Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Catullus 78: what not to teach your nephew...

Sometimes you read a poem which in itself is not difficult regarding the words, but what does it mean? As often when reading classical poetry – or whatever foreign poetry – the text itself is not enough, but you need a context. I came across this poem when I was preparing some other poems by Catullus for a pupil needing private lessons Latin. It intrigued me and when I was walking today with some friends through the mud I suddenly got the solution. Of course I had consulted my Quinn and Kroll commentaries on Catullus, but these are not very helpful concerning this poem.
You need to know that in Roman society a distinction was made between the paternal side of the family and the maternal side. This is not unusual, as many societies do this. A boy has uncles from his father’s side and from his mother’s side, but these uncles have different functions. The brother of his father is called patruus. It is not difficult to see the connection with pater and indeed, this uncle was the severe uncle, taking care of morality, but the uncle of mother’s side is called avunculus, a diminutive of avus `grandfather’. English has no diminutives, but Dutch and German have and often it does not refer to something small, but to a kind of intimate relation, so German Grossvaterchen does not mean a little granddad, he can be 6 feet tall, but it has the connotation of friendliness. The same with avunculus: this uncle had the task of upholding a friendly relationship with the family of his sister’s husband on behalf of his family. He did this by having a joking relationship with the sons of his sister. As we all know, grandparents are far more indulgent towards their grandchildren than they ever were to us…
Let’s now have a look at this poem by Catullus:

LXXVIII. ad Gallum

Gallus habet fratres, quorum est lepidissima coniunx
     alterius, lepidus filius alterius.
Gallus homo est bellus: nam dulces iungit amores,
     cum puero ut bello bella puella cubet.
Gallus homo est stultus, nec se uidet esse maritum,
     qui patruus patrui monstret adulterium.

As I said, the words are quite common.
Gallus has two brothers: one of them has a lepidissimus wife, the other a lepidus son. Lepidus means `charming, elegant, smart’. Catullus also uses this word for describing his own book of verses in poem 1. Gallus is a good guy as he makes it possible that a beautiful girl sleeps with a boy. Who are they? Well, the wife of his one brother and the son of his other brother- a patruus for this nephew like Gallus himself. We must keep in mind that there was often a big difference in age between wife and husband and apart from that, the rate of dying while giving birth was quite high, so remarrying with girls far younger was not uncommon. Note the irony in bellus, when we continue reading this poem. Also note that bella has of course the literal meaning of beautiful.
But Gallus is also foolish (stultus), because he doesn’t take account of himself being a married man (maritus) and as a patruus he teaches his nephew how (qui with long i, as the metre – elegiac couplets or disticha – shows) to commit adultery with the wife of a patruus, i.e. also with his own wife, if she and his nephew might like to have a wild party! Patrui is syntactically a bit difficult: is it elliptic for cum patrui uxore or a kind of genitive objective `with regards to a patruus’? Anyway, the meaning is clear enough. It is even more funny, because Gallus as a patruus was supposed to keep up the moral values of a Roman family for his nephew.. So all you uncles,  be careful what you teach the son of your sister! 
Soap series are nothing compared with what Latin literature has to offer....

1 comment:

  1. My thanks; the context was necessary to understand the poem, as you said. I had a general idea of what was going on, but struggled to break down the last line. I was troubled by my lack of a commentary -- I didn't realize that patrui implied patrui uxore.