Scholarly activity devoted to the Catalepton has largely focused on issues of authenticity. The Virgilian attribution has been both wholly rejected and wholly accepted, with many scholars falling somewhere in between. This paper will argue that a more fruitful approach to the collection is to place the poems in the context of Virgilian reception. Much of the Catalepton functions as metapoetic commentary on the major issues raised by Virgil’s critics. Catalepton 7 combines erotic and philological themes to make significant engagement with the traditions of Virgilian biography and criticism.
Catalepton 7 is an elaborate literary joke, the exact nature of which has been the subject of much debate. The humor comes from contrasting puer with a word that in the manuscripts is either potus or pothus. Scholars as distinguished as Scaliger made valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a decent joke based on this reading. Since Spiro restored pothus as πÏŒθος in 1884 stronger readings have emerged, helped by Birt’s realization in 1910 that this could also be the proper name ΠÏŒθος.
Hence the poet declares that he is quite taken by a “πÏŒθος” or “desire” but, due to outside pressure, he feels that he cannot actually say the word. He elects to substitute a Latin word. His choice, delayed until the very end of the poem, is not the Latin equivalent of πÏŒθος, i.e., amor, but rather puer. The reader then realizes that πÏŒθος is really ΠÏŒθος, the name of a serving-boy.
Traces of the Virgilian biographical tradition can be seen here: his love of young boys, and his friends’ slaves in particular. ΠÏŒθος may even be a reference to his freedman Eros. Catalepton 7 advertises itself most strongly as Virgilian, however, by being addressed to Vari dulcissime, Virgil’s close friend L. Varius Rufus. The presence of Varius, himself a noted author, is critical. As Westendorp Boerma points out in his commentary, this is a poem about literary style as much as it is about love. At issue is the acceptable use of Greek in Latin poetry. According to Macrobius (Sat. 1.24.7, 5.17.15 ff.) Virgil suffered criticism for his use of Greek. Horace (Ars P. 52-55) confirms this and adds that Varius was similarly criticized. Catalepton 7 is therefore a defense of Virgil, presented in the poet’s own voice. This Virgil uses paradox to make his point. Pedantically avoiding Greek only results in a witty bilingual joke, one that highlights the sophisticated and urbane effects that using Greek makes possible.