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Irrumator/Imperator: A Political Joke in Catullus 10?

Steven Brandwood

Rutgers University

On the reverse of a denarius minted in 56 B.C., the monetalis C. Memmius hails his more famous uncle, also a C. Memmius (pr. 58), with the legend Memmius Imperator on either side of a trophy and a kneeling captive (Crawford RRC 427/1).  The victories for which the elder Memmius earned his imperatorial acclamation are unknown, but it seems as if he may have taken his opportunity as praetorian commander in Bithynia and Pontus to defeat some local tribes and then tendentiously request a triumph, as seems to have been a trend for late-Republican magistrates (Brennan 2000: 795-6).  The Fasti Triumphales record no triumph for Memmius or for any other commander for victories in Bithynia (Degrassi, Inscr. Ital. 13.1), and the appearance of Imperator on a coin minted at Rome, and not in a military mint, seems to represent a new development in late-Republican political propaganda (Combès 1966: 99-103).  Memmius is, of course, most well known to modern students of Roman society for his appearances in the poetry of Catullus and Lucretius, and this coin’s information on the magistrate’s imperatorial aspirations may help shed some light on his poetic characterization.  I argue that Catullus parodies Memmius’ desire for a triumph in a punning, mock imperatorial acclamation of the commander as an irrumator praetor in poem 10.12-13, extending the scope of the otherwise blunt sexual joke to ridicule Memmius as a military, and possibly as a literary figure.

            Like other examples of Catullan paronomasia such as Clodia/Lesbia, imperator and irrumator scan identically and rhyme, and the word’s emphatic position at the end of the hendecasyllabic line may allow for a mock exclamatory delivery.  The identification does not rest on sound alone, however, but derives force from Catullus’ characterization of an irrumator as an almost official military position—the irrumator is both a praetor, Memmius’ official post, and the head of a military cohors, as Catullus is sure to repeat twice (10.9, 10.13).  The pun may have had some contemporary currency as part of the sermo castrensis (Lenchantin de Gubernatis 1976: 22), but seems to derive more force here from the uniqueness of Catullus’s obscenity, as this is the only appearance of the word irrumator as a noun in surviving Latin literature, aside from one likely later Pompeian graffito (CIL 4.01529).  Catullus compounds this pointed neologism in Memmius’ other appearance in the corpus in poem 28, where he makes Memmius’ fondness for irrumatio essentially the only thing said about him.  Furthermore, as Braund 1996 has recognized, this appearance assimilates Memmius to the figure of Priapus, performing his obscene punishment of Catullus tota ista trabe (28.10).  In Catullus’ poetry, Memmius is not the red-leaded triumphator or Jupiter Capitolinus, but their parodic inversion, the rough-hewn Priapus with his red erection, capable only of treating slaves and thieves as slaves and thieves. 

            Memmius’ priapic status may also relate to his poetic activity as a composer of obscene verse (Ovid. Trist.2.333-4; Plin. Min. Epist. 5.3.5), and Catullus often uses puns to attack his poetic rivals (Ferriss 2009).  More interestingly, however, Catullus’ scornful reaction to Memmius’ imperatorial ambitions may also be reflected in Lucretius who, in a possible consolatio to the disappointed general, characterizes Epicurus as a triumphator (Fowler 1989; Buchheit 2007) and describes the “hidden force” that tramples the triumphator’s ornatus and holds it in derision (DRN 5.1233-5).  Whatever the case, the coinage of Memmius’ nephew serves to shed light on his uncle’s political situation and its under-explored resonances in his poetic contemporaries. 

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Getting the Joke

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