Reading Catullus in the wake of Epstein

The new academic year is almost upon us and, with it, children across the country will be reprising or beginning Latin. This means the usual influx of memes, some funny, some somewhat niche (the weird CLC ones???) and some inevitable. Gaius Valerius Catullus is part of the latter. You all immediately know what I’m talking about: Pedicabo vos irrumabo, etc etc.

I can’t quite place why I don’t find these jokes funny. In part, obviously, because we’ve been hearing them for so many years. I think it’s mainly the pretence of it all, the pretence that this is typical of Roman poetry (or even Catullus, is it? Is it really?), or that this somehow makes the Romans ‘just like us’ Really? Is that how you speak to your friends? Bloody hell, I should hope not.

I think there’s also something so annoying about the fact that these jokes never, or almost never, lead to anything like actual curiosity about Catullus or his Roman world. There are perhaps funnier lines of vitriol from C if that’s your thing (e.g 37, maybe even 112 counts?), that never get read, let alone cited. If you’re really interested in *that* side of Rome, there’s a wealth of art/archaeology and low-brow inscriptions. I guess I’m a little sad that something said to be so arresting and shocking never leads to further exploration.

If that is the case, the Classics really are fututa, given the popularising strategies most utilised by teachers and academics these days.

Take as a counterpoint the interminably brilliant Peter Green on his days as a schoolboy struggling with Juvenal.[1] In an article he talks of how such racy material was handled in the past ‘It took us very little time to discover that all the really racy epigrams had been translated, not into English, but into Italian-thereby, one might suppose, slurring no less than three ethnic groups simultaneously…’. What follows is a brief story of how he and his cohorts between them dedicated themselves to reading and translating Juvenal.

I find it hard to envision such curiosity even amongst the undergraduates of today. Not that my generation was much better, but still.

I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case. No, this isn’t the place for performative disavowals and damning, I think any right-thinking person feels all that and expects others to likewise, but I do feel a profound sadness. I’m sad on behalf of the victims, that anyone could do and organise such things, that such wealth effectively puts him and his friends well beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps we should be angry but, ah, miser mi lector, desinas ineptire…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case and that has brought the poem and its first word, pedicabo, as well as the latent (lol) sexual threats to mind.

There is an assumption that pedico, pedicare is a borrowing from Greek. The /e/ in this instance representing a subaltern monopthongisation quite familiar from the later stages of both languages. So strong is this belief that some authors (no textual critics to my memory) choose to unnecessarily restore the text to read paedicabo. The etymological force of this should be apparent < Greek παῖς,  παιδός, which has the meaning of both child/boy (undoubtedly its principal meaning[2]) and slave (Cf American usage of boy for slaves).

So, in this sense the verb cares the force of something like ‘use as one would a slave’ or ‘reduce to a slave’ in terms of status. The reading is clear, the implication, unsettling as to the reality of slavery in the Roman world. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I suspect the sheer scale of slavery and its embeddedness within the Roman economic system was something considerably greater than seen previously in the Mediterranean. Quantity must have enacted an effect on quality, or type, or slavery. During the height of the Athenian empire (who were bastards too, don’t forget), obviously these kinds of sexual abuse were also common, but I think the average hoplite qualifying citizen probably had less access to slaves and less opportunity to use them so casually.[3]

But why a Greek verb? Or a verb pretending to be Greek, and where did it come from? Greek vocabulary enters Latin via a handful of routes. The most obvious is borrowed technical vocabulary, which would have come from both the senatorial classes involved in political and philosophical discourse AND highly skilled tradesmen like mosaicists or hypocaust borrowers. The kinds of people one might expect to own slaves.

Then there’s the literary element. We tend to think of this class as belonging with the senators above, but the hyper (over, frankly) educated Hellenistic swilling pencil necked Latin poet is a product of the Empire. Let’s go lower and earlier: L. Andronicus was a slave, Ennius not much better, Terentius most likely (Afer) a freedman, Plautus probably a non-citizen etc. I can’t think of a concentrated study of Graecisms in this stratum of literature off the top of my head,[4] but these elements of society were exposed to Greek via trade and as part of everyday life. Later authors, like Juvenal, would draw on this tradition to comic effect with their neologisms. Plautus can simultaneously declaim foreign mores (tongue in cheek) with verbs like pergraecari and use Greek words throughout.

This is the element of society that seems most likely to introduce the word. How likely where they to own slaves in any large number? The word was certainly in common use amongst the lower classes as can be seen via inscriptions (well, graffiti). We’ve spoken about everyday speech patterns and the Pompeiian evidence before, one of the things I find interesting is how not only do we not (to my cursory knowledge) see paedico, even pedico is written as pidico. How many sound changes are we dealing with here? We’re familiar with monopthongisation (ae > e) and we know of confusion amongst the front vowels (e > i), but this entanglement seems strange to me. Could the etymology from παῖς be a red-herring? Unlikely, but this gives some indication of its commonality in daily speech.

Etymology aside, let’s close by talking about the implication and reading of the threats.

Professors of masculinity (wtf?) who declaim that things like gender are not so simple and straight forward, require expertise and context, whilst simultaneously applying the same models and theories across broad swathes of cultures and history like an aged prostitute with a trowel of makeup, are liable to get excited here. Fuck off.

I’m perfectly happy to accept that the threats in Catullus and the inscriptions aren’t at all literal, and are part of a broader type of Mediterranean masculinity – Northern Europeans (Butter-Euros, ha) often underestimate just how happy Southern Europeans are engaging in scatological and sexual humour without actually meaning the actual things behind it. Aristophanes is much more typical of Greece than many dons would like to admit.

Well, we know they’re not literal. They’re poetry. I mean that Catullus and his readers can take these to be so removed from the everyday experience of slaves that the words barely evoke their meaning. You get what I mean. But what a jarring experience re-reading this poet as the news has broke has been.


[1] Green, Peter. “Juvenal Revisited.” Grand Street 9, no. 1 (1989): 175-96. Honestly just go read that instead of wasting time with this blog ffs.

[2] We should always be careful when claiming primacy for any meaning over an another. But it is easy to see the derivation of one from the other (hence the American example) and the comparative force is compelling. The same root gives us /putrah/ in Sanskrit (so /putras/ in IIr, probably, fuck Avestan who cares?) and words like puer in Latin. Quite likely English few. Moreover, with the abolition of slavery in the oikoumene the word has reverted to its primary meaning.

[3] I suspect most of my thoughts re: this pointless digression are filched from Lewis, D. M. (2018) Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC (Oxford), which I read about half a year ago. I make no pretense to originality or accuracy.

[4] I honestly just about read enough, e.g Beare on theatre, to pass my exams. I’m sure Adams might have something. Don’t get me wrong, Plautus can be really funny, but academic study of the plays is essentially explaining a joke writ large with citations.

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