The History of Banter #1.1 Catullus v. Lesbia or Catullus v. Women? Men? Himself?

* Now I will openly admit that this is something of a onesided piece of banter as Catullus’ nymphomanic ex-lover Lesbia does not appear to have indulged in any (surviving) rhetorical exercises. Indeed she may not have even existed!

As I stated in my previous post (‘A History of Banter #0 Intro’) historians have traditionally differentiated the concept of ‘reality’ in classical texts from the ‘rhetoric’ of classical texts. For example Dr Martha Vinson detailed how, when discussing with a colleague how to deal with rhetoric in historical texts, was told:

‘“Rhetoric? No problem. What you do is, you take out all the rhetorical parts and what you have left are the facts.”’ [1]

I would immediately argue, however, that such a distinction is not useful in the study of ‘reality’ here. Whilst the way a classical character is portrayed may not reflect the complete unbiased truth, it should be kept in mind that ‘reality’ can be multi-layered. For example, whilst the very existence of Catullus’ Lesbia and her actions are debateable and she can in fact be taken to act as a metaphor for various people, she does help cast light on the ‘reality’ of gender relations in Catullan era Rome. Not only that but the very rhetorical devices employed by Catullus against Lesbia highlight the reality of his own preoccupations, hence his need to create banter…but more on that later.

Many classicists prefer to accept that Catullus’ Lesbia poems centre on a real, historical character who he had a turbulent, obsessive relationship and that the poems represent ‘flashes’ of his own emotions at the time of writing them. I would argue that the people who take this stance do so out of the belief that to accept that Lesbia existed means that they can assume that Catullus is writing the truth and this can shed light on the biographical details of his life.[2] However even if we accept that Lesbia really existed as the former mistress of Catullus, this does not necessarily mean that we can find a ‘reality’ behind her. Catullus’ expressions of desire, possession, and later hatred, shape the character of Lesbia to suit his own personal needs at any particular time.

The most powerful example of this occurs in poem 11 and I have included a copy of the full poem (in image form…I’m too lazy to copy it out) so you, dear readers, can appreciate it in all its deviant splendour:


Catullus Poem 11 [3]

So here Catullus’ has been spurned by his lover Lesbia in favour of other men…and him being somewhat miffed by this decides to write a lovely little poem detailing her extra amorous activities. Now Catullus’ description of Lesbia as possessing three hundred lovers is not a claim we should take as an expression of ‘reality’. In this instance Catullus, having been scorned by Lesbia, is initiating a powerful form of invective against her. He is literally fashioning a Lesbia that readers would not think of as behaving appropriately for a woman. The crafting of this deviant Lesbia lies in Catullus reversing the appropriate gendered behavioural norms, detailing how her depraved sexual appetites result in her taking three-hundred lovers ‘again and again’.

So if we are to take the biographical interpretation of Catullus and Lesbia then this one saucy piece of banter occurring on the literary (and thus social for the aristocracy) plane.

However the ‘reality’ of this particular banterific episode is only viable if we take a biographical approach to the poem, accepting that Lesbia was a real, historical character who definitely existed and once made sexy time with Catullus and then ditched him.

However the biographical interpretation of the text is not the only one. The entire collection may be a rhetorical exercise or hold a different meaning. It can even be questioned whether Lesbia actually existed. It is entirely plausible (and not without precedence) that Lesbia could represent the latent apprehension of aristocratic masculinity concerning gender and sexuality.

The use of invective in satire to demonise a certain individual or group is well attested. Mikhail Bakhtin put forward the concept of the grotesque as a challenge to what is accepted as the dominant order, stating that:

‘Exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style’. [4]

Consequently they appear frequently in satire and invective.[5] In the case of Lesbia, her grotesqueness derides from the fact that her sexual appetites are depicted as so excessive. Not only does she have three hundred lovers – whom she holds only bodily love for – but they are not enough to satiate her base desires as she sleeps with each of them so often that she ruptures all of their groins.

