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Who Built the Boat? Labor and Material in Phaedrus IV. 7 and Catullus 64

Christopher J Londa

Yale University

The opening of Catullus 64 has long been recognized as an intertextual tour de force, where the poet’s restaging of the Argo theme variously “rejects,” “corrects,” or “pays homage” to Euripides, Apollonius, Callimachus, Ennius, and Accius (Jocelyn 1967; Thomas 1982; Hinds 1998). Similarly well-documented has been the influence of this poem on the canonically central works of Vergil (Libby 2016) and Ovid (Conte 1986). Considerably less attention, however, has been paid to the links between Catullus 64 and the refashioned Argo motif in Phaedrus IV. 7. In this fable, the poet attempts to silence his critics by putting Aesop in tragic buskins and performing a new rendition of the Medea prologue.

Building on the arguments of Gärtner 2000 & 2011, which demonstrate Phaedrus’s programmatic engagement with the texts of Euripides and Ennius, I argue that Phaedrus IV. 7 is also responding to the opening of Catullus 64. More than simply contributing another source for the Argo theme, the beginning of the epyllion offers Phaedrus a model for intertextual polemics. Phaedrus, I contend, uses aspects of Catullus’s intertextual technique to offer a revision to the highly material theory of poetry that undergirds Catullus’s adaptation of the Medea prologue. Whereas Catullus’s metapoetic reflection on the production of poetry focuses on the diverse materiae that compose the Argo, Phaedrus reminds us that that poems, like ships, do not build themselves. In addition to material, they require labor and technical know-how. Phaedrus IV. 7 fills this gap in Catullus’s material poetics by prominently featuring the craftsman and shipbuilder Argus (9: fabricasset Argus; cf. Apollonius, Argonautica I. 18–19), whom Catullus, Ennius, and Euripides had all suppressed from their renditions. For Phaedrus, who often frames himself as a craftsman (I prol. 1–2; II. 9.15; III epil. 6–7; IV. 22.8; V. prol. 4–7), Argus becomes an avatar for defending against the criticism that his Aesopic fables are derivative and unworthy of literary attention. By underscoring the importance of Argus’s banausic labor to the creation of literature’s first ship, Phaedrus asserts the value of his own literary work as a translator, compiler, and verse-maker. Like Argus fashioning a boat from timber or Catullus weaving together diffuse intertexts, Phaedrus argues that he shapes and refines Aesopic materia with equal skill. As such, his efforts toiling in the lower-status genre of fable nevertheless repay careful reading and merit recognition.

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Republican Latin Poetry

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