Few women earn Catullus’ characteristic vitriol quite like Ameana, whom the poet fondly described as a puella defututa (41). This paper will reevaluate Catullus’ venom in poems 41 and 43 (the so-called “Ameana Cycle”) to show that his attacks on Ameana are in fact veiled criticisms of Mamurra’s loathsome poetry. Based on the assumption that Mamurra tried his hand at verse (105), I argue that references to his mistress Ameana are metonymy, meant to replace the love poetry Mamurra composed on her behalf. Catullus’ descriptions of Ameana substantiate this reading: her physical features are disproportionate and ill-suited to Roman conceptions of beauty, she is entirely without wit, and despite her patent imperfections, she has no idea how hideous she really is. Scholars have for some time considered the poetic genius of this cycle (Skinner), the literary critical subsets to which these poems may belong (Forsyth, Dettmer), and even the dichotomous portrayal of Catullus’ life and that of Mamurra (Deuling). I wish to expand on Deuling’s points concerning the opposition Catullus creates between himself and Mamurra, namely that the author’s attacks on Ameana can be reread as attacks on the abhorrent verse Mamurra composed for his lover.
The image of a hideous or disproportionate body as a metaphor for poorly composed poetry or prose finds ample evidence in Greek and Latin literature. Plato (Phaedr. 264c2–5), Callimachus (Papanghelis on fr.1.11–12 Pf.), Cicero (Or. 229) and the Roman rhetorical handbooks (e.g. TLL 4.1020.62–1021.39 s.v. corpus IV.A; see Keith) all could have influenced Catullus’ depiction of Mamurra’s poetry. Poems 41 and 43 are no longer assessments of beauty, then, but denunciations of Mamurra’s haphazard compositional style, which prefigures, for example, the Frankenstein poem envisioned by Horace at the opening of his Ars Poetica. Catullus supports this reading with his own claims concerning Ameana’s intelligence: she is not merely ugly, but witless in the extreme (43.4), and anyone who finds Mamurra’s girlfriend/poetry pleasing is counted among the saeclum insapiens et infacetum (43.8). Diction also supports my literary critical reading: another author, Suffenus, is also infacetus whenever he tries his hand at verse (22.14).
Ameana’s disagreeable proportions and intelligence are matched by outright delusion: she does not know her own value (41.1–2) or bother to look at herself in the mirror (41.7–8). Each of these can be read as Callimachean concepts to which the self-aware Roman elegists strictly adhered. That Ameana could consider her body worth 10,000 HS (41.2) matches Mamurra’s pretentions to poetic genius (57.7), and her refusal to look at herself in the mirror (41.7–8) crosses the world of feminine beauty with the aesthetics of Callimachean and Hellenistic poetry as adopted by contemporary Roman poets. Suffenus again provides a comparandum: previously described as infacetum (like Ameana’s admirers), he also suffers from delusions of poetic grandeur (22.20–1), and, like Mamurra and Ameana, is condemned by his lack of self-awareness.
Finally, Catullus’ use of the mistress in this manner has parallels both within the Catullan corpus and later Latin literature. Fisher has already considered how poem 35 can refer to Caecilius’ actions as a love poet “by presenting him as engaged in a love affair” (3–4). There, Caecilius’ lover stands in for his actual composition of love poetry, which keeps him from returning to Verona and receiving Catullus’ advice. The practice of conflating mistress with poetry was known among later Latin elegists as well: we need look no further than Propertius’ “Cynthia,” with which he begins the monobiblos (Enk; Lieberg; Stroh; Wyke). Even Martial replays this interpretation of the Ameana cycle when he lambasts a poetaster on similar grounds, calling him a “Mamurra” (10.4.11–12). In conclusion, Ameana’s disproportionate body, lack of wit, and delusions of beauty are criticisms aimed as much at her physical appearance as at the poetry of her bankrupt lover.