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The Mens and the Mentula: A Philosophical Reading of Maximianus’ Hymn to the Penis

Grace Funsten

University of Washington

Maximianus’ fifth Elegy, likely composed in the mid-sixth century CE, recounts an embarrassing incident in which the lover-poet loses his erection after being seduced by a Graia puella (6). Once she realizes that she cannot remedy his impotence, the puella first speaks a lament for his “dead” penis (87-104) and then a hymn on the generative powers of the penis (109-152). I will argue that, while it is humorous, the puella’s hymn also engages with Neoplatonic philosophy.

Elegy 5’s seriousness has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Szövérffy (1968) argues that the poem is a satire and reads the hymn as “pure mockery” of female desire (364). Arcaz Pozo (1995) and Meyers (2003, 2018) similarly consider the poem a parody, while Spaltenstein (1983, 273) reads the hymn as a serious examination of the power of love. Uden and Fielding (2010) take the middle ground, noting that the hymn may be a parody and still seriously treat the cyclical nature of the world.

Building on Uden and Fielding’s observation that Elegy 5 may both be humorous and carry a serious philosophical message, I will examine a series of puns on mens in the poem to argue that the hymn can be read as a celebration of the Neoplatonic Intellect (nous or, in Latin, mens). To do so, I will first refer to the work of Plotinus, a third-century Neoplatonist who characterized the Intellect as a generative power, the source of all Forms and thus of all objects in the visible world (Smith 2004, 27). Maximianus was likely familiar with Plotinus through Boethius (Smith 2004, 91), whom he claims to have known in his youth (3.47). Next, I will consider the conflation of mens and mentula in Elegy 5. The puella begins her lament with mentula (87), a striking break from elegiac diction and the most obscene word in the poem. Mentula was thought in antiquity to be a diminutive of menta, but can also be interpreted as a diminutive of mens (Adams 1982, 10; Chantraine 1968, 693). Throughout the poem, Maximianus puns on this possible etymology by using mens in circumstances where mentula might be more appropriate. For example, he writes that the puella’s breasts and hips mentem... movebat (29; “stirred up my mind”), that when he lost his erection verecundia mentem / abstulit (55-56; “shame stole away my mind”), and that she then tried quicquid mentem sollicitare solet (102; “whatever is accustomed to stimulate the mind”). Given the poem’s explicit focus on sex, these uses of mens are clear puns on mentula. I will argue that this punning cuts both ways and that, if readers may replace mens with mentula, they may also replace mentula with mens. In this way, Elegy 5’s hymn to the mentula becomes no longer solely a satire, but also a hymn to the mens. The hymn’s celebration of the penis’ ability to create may therefore also be read as praise of the generative power of the Neoplatonic nous.

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Philosophical Thought and Language

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