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Gellius the Poet

Jesse Hill

University of Toronto

Modern scholarship by and large agrees on two points about Gellius, the gaunt, rosy-lipped figure of Catullus’ epigrams: (1) he was a hackish versifier whose “anti-Callimachean” poetry gets parodied in Catullus’ final poem (e.g. Macleod 1973, Sheets 2007, Mastandrea 2008, Adamik 2014); and (2) he is to be identified with L. Gellius Poplicola, consul in 36 BCE (e.g. Neudling 1955, Wiseman 1974, Skinner 2003, Stroup 2010). This paper aims to destabilize both those beliefs, and offers an alternative reconstruction of Gellius the late republican poet.

I argue that Catullus characterizes Gellius as a fellow neoteric. To be sure, the former offers us a good deal of disgust at the latter, but this disgust focuses squarely on Gellius’ perceived ethical failings (committing incest [74, 88, 89, 90], giving not getting head [80], seducing Lesbia [91]), not his poetic pursuits (Wray 2001). The distinction is important: for Catullus often revels in the disconnect between person and poem, character and speech (Selden 1992, Krostenko 2001), a disparity emblematized by Suffenus, the charming man who becomes a country bumpkin as soon as he starts composing poetry (22).

With this in mind, I suggest that Gellius is something like a reverse Suffenus – a base pervert (in Catullus’ eyes), but a poet of kindred, Callimachean sensibilities. That idea is borne out by the erudite allusions (to e.g. Hesiodic myth: Harrison 1996) that litter Catullus’ epigrams against Gellius (cf. Curran 1996, Syndikus 1984): even as they tear him to shreds, these poems demand and compliment their addressee’s ability to follow along. But the idea that Catullus’ old friend (91.7) is a neoteric finds the best support in poem 116, where, as I argue, far from parodying Gellius, Catullus emphatically implicates him in the programmatic Callimachean language that critics have long found there. Dramatizing an ethical disagreement between two neoteric poets, poem 116 thus invites us to think of the epigrammatic tela that Gellius and Catullus launch against each other as composed within one and the same neo-Callimachean mode.

This argument has important prosopographical implications. For if we accept that Catullus’ Gellius is a neoteric, and if we assume that this figure has some basis in historical reality, it is worth revisiting the old thesis (common before Schwabe 1862, revived by Campana 2013) that he is to be identified, not with the consul of 36 BCE, but the man of the same name whom Cicero attacks for yearning to appear Graeculus and otiosus and devoting himself to studium litterarum (Sest. 110). It is hard not to be reminded of Cicero’s famous criticism of the neoteroi at Att. 7.2.1. Nor need we be troubled that this Gellius was a generation or so older than Catullus (Kaster 2006): so was Cornelius Nepos, the addressee of Catullus’ opening poem; and besides, the Gellius epigrams become even more debasing and outlandish if we imagine their recipient as a man beyond the bloom of youth. In other words, and as this paper concludes, the speculation has a lot to recommend it.

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Republican Latin Poetry

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