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Catullus the Mathematician

Mary Jaeger

In examining the many quantitative references in Catullus’ short poems, this paper has two goals: first to show the pervasiveness of mathematical concepts in Catullus’ work, a legacy of the conceptual traditions of Hellenistic poetry; second, to contribute to our understanding of the use of ideas, in this case mathematical ones, as items of social prestige in late republican Rome.

My argument draws together several disparate strands of thought: central are Netz’s observations about the relationship between Hellenistic poetry and mathematics, and Gee and Gallagher on the way Cicero’s poetic language reflects the organization of the world. It responds to some of Krostenko’s observations about language and community in Cicero and Catullus, to Selden’s remarks on Catullus’ use of rhetorical figures, and to Feeney’s on the materiality of the polymetrics. It also taps into discussions of urbanitas and aristocratic competition during the first century BCE (Fitzgerald, Habinek; Krostenko).

The paper first surveys Catullus’ use of numbers, figures that overwhelm when taken cumulatively; it then turns to several poems containing a high proportion (about a quarter of total words) of quantitative expressions, not only numbers, but also, for example: such adjectives as omnis, magnus, longus and their opposites; tantus, tot, etc., and their correlatives, as well as accounting terms: aestimare, assis, pernumerare. These are: cc.5 and 7, 49, and 86.

A reading of the statistically most quantitative, c.49, in response to Selden’s discussion of rhetorical figures, reveals that the mechanics of Catullus’ syntax imitate—well, mechanics. The poem is a balance on which poet and patronus reach equilibrium even as two conflicting ways of interpreting Catullus’ sincerity and Cicero’s character do not. What we learn from c.49 we can apply to other, less obviously quantitative poems, in this case c.72, where reading with an eye to the figure of the balance brings metaphors (impensior, leuior) to life and shows how the poet achieves emotional equilibrium, an aequus animus.

The Roman accounting metaphors of the “kiss” poems 5 and 7 have received considerable attention (e.g., Levy, Pack, Pratt, Segal, Turner). But their other mathematical ideas have antecedents in Hellenistic mathematic discussion, in this case Archimedes’ Stomachion, which first poses a problem of combinatorics: how many forms of a square can be made with a fourteen-piece tangram game? Netz points out that it then asks the ridiculous: how many forms can be made if the pieces do not match up exactly? Catullus’ shift from basia, discrete kisses, to basiationes (sometimes translated as “kissifications”—whatever those are), reflects the shift from tremendously large numbers, to the qualitatively uncountable.

Likewise, reading with an eye to geometry provides a new perspective on c.86, which debates the meaning of the term formosa. Quintia (longa, recta, candida) is not formosa in the poet’s eyes, first because she is shapeless, nearly one-dimensional, with the properties of a brilliant line. When Catullus does concede her three dimensions, he invokes an idea dear to Hellenistic mathematicians: that of the very small set against the very large (see, e.g., Archimedes’ Sand Reckoner): there is not one grain of salt (wit) in her great body. Lesbia, in contrast, redefines formosa: the term no longer has to do with shape, but with amorphous beauty and charm (uenustas), elements of urbanitas (Fitzgerald). Cicero’s comparison of Archimedes’ two spheres in the de Re Publica offers a contemporary corroborating example and an intellectual link between poet and philosopher: the first sphere initially seems the more charming (uenustior) of the two; but when set in motion, with all parts working in harmony, the second better illustrates its maker’s genius to the discriminating and private eye (Jaeger).

Like Cicero, whose inclusion of both spheres illustrated his aesthetic sympathies and helped integrate him into Rome’s elite, Catullus used mathematical ideas as prestige items, thus creating a poetic persona whose ability to wield numbers and manipulate the language of geometry replaced political prominence and material wealth.

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Running Down Rome: Lyric, Iambic, and Satire

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