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Dancing on the Borders of Empire: The Wandering Thiasus in Catullus 63

Basil Dufallo

The dances of the Galli, the self-castrating priests of Cybele, emblematize the dynamic ambiguity of certain dance-forms at Rome: as Beard notes, the cult and its practices both expressed Roman ties to ancestral Phrygia and distanced Roman identity from its “Oriental” antitype (Beard 83; cf. Naerebout 157). Yet no study has fully described the role of such ambiguity in perhaps the most memorable account of the Galli’s dances to survive from antiquity, Catullus’s poem 63. The rhythmic and motion- related aspects of the poem have often drawn comment—from its striking galliambic meter (see esp. Morisi 49–56), to its emphasis on repetition at the phonetic, lexical, and thematic levels (Syndikus 76–99; Kroon), to Attis as a border-crosser, whether in terms of geography, gender, culture, or literary genre (Harrison; Fantuzzi and Hunter 477–85). But the fact that Attis’s maddened wandering is a ritualized dance, called a tripudium (26) and its participants a chorus (30) and a thiasus (28), has yet to be connected with the poem’s setting in what had become a Roman province (Asia) that formed part of the eastern boundary of the Roman empire in Catullus’s day, and a province bordering, in turn, on the one that Catullus himself assisted in governing (Bithynia). In this paper I extend current discussions to argue that the presence of such dance in Catullus’s poem points to the culturally organizing force of the Great Mother’s cult at Rome, while also associating the cult’s eunuch priests with a need for Rome’s organizing influence as an imperial power. Compulsive, wandering dance in the Phrygian Troad, long assimilated to the landlocked Phrygia around Pessinus, cult-center of Cybele, is a perfect symbol for this dual attitude, akin to the ambivalence that Nauta, for one, has sensed in the poem over Rome’s Trojan origins (Nauta 91–92; cf. Hardie 225–29). Imperial expansion in Asia Minor, the poem’s errant dancing suggests, both solidifies a Roman claim to cultural integrity and opens Rome to the damaging possibility of losing its way in regions distant from its center of power, regions sacred to a goddess whose cult had been enshrined in that city center since the third century BCE.

The rapid sequence of events at the poem’s opening culminates in an image of the “wandering” Gallae (see 12, 34 for the feminine form; cf. 13, vaga; 18, erroribus; 25, vaga; 31, vaga) as a body of dancers. The very last word of Attis’s first speech is tripudiis (26), the “ritual dances in triple time” with which the maddened Attis urges the Gallae to hasten to the Phrygian groves. Habinek suggests that the use of tripudium here recalls the dance’s origins as a part of the Salian ritual and reveals the term “migrating, as it were, to other religious contexts,” so as to allow for “a rite of Roman sovereignty” that “helps to construct the Roman social order” to be distinguished from the dance of foreigners (Habinek 22). Yet immediately after this, the Gallae respond as a thiasus (28, “those taking part in an orgiastic dance”) and swiftly approach Ida as a chorus (30). The Greek terms here suggest Attis’s own foreignness, as a Greek himself, in archaic Phrygia and thereby point to Phrygia as non-Greek, which is to say (in this context), proto- Roman.

Poem 63 concludes with the narrator’s wish to avoid Cybele’s religious frenzy and have her incite “others” to madness (93, alios...alios). Since membership in Cybele’s priesthood was restricted at Rome to native Phrygians (D.H. 2.19.3–5), such a sentiment accords well with what we can imagine to have been the Roman attitude toward the ecstatic dances of the Galli in Catullus’s day: on the one hand, they forged a kinetic link to the mythical dances of Attis in the Phrygian homeland, and on the other hand they proved the need for the guiding presence of Rome in the land of its Trojan past. 

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Roman Dance Cultures in Context

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