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The Persona of Catullus' Phaselus


The autobiography of the personified yacht (Catullus 4. 2–24) yields not only a curriculum vitae but also a vivid impression of personality. Catullus' phaselus sounds very human. If the persona can be identified, its literary ancestors and the tone of the poem may also emerge.

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1. Khan H. A., AJPh 88 (1967), 165.

2. The fellow-sailors of another Catullus similarly indulge in the saga of their near-shipwreck, Juv. 12. 81–2: ‘gaudent ubi vertice raso/garrula securi narrare pericula nautae’.

3. For the grandiose style of line 16, reminiscent of Cat. 64.1 (and the deflating effect of the prosaic ‘buxifer’), cf. Khan, 167 f. Khan, however, misses the antithesis in ‘buxifer’: prosaic concept expressed by the ‘-fer’ suffix which is a mark of high style in early epic; cf. Fordyce C. J. (ed.), Catullus (Oxford, 1961), ad loc. Further, Khan's conclusion (169) that the yacht is proud of its achievements despite its ancestry seems to contradict the inflated tone of 11–13; more likely the yacht takes pride in parading abstruse ancestry, and here lies the humour: since Bithynia was forested and therefore famous for ship-building (cf. Hor. Odes 1.35.7, and Nisbet and Hubbard, ad loc), the bare mention of its birthplace would be sufficient claim to distinction, and so the pretentious epithets betray some snobbery.

4. Cf. Nisbet and Hubbard, Hor. Odes 2.1.30.

5. The ‘argumentum longius repetitum’ is discussed by Nisbet and Hubbard, Hor. Odes 2.13.2.

6. Ap. Rh. 2.942: inline-graphic Val. Fl. 5. 105.

7. In his very first speech Nestor substantiates the ‘good old days’ thesis with a battery of proper names (Il. 1. 254 ff., esp. 262–5).

8. Quinn K. (ed.), Catullus: The Poems 2 (Macmillan, 1973), note to 4.4; cf. OLDsv. ‘palmula’ 1 a, c.

9. TLL 7.427.78 classifies this entry as an example of the literal use; Fordyce regards it as predominantly figurative, with a hint at the literal sense.

10. ‘fuisse’ (2, 14), ‘nequisse’ (4), ‘stetisse’ (16), ‘imbuisse’ (17), ‘tulisse’ (19).

11. Smith C. E., HSCPh 3 (1892), 86, notes that Catullus makes no comment in ‘propria persona’ during the boat's account of its past, and only ventures evidence of his own observation at 25 ff.

12. Fordyce, ad loc.

13. Mette H. J., Rh M 105 (1962), 157, remarking on lines 26–7, fails to distinguish the phaselus from Catullus in ‘propria persona’: ‘Jetzt erst spricht das Schiff den Gedanken aus, dass es sich den Göttern der Seefahrt weihe’.

14. Fordyce (p. 96) cites Anth. Pal. 6.69, 70 for the dedication of ships. 6.236, in praise of Octavian, records the dedication of ships’ beaks after Actium.

15. Anth. Pal. 6.1. 18–20.

16. The irony is noted by Smith (n. 11), 84.

17. Smith (n. 11), 84, remarks on the singularity of self-dedication by a thank-offering.

18. Adduced as a parallel by Hornsby R. A., AJPh 84 (1963), 257 and n. 9.

19. This type of vow is first attested at Iliad 23.141–51 where Achilles’ father promises a lock of his son's hair to the river-god Sperchios in thanksgiving if Achilles returns from Troy.

20. Diod. 4. 53. 2, Apoll. 1.9.27.

21. For the Dioscuri as inline-graphic cf. RE 5.1094.

22. Cf. RE 5. 1121 sv. Dioskuren § 24c; the earliest testimony is a sixth-century metope at Delphi.

23. Cf. Nisbet and Hubbard, Hor. Odes 1.12.25.

24. The compression of Statius’ allusion to daybreak at Silvae 4.6.15–16 offers an urbane illustration: ‘donee ab Elysiis prospexit sedibus alter/Castor.’ Fordyce regards the locution as standard phraseology, defining Castor as the ‘dominant partner’. In this context, however, Catullus appears to exploit the humorous possibilities in the standard reference; Statius does likewise.

25. Lewis and Short sv. ‘seneo’; Fordyce, ad loc.

26. Hornsby (n. 18), 264.

27. Mentioned by Quinn (n. 8).

28. The individual's worth endures after his career has been superseded by less dazzling occupations in retirement; a similar image of the retired man of the sea expresses this concept in W. H. Auden's Song, ‘Deftly, admiral, cast your fly’. For this parallel, and for his patient guidance of the drift of this article, I most sincerely thank Prof. R. G. M. Nisbet; if I have sailed close to the wind, the responsibility is entirely mine.

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Greece & Rome
  • ISSN: 0017-3835
  • EISSN: 1477-4550
  • URL: /core/journals/greece-and-rome
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