A sailor talks about his ship as a she, a woman more revered and trusted than his own wife, let alone the harlots waiting in every harbour. This has nothing to do with the gender of the noun `ship’. Of course English has ceased long ago to make a distinction, but in the Germanic languages which have preserved this classification, `ship’ is neuter. It is simply out of deep affection and sentiment that a ship is considered a woman.
Did Roman sailors have such feelings too? Difficult to say, but as K. Quinn remarks `they were not insensible to the aesthetic appeal of a well-built ship.’ It reminds me of the love of Italians for beautiful cars. Catullus has made a poem on such aesthetic ship. It starts like an epigram on a burial monument and gradually it tells the complete story: how it was once made of wood, how well it served his master and where it is now. It has been speculated that Catullus dedicated this poem to the ship he used traveling back from Asia Minor or that it was for a model of a ship, but either speculation is problematic. But maybe this multiple interpretation is the real strength of this poem. What to think of a ship not needing vows to protecting gods while in service and now in rest dedicated to the Dioscuri? Final gratefulness?
A parody on this poem is poem 10 in the Appendix Vergiliana.
Structure: 1 – 9: the ship is boasting about its former qualities
10 – 16: it tells where and from what it was made
17 - 22: its luck at sea
23 – 27: reflection and final destination
Meter: iambic senarius (suggesting the quiet beat of an oar)
Phaselus ille, quem videtis, hospites,
ait fuisse navium celerrimus,
neque ullius natantis impetum trabis
nequisse praeterire, sive palmulis
opus foret volare sive linteo. 5
et hoc negat minacis Hadriatici
negare litus insulasve Cycladas
Rhodumque nobilem horridamque Thraciam
Propontida trucemve Ponticum sinum,
ubi iste post phaselus antea fuit 10
comata silva; nam Cytorio in iugo
loquente saepe sibilum edidit coma.
Amastri Pontica et Cytore buxifer,
tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima
ait phaselus: ultima ex origine 15
tuo stetisse dicit in cacumine,
tuo imbuisse palmulas in aequore,
et inde tot per impotentia freta
erum tulisse, laeva sive dextera
vocaret aura, sive utrumque Iuppiter 20
simul secundus incidisset in pedem;
neque ulla vota litoralibus deis
sibi esse facta, cum veniret a mari
novissimo hunc ad usque limpidum lacum.
sed haec prius fuere: nunc recondita 25
senet quiete seque dedicat tibi,
gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris.
phaselus: a kind of long and fast ship. Phaselos is Greek for a long kind of bean,, so the ship is called after the shape of this bean.
hospites: the way passers-by of monuments are addressed
ait: the ship is speaking
neque…praeterire: and not to be able not to surpass the speed of any other floating ship. i.e. it easily could beat any other ship concerning speed. (note that the i in ullius is here short.)
trabs trabis (f.): beam and pars pro toto `ship’
foret = esset
volare: to move fast
negat: phasalus. Again the double negation: denies that the shore of the threatening Adriatic denies this. i.e. the Adriatic shore and the places further mentioned know very well the virtues of this ship.
Rhodum nobilem: in Roman times Rhodes was already favoured destination for tourists.
Thraciam Propontida: Thracian Propontis (at the sea of Marmora)
trucem Ponticum sinum: the savage Pontic bay (or rather line of bays making an inhospitable coast)
iste post phaselus: that phaselus to be (namely a wood with leafs silva comata. coma `hair, leaf’)
Cytorio iugo: the Cytorus is a mountain in Paphlagonia (a rugged (iugum `rug’ mountainous country at the Black Sea)
loquente coma: with whispering leaf
Amastris: city near Cytorus
buxifer: bearing box trees
tibi: though strictly referring to both vocatives
haec fuisse et esse cognitissima: this was and still is very well known (W, Kroll remarks in his commentary `fuisse et esse underscore the idleness of this self-eulogy’.)
ultima ex origine: from its first day (as trees)
cacumen cacumins (n.): top, summit
imbuo imbui imbutum: to make wet
impotentia freta: the wild seas
erus: master (not necessarily Catullus)
laeva sive dextera aura: i.e. the ship had to tack (adapting the sails to the wind and so setting not a straight course but zigzagging, which was quite difficult with the sails they had then.)
Juppiter secundus: a favourable wind
utrumque pedem: both sheets (which were attached to the sail, so when the wind fell on both sheets, it was from behind and the ship had a straight course.)
litoralibus deis: for the gods of the sea (litus, litoris (m.): coast)
a mari novissimo: from its final voyage
limpidus: limpid, bright, quiet
fuere = fuerunt
recondita: stored away (note that feminine navis is now the subject, not phaselus)
seneo: to be old
tibi: the twin (gemellus) Castor and Pollux are addressed as one. They were the protectors of sailors.
Translation by Leonard C. Smithers (1894)
That pinnace which you see, my friends, says that it was the speediest of boats, that it could gain the lead of any craft skimming the surface, whether the task were to fly with oarblades or sail. And she denies that the shore of the menacing Adriatic denies this, or the Cyclades awkward [to navigate], or noble Rhodes and bristling Thracian Propontis, or the frim Pontic gulf, where she afterwards was a pinnace, beforehand was bearded forest; and often on Cytorus' ridge she gave out a rustling with speaking foliage. And you, Pontic Amastris, and to boxwood bearing Cytorus, the pinnace declares that this was and is most well-known to you; she says that from its origin it stood upon your topmost peak, dipped its oars in your waters, and bore its master from there through so many seas lacking self-control, whether the wind called from port or starboard or whether favorable Jove fell on both the sheets at once; and nor were any vows [from stress of storm] made be her to shore-gods, when she came from the most distant sea to this glassy lake. But these things were of before: now laid away, she grows old in peace and dedicates herself to you, twin Castor, and to Castor's twin.