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Catullus 64, Medea, and the François Vase

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


In his 1982 essay on Catullus 64, Richard Jenkyns offered an eloquent and elegant counterblast to the ‘reductivism that has characterized much recent criticism of Latin poetry’ (p. 82). He argued that to impose a unifying interpretation on such a work as Peleus and Thetis impoverishes it. ‘Anyone who has failed to perceive that throughout this poem Catullus is deliberately various, disproportionate and unpredictable has certainly not understood it’ (p. 92). With the advent of the millennium, it seems that Jenkyns, even if he won the battle, did not win the war, though, doubtless because of him, the unities which scholars now advocate have become decidedly more capacious, more able to serve as hold-alls, than those imposed by their predecessors. The instinct to identify unifying principles appears to be a strong one. In any case, Jenkyns’ own view of the poem – that it ‘is made up of pictures in that it is a gallery of tableaux or set pieces’ (p. 150) – can surely be taken as suggesting the kind of e pluribus unum of a work such as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The various tableaux, each of them displayed, as it were, by the poet to elicit a differing response, may add up to a single experience. It is not simply that the total may be greater than the sum of the individual parts; it is rather that the total may attain a unity of its own.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1999

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1. Jenkyns, R., Three Classical Poets (London, 1982)Google Scholar. In writing this essay, I have benefited considerably from the advice of Ian McAuslan, Roger Rees, and Nigel Spivey.

2. He was the recipient of a dismissive review by Braund, S. H. in JRS 74 (1984), 236–7Google Scholar.

3. A recent AJP (115 (1994), 1Google Scholar, 75–88) carries a piece by Roger Rees which argues that the poem is held together by sensual synaesthesia, while one of the latest editions in English (Catullus, Poems 61–68, ed. Godwin, John (Warminster, 1995))Google Scholar sees ‘the brilliant pleasure of the poetry’ as its controlling principle (p. 137).

4. The classic examples are the Shield of Achilles (Homer, , Iliad 18Google Scholar.478–613) and the mantle of Jason (Apollonius Rhodius 1.730–67).

5. Ellis, R. leads the way here (A Commentary on Catullus (Oxford, 1876), 226)Google Scholar: ‘Catullus would… have no want of literary precedents in writing his Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. But it was quite as universal a subject of art.… Even more frequent in ancient art was the legend of Ariadne…’

6. Kinsey, T. E., ‘Irony and Structure in Catullus 64’, Latomus 24 (1965), 915–16Google Scholar; Curran, L. C., ‘Catullus 64 and the Heroic Age’, YCS 21 (1969), 185Google Scholar; Bramble, J. C., ‘Structure and Ambiguity in Catullus LXIV’, PCPS 16 (1970), 37–8Google Scholar; Konstan, D., Catullus' indictment of Rome: the meaning of Catullus 64 (Amsterdam, 1977), 68Google Scholar.

7. Gaisser, J. H., ‘Threads in the Labyrinth: Catullus 64’, AJP 16 (1995), 580ff.Google Scholar; Clare, R. J., ‘Catullus 64 and the Argonautica of Apollonius’, PCPS 42 (1996), 60 ffGoogle Scholar.

8. While Gaisser (op. cit.) is most illuminating on the subject of seeing, her perspective is very different from mine. And Clare asserts (op. cit., 60) that the Jason/Medea pattern ‘is present and identifiable in the text only [his italics] through the filter of literary allusion’.

9. Cf. Clare, , op. cit., 61Google Scholar.

10. Quinn, K., Catullus, The Poems (London, 1973)Google Scholar.

11. For this language of sensory confusion, so memorably exploited by Shakespeare in Bottom's dream (MND, IV.i.210–14), see Rees, op. cit., passim.

12. This would accord with the widely-perceived subversive function of the coverlet. See Bramble, , op. cit, 22Google Scholar, with bibliography.

13. Bramble, , op. cit., 33Google Scholar.

14. The Ariadne story, unlike that of Jason and Medea, has an apparently happy ending. Yet the frenzy and discord of the bacchants and their dissonant music (Bramble, , op. cit., 34 n. 1Google Scholar, Curran, , op. cit., 180Google Scholar; cf. Braund, , op. cit., 237)Google Scholar deny us a glimpse of unclouded optimism even here. Livy (39.8–19) describes Roman hysteria about the worship of Bacchus and the senate's efforts to stamp it out in 186 B.C.

15. Probably just a bit later than the François vase is an amphora in the British Museum attributed to the Timiades Painter (GR 1897.7–27.2) who portrays the sacrifice of Polyxena with gory brutality. See Rees, , op. cit., 82Google Scholar.

16. The wedding of Peleus and Thetis is also portrayed on a fine dinos by Sophilos in the British Museum (GR 1971.11–1.1). Stewart, Andrew (in Ancient Greek Art and Iconography, ed. Moon, W. G. (Wisconsin, 1983), 62)Google Scholar feels that ‘Kleitias clearly knew Sophilos’ vases (or others very similar) and set himself to compete with them'. There are in fact only three extant Attic vases which portray the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (p. 58). See also Williams, Dyfri in Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 1/1983 (Malibu, 1983), 934Google Scholar.

17. ‘The figure of Achilles is mostly lost, but even the single leg that has been preserved is telling. The foot has left the ground as the hero leaps forward to overtake the desperate boy.’ Woodford, S., An Introduction to Greek Art (London, 1986), 18Google Scholar.