Ultimately, it could be argued, it is the issue of gender inversion enacted by these various characters that forms the basis of the ‘scandal’ behind these invectives. Miller describes the use of the grotesque as a form of degradation. I, however, am more inclined to agree with Fitzgerald and cast it as a demonising force. For example Lesbia is not just made less of a ‘true’ woman; it physically and mentally transforms her into something wholly separate, masculine and monstrous. [6] It is important to note that, as much as Lesbia is demonised, she is also given power – power over her lovers, and over Catullus who becomes the flower to her plough. This power stems from the fact that her sexual appetite gave her power over men, switching the normative gender roles. She exercised this power over Catullus by making him into the flower penetrated by her plough, but also over her lovers whom she demasculinised by rupturing their groins. According to Roman ideas regarding sex, gender and sexuality, women were the ‘privative version’ of men. Therefore he who was less than a man (male maris), physically or emotionally, literally became a woman.[7] Consequently the monstrosity of Lesbia is compounded by the fact that she both became masculine (and the figurative man) and made other men into women by penetrating or castrating them. This all forms a powerful invective against Lesbia by shaping the grotesque in a highly gendered way.

The relation to overt female sexuality could be read as a satirical swipe at such women who transcended the boundaries of their normative gender sphere, highlighting aristocratic, male apprehension – and evidencing the need to consistently assert and maintain masculinity – over the fact that ‘man, thus, constantly threatens to become woman.’ [8]

Catullus too, though he often submitted to a form of ‘poetic transvestism’ in his poems about Lesbia, could actually be seen to be asserting his masculine dominance. He does this most clearly in his startlingly graphic yet hilarious Poem 16 which reads:


Catullus Poem 16 [9]

So yes a nice little bit of anal and oral rape…

By threatening to rape Furius and Aurelius for branding him as effeminate, Catullus is reasserting his masculine dominance through the act of penetration (an matter that led me to give a conference paper, which these and the next few posts formed a substantial part of, entitled ‘The grotesque as a political operative, or, how I came to love analysing the act of penetration…’). [10] Less obviously, Catullus is asserting his masculine dominance over Lesbia in poem 11 by describing her as the sexually depraved plough to his flower. Whilst he switches their gender roles in the poem, which should serve to effeminate and weaken him, the effect is to masculinise and demonise Lesbia. This allows Catullus to reassert his masculine dominance by being empowered by his ability to demonise her through the very gendered, literary power structures he inverts. [11]

Catullus may have portrayed the actions of Lesbia, if she really did exist (we simply cannot know) honestly. She may have had an affair with him and then spurned him for other men. However the clear invective behind these portrayals casts doubts over the extent of the face-value ‘reality’ portrayed. It is the exaggerated excesses, the physical and mental inversion of gender norms, and the grotesque, carnivalesque and monstrous depictions of the character of Lesbia that all work together to create a character that reflects an overt, and skilfully crafted, Other-ness. The use of the Other as a polarising force means we cannot accept that these texts completely and honestly reflect the ‘reality’ of the characters. However to completely cast off ‘reality’ is limiting. Rather the specific crafting of Catullus’ Lesbia provides an insight into aristocratic masculine society. She reflects what catullus wants the reader to laugh at, be appalled by and ultimately to believe as the characters serve to legitimate his particular bias and anxiety; this may have been his eventual obsessive hatred of Lesbia, strong women as a social category, or the threat of his own passive effeminacy.

So clearly, for my post-penultimate, concluding, summative resolution to this trickery piece of interpretive analysis through the medium of gender literary theorisation, Catullus totes had banter…and more but you’ll have to wait for the next post for that 🙂


* I feel I should point out (to prevent accusations of academic naivety) that all this work is mine unless otherwise stated, i.e. via quotes or references. Please don’t steal it, it was a bitch to write the first tome round.


[1] Martha Vinson, 2003. ‘Rhetoric and writing strategies in the ninth century’, in E. Jeffreys (ed.) Rhetoric in Byzantium: Papers from the Thirty-Fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001, Aldershot: 9.

[2] See for example Kenneth Quinn, 1972. Catullus: An Interpretation, London.

[3] Catullus, The Poems of Catullus, XI, trans. G. Lee, 1990, Oxford:12-13.

[4] Bakhtin, M. 1968. Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky, Cambridge: 303

[5] Miller, P. A. 2002. ‘Why Difference Matters: Catullus and Contemporary Theory’, in The Classical World 95: 427

[6] Fitzgerald, W. 1999. Catullan Provocations: lyric poetry and the drama of position, Berkeley: 21-24

[7] Miller, P. A. 1998. ‘Catullan Consciousness, the “Care of the Self”, and the Force of the Negative in History’, in D. Larmour, P. A. Miller and C. Platter (eds), Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and classical antiquity, Princeton: 183

[8] Miller 1998: 183

[9] Catullus, Poems, XVI: 18-19

[10] Miller 1998: 183

[11] Miller 2002: 429


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