The final years of the Roman Republic were a first ‘Age of the Antiquaries’: intellectual culture was dominated by the search for the origins of Roman civil and religious institutions in the distant past. Little attention, however, has been given to the wider circulation of antiquarian ideas in Roman culture and literature. This paper proposes a new interpretation of Catullus 17, suggesting that we read the poem in the light of Roman antiquarianism. Catullus’ poem, O Colonia, addressed to the poet’s hometown of Verona, is concerned with two topics: the town’s desire for a new bridge on which to perform a local religious ritual (17.1-7) and Catullus’ wish to see one of his fellow townsmen, a man being cuckolded by his young wife, be brought to his senses by being thrown off the old bridge (8-26). Previous scholarship has generally either interpreted the poem in naïve historical and biographical terms (Fraenkel) or from a formalist perspective (Rudd, Quinn). Through a comparison between the poem and fragments from antiquarian works by M. Terentius Varro, writing contemporaneously with Catullus, I propose a historicizing approach to the poem as engaged with antiquarian discourse.
The dialogue with antiquarianism in the poem plays out in two ways. First, Catullus employs antiquarian discursive style. Engaging with antiquarian interest in local religious practices, Catullus discusses an obscure local ritual, the Salisubsali sacra. The link between this folksy name and dancing (salire) in line 2 suggests that the ritual involves some sort of dance on the town’s rickety bridge. This can be paralleled in Varro’s antiquarian writings, which included discussion of local Italian rituals and deities, as comparanda for religious practice at Rome (Varro ARD frs. 33, 262 Cardauns). Catullus also alludes to characteristically antiquarian etymologizing of juridical terms. In lines 7 and 8, Catullus refers to etymologizations of municeps from ‘munera capere’ meaning ‘to do a duty’ (cf. Varro De L.L. 5.179). Catullus, however, does not use munus in the sense of ‘duty’ but rather as ‘spectacle.’ He subverts the antiquarian etymology: his townsman (municeps meus) will provide a munus…maximi…risus by being thrown off the bridge.
The second level of reference to antiquarian discourse in the poem is more specific. As has long been recognized (Birt), the scenario of throwing a ‘dummy’ off the bridge and Catullus’ apparent verbal engagement with the proverb sexagenarios de ponte (lines 8 and 23) suggests that the Roman ritual of the Argei is part of the background to the poem. In the ritual, performed annually in May, the pontiffs and the Vestals threw 30 wicker puppets in the likeness of men from the pons sublicius into the Tiber. The Argei ritual was the subject of intense antiquarian speculation in the late Republic. Several antiquarians, including Varro, proposed that the ritual was a substitution for a human sacrifice that took place in Rome before Hercules arrived with his Argive companions (hence the name of the festival) and stopped it (Varro De L.L. 7.44; fr. 210 Funaioli. cf. Ovid Fasti 5.621-662; Festus 334M). They also connected this origin for the ritual with the proverbial phrase sexagenarios de ponte, claiming that the original sacrificial victims were old men. Catullus’ reference to this ritual in the poem reflects his knowledge of this speculation about the Argei. I suggest that the poem’s premise is Catullus’ parodic contribution to the debate around the origin of the ritual. The man in the poem resembles the straw puppets (lines 21-22: nil videt, nihil audit/ ipse qui sit, utrum sit an non sit, id quoque nescit) and Catullus hopes that he will be thrown off the bridge. For Catullus, this shock treatment will waken the husband to his wife’s infidelities. The scenario also implies an unlikely origin for the Argei rite: a cure for deceived husbands! Taken together, the Catullan antiquarian jeu d’esprit in this poem reveals the cultural significance of this discourse in late Republican Rome.
- Birt, T. (1926) “Pontifex und sexagenarios de ponte (zu Catull c.17)” RhM 75: 115-126.
- Fraenkel, E. (1961) “Two Poems of Catullus,” JRS 51: 46-53.
- Quinn, N. (1969) “Practical Criticism: A reading of Propertius i. 21 and Catullus 17” Greece and Rome 16: 19-29.
- Rudd, N. (1959) “Colonia and Her Bridge: A Note on the Structure of Catullus 17” TAPA 90: 238-242.