. In this respect, Höschele‘s reading of the CP’s “anti-book poetics” corresponds with Stewart’s notion of Priapus as “anti-art.” In these studies, however, the role of the critic is often overlooked. Work on female spectators and readers in related literature helps to bridge this gap. Goldhill (1994) suggests that female critics are versions of the poet and his audience in Theocritus’ Idyll 15. Larash (2004) sees the recurring female reader in Martial’s Epigrams as “synecdoche for Martial’s general readership.”

I suggest that the poet draws on these two literary types in creating his own female critic, but as we will find, the CP features scenes in which women are characterized by their taste or by their lack of it in relation to how they judge Priapus and Priapic verses. A girl who mocks a Priapus statue’s inferior artistry is described in terms of her excessive lack of taste (insulsissima; 10.1), whereas Priapus describes himself in opposite terms (salsa res; 10.7). A closely related poem suggests that married women should not read the lewd verses of the CP, but ironically concedes that they have taste (nimirum sapiunt; 8.4) and at this moment the poem switches to these women as eager viewers of Priapus’ physical form (videntque…mentulam libenter; 8.4-5). The verb sapere, when combined with the idea that salsus in CP 10 can describe saltiness as well as refinement, suggests that the poet is playing on physical taste for his image, that is, oral sensation of tasting the mentula. Priapus says elsewhere that the girl who does not have an “unrefined cunt” (non fatui puella cunni; 39.8) will prefer Priapus’ figure despite his lack of beauty. Here, the center of intellectual activity moves from the brain to the genitals. These scenes add a new valence to Priapus’ promise in CP 68 that he could have satisfied Penelope, another casta matrona, suggesting perhaps literary pleasure from his version of Homeric epic as well as physical pleasure.

By characterizing aesthetic criticism as a sexually charged act, the poet of the CP ultimately challenges readers to judge what taste means in a poetry book that professes to be poorly written and obscene, but at the same time is technically adept. If we understand Priapus’ phallus as metonymy for obscene poetry (cf. Richlin 1992), then as readers we are left to ponder our own taste for the CP’s mentula.

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Women, Sex, and Power

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