Catullus 2 and 3 offer two of the most prominent appearances of the sparrow in Classical Greek and Latin literature. While poems about pets, and especially dead pets, were already popular in the Hellenistic period, Catullus was the first to introduce the sparrow to this genre (Hooper 162). Following the dedicatory poem to Cornelius Nepos, the passer poems also stand out as the first two in the Catullan corpus. The importance of these poems is suggested by Ovid’s deliberate imitation of Catullus 3 where Corinna watches her parrot pass away (Am. 2.6), and by Statius’ later elegy to Atedius Melior’s parrot, which imitates Ovid, and makes, as Hooper notes, an “imitation of an imitation” (168). Martial and Juvenal, in contrast, directly mention Lesbia’s passer in the Epigrammata (1.7, 1.109, 4.14, 7.14, 11.6) and the Satires (6.1). Because of these references, Italian Renaissance scholars such as Poliziano and Voss have debated the possible sexual double entendre behind this innocuous word, and this debate has continued until the present day.
In this paper, I offer a reorientation of this discussion by looking at the life that the Latin word passer and the Greek equivalent στρουθός had before Catullus. I examine chronologically the use of both passer and the Greek equivalent στρουθός in order to discuss the literary tradition that Catullus builds upon in his depiction of the pet sparrow of Lesbia.
Beginning with a scene in the Iliad (2.302-330) depicting a snake eating a mother sparrow and her eight chicks and the subsequent interpretation of the scene by the soothsayer Calchas, it is clear that the sparrow has been a persistent presence in the literature of the Greeks and Romans in the centuries preceding the Catullan corpus. Sappho provides the next literary evidence of the sparrow as well as the first evidence of the sparrow used in conjunction with the goddess Aphrodite/Venus (fr. 1.9-12). This association of the bird and the goddess reappears in the works of Aristophanes (Lysistrata 723), Xenophon of Ephesus (Eph. 1.8), and Apuleius (Met. 6.6). By its association with the goddess of love, the sparrow became an important symbol not only of the goddess but also of affection itself.
The passer’s association with love was furthered by observations from authors such as Aristotle who reported not just on the physical attributes of the bird, but also on the quickness of its copulation (ΝΑ 539b33). Brief selections, quoted by the later author Athenaeus in his Deipnosophistae (361c; 391f), further demonstrate an understanding of the bird’s lascivious nature. These combined connotations of the στρουθός resulted in the use of the Latin equivalent, passer, as a term of affection in Plautine comedy (As. 666, 694; Cas. 138).
In this paper I demonstrate the transformation undergone by the sparrow in the literature preceding Catullus and the lengthy literary tradition that Catullus builds upon when he briefly describes the life and death of Lesbia’s passer. Instead of using the passer as a term of endearment, Catullus returns the bird to its status as an actual, physical pet so that the bird serves not just a literary symbol, but as a physical symbol of the capacity for love.