18. A number of scholars have accepted Rumpf's, A. view (Gnomon 25 (1953), 470)Google Scholar that this amphora contains the ashes of Achilles (Homer, , Iliad 23.83–92Google Scholar, cf. Odyssey 24.71–7) – in which case it plays its part in the Achilles story told on the François vase. But cf. Williams, (op. cit., 33)Google Scholar.

19. Ellis, (op. cit., 226)Google Scholar observed in 1876 how Catullus' poem resembles the François vase in including both Peleus and Thetis and Theseus and Ariadne. He cites Birch, B., History of Ancient Pottery (London, 1873), 226CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This interesting perception subsequently disappeared from scholarly view.

20. For the killing of Troilus as proleptic of that of Hector, see Woodford, , op. cit., 18Google Scholar; for the funeral games of Patroclus as proleptic of those of Achilles, see Willcock, M. M. (A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago and London, 1976), 261)Google Scholar who writes of the wrestling between Ajax and Odysseus (Iliad 23.700–39), ‘There is almost certainly a reflection here of their contest for the arms of Achilleus after the end of the Iliad …’ Of the end of Iliad 17 and the start of 18 (after the death of Patroclus), Willcock notes (p. 201) that ‘there is clear evidence that the events and pictorial images in the narrative reflect that other situation, when it was Achilleus himself who was dead’. Cf. Edwards, M. W., Homer, Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore and London, 1987), 302Google Scholar.

In the fighting over the corpse of Patroclus in Iliad 17 Homer makes clear use of this kind of parallelism: Willcock (p. 200, n. at 17.722–61) writes that many commentators believe ‘that the scene bears a close resemblance to a more famous occasion, after the death of Achilleus himself, when Aias carried the body [cf. the handles of the François vase] while Odysseus kept off the enemy’.

21. Willcock (p. 107, n. at 543–4) writes, suggestively for my purposes, ‘The assembly of heroes to hunt the Kalydonian boar would offer the same opportunities for heroic adventures as the assembly of the Argonauts or, indeed, the expeditions against Thebes or Troy. There can be little doubt that the story had been the subject of heroic poetry.’

22. If he did, however, I would certainly not wish to suggest that he ‘copied’ the pictures on it. See Laird's, Andrew caveat in ‘Sounding out ecphrasis: Art and Text in Catullus 64’, JRS 83 (1993), 1819Google Scholar.

23. Warden, John writes, in ‘Catullus 64: Structure and Meaning’, CJ 93 (n. 4), 400Google Scholar, ‘One might suggest that this ode provides Catullus with a large part of his programme for poem 64.’ I feel that the idea of a programme is a very helpful one.

24. Whether Ennius' chorus of soldiers would actually have delivered a version of these lines is unknown. The fragment of Ennius' writing for them that survives has a galumphing, down-to-earth quality that may seem inappropriate to Euripides' poetry here.

25. Brilliant, R., Visual Narratives, Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca and London, 1984)Google Scholar.

26. For example, on the three paintings in the Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii which portray (1) Pasiphaë's infatuation with the bull, (2) the punishment of Ixion for his attempt to seduce Hera, and (3) Dionysus' rescue of Ariadne, he observes (p. 71), ‘These paintings, which are not quite of the same period nor painted by the same artist, must have been deliberately put together to demonstrate the degradation of irreverent beings in various situations…’ While, as Brilliant says, Ariadne was degraded by ‘loving a hostile stranger’, her rescue offers a hope of salvation in this most pleasure-loving of households.

27. purchase, 1890 (90.12). Plate 4.4 in Brilliant's book.

28. ‘an appropriate if simple message for a coffin,’ adds Brilliant laconically.

29. ed. Moon, W. G., op. cit., 5373Google Scholar.

30. If Stewart is right, Catullus could, of course, have had Stesichorus' poems at his elbow.

31. which is more or less a paraphrase of 64.50–1, the lines that introduce the coverlet in Catullus' poem. Cf. 22–3b, 218–19, 323, 348, 357. Stewart's words look forward to John Warden's 1998 article (n. 23 above) in which he argues that ‘one of [the poem's two movements] is an examination of the nature of heroism … in the final analysis we are concerned not with the particular flaws of an individual hero in a particular relationship, but with the nature of heroism itself’ (pp. 400, 403).

32. Cf., on the coherence of the François vase, Schefold, K., Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art (New York, 1966), 5863Google Scholar: ‘separate episodes are not simply picked out in isolation, but are bound together by intellectually conceived connections.’ And Robertson, M. (A History of Greek Art (Cambridge, 1975), 126)Google Scholar feels that marriage may be the unifying concept: ‘not only is the main theme a marriage and the glory of its offspring; also the three scenes on the back of the vase which are not directly concerned with the main story have all a bridal connection.’ In a wonderful – and even plausible – self-referential hypothesis, Stewart (Moon, , op. cit., p. 69)Google Scholar suggests that this vase, and the Sophilos dinos referred to in n. 16, were ‘actually commissioned for an aristocratic wedding’. ‘At every stage,’ he writes, ‘the painter's aim is to contextualize, to locate marriage … right at the center of that network of human and divine relationships and moral imperatives which characterize the society of heroes, the fabric, as it were, of heroic arete.’