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Hybrid God and Sylvan Freaks: Calpurnius’ Grotesque Pastoral

Scott Weiss

Knox College

The seventh and final poem of Calpurnius Siculus’ collection of eclogues presents a pastoral landscape that collides with an urban environment to produce strange results.  Corydon, a naïve young shepherd, returns to the countryside after twenty nights in the city and proceeds to tell the elder shepherd Lycotas all the marvelous things he observed on his sojourn to Rome.  These spectacles include a trip to the arena, where Corydon sees an unusual array of animals, and culminates in his encounter with the emperor himself, whose visage combines the appearances of Mars and Apollo.

Scholars have largely treated the poem along lines familiar to the study of Calpurnius: his date and his relationship to Vergil (Mayer 2006; Green 2009).  Newlands 1987 reads Calpurnius not simply as a sycophantic court poet or mindless imitator of Vergil; instead, she shows that the intrusion of the city into the pastoral realm constitutes a radical reassessment of the pastoral genre.  This presentation builds on those developments to demonstrate the ways in which Calpurnius uses the grotesque to achieve this poetic and generic realignment.  I show how the poem primes the reader to connect the emperor sponsoring the games with the strange creatures of the arena, which deviate from pastoral conventions through hybrid qualities that emerge in an atmosphere that is simultaneously awe-inspiring, bizarre and funny.  The dual face of the emperor also embodies this strange hybridity and belongs to the scene of grotesque spectacle.

The eclogue opens with Corydon championing the nova spectacula over pastoral conventions couched in Vergilian language.  This generic innovation programmatically introduces the theme of wondrous viewing (cernere, 2 and 5; cf. spectavimus, 18; vidimus, 23, 46, 60, 70).  The opening also connects the spectacula with the iuvenis deus who puts on the games in the arena (edit harena, 6) and anticipates Corydon’s description of the strange creatures he witnessed.  An exotic elk verbally and metrically recalls the emperor’s sponsorship of the games (editur alcen, 59) and is followed by zebu, bison and a hippopotamus, which Corydon articulates as hybrid versions of familiar pastoral livestock.  The catalogue slips into the absurd with a battle between bears and seals and culminates with the awesome image of the emperor’s face.  The convergence of Mars and Apollo belongs to the Nero’s cultivation of these two deities as emblematic of the new Golden Age of his reign (Varner 2017).  The poem emphasizes the remarkable hybridity of two deities in one face (in uno, 83) that recalls the hybrid creatures of the arena.  With its final word (putavi or putatur), the eclogue casts lingering doubt over what Corydon actually saw and captures the disorienting quality of the grotesque as an interval in which comprehension emerges (Harpham 1982).  This new reading of Calpurnius’ final eclogue contributes to our understanding of an aesthetic that Neronian literature developed to disrupt normative ways of comprehending the world and provide alternative strategies for representing reality.

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Flavian Poetry

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