Alluding to or subverting well known elements of a shared popular culture for the purpose of enhancing an artist’s own work is a tactic as recognizable as art itself. It seems no surprise, then, that such techniques would be on display in the works of Flavian-age Roman poets. For imperial poets Statius and Martial, argued University of Colorado-Boulder Professor of Classics Carole Newlands in Thursday’s talk “Late and New Poets: Rewriting Catullus in the Flavian Age,” allusion to the late Republic poet Catullus was key. Writing in a very different political context, Newlands claimed, Catallus’ contribution to the literary canon served as an effective reference point for Flavian artistic visions. Challenging the conventional wisdom that Augustan imperial poets were the primary models for the Flavians, Newlands positioned Catullus as the cultural icon of the novus poeti who served as a vehicle for late imperial poets to reframe their own “lateness.”
Newlands introduced her premise with Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, an ancient text whose preface explicitly refers to Catullus as the poet’s countryman. Using that connection to establish literary authority, Newlands said, the poet subverted the Catullan form by claiming the superiority of a metrical shift. He used Catullan form and the name itself to legitimize himself.
Pliny the Younger’s Letters also garnered mention by Newlands for his “gentrification of the short poem,” imitating Catullus while chastising others for trying too hard to imitate Catullus. His Letters declared that “Pliny alone, in my opinion, is the only predecessor I need.”
Martial and Statius, however, formed the crux of Newlands’ talk. Martial referenced Catullus constantly in his Epigrams, making use of Catallus’ hendecasyllabic style to explore social rather than political themes. Newlands described Martial as using a short form to address an extremely broad imagined audience; his Epigrams were written as if they had universal, imperial reach. Making liberal use of hyper-exaggeration, Martial used Catullan style to position himself as a rewriter of Catullus’ literary legacy. At one point, he used the classic form of the bird poem to declare his poetic objects greater and bigger than those of Catullus; at another, he portrayed Catullus’ poetic mistress Lesbia in a vulgar and degrading fashion.
Newlands explained that the effect of the latter was to debase Lesbia as the universal poetic mistress. The idealized woman of Catullus’ imagination became monstrous in the Flavian tradition as Martial appropriated Lesbia in order to frame himself as a reinventor of Roman literary history. There was a political dimension to this as well, as Martial sought to remove the male poet’s consuming devotion to an idealized woman by stripping the object of desire of her textual power. Martial called back to a well-known poetic figure to establish his authority, but he made this figure wretched because it wasn’t suited to his own artistic context.
In discussing Statius’ Silvae, Newlands emphasized the raised cultural stakes among which Statius was writing. Statius wrote for a tight political circle. As an occasional poet, he placed more emphasis on the value of speedy composition and improvisation, in contrast to the polished poetry of Catullus. Comparing nautical motifs, Newlands noted that while Catullus’ ship was fast and lightweight, Statius’ was swift but also grandly imperial. While Statius described himself as following from Vergil’s Aeneid, he used Catullus’ word choice to imply that this poet was following behind him.
Concluding with a discussion of Statius’s epic Thebaid, Newlands noted his reproduction of one of Catullus’ most famous lines, a lament of a brother taken away from a wretched self. While the fallen brother of Catullus was virtuous, the fallen brother of the Thebaid made himself monstrous at the moment of his death and forfeited his immortality by eating the brains of his slain enemy. Catullus’ sincere and moving language, which Newlands also said was a foundation for poetic male lament, was used with an undercurrent of horror at the distorted family ties and depravity of the Theban war.
In her talk, Newlands demonstrated that for Statius, as other Flavian writers, Catullus provided stylistic precedents and literary motifs that could be subverted to reflect late poetic and political sensibilities, forging the kinds of relationships with the past that are so often found in cultural reproduction.