Carmen 64 – De Bruiloft van Peleus en Thetis
and the Epithalamium of Peleus and Thetis, which combines two pictures from the Greek mythology, one of the secure happiness of marriage, the other of the passionate despair of love betrayed. In this last poem Catullus displays a power of creative pictorial imagination far transcending that displayed in any of the extant poetry of Alexandria.
52 to 266
At 4081ines tlris is by far tire longest poem in the Catullan corpus. Tightly structured
in eight chiastic sections (Martin 1992,157), it is generally described as an
epyllion, tlrat is, a mini-epic, and its allusions to Homer and Apollonius Rhodius
(see Clare 1966 and Stoevesandt 1994/5) do nothing to discourage such an interpretation.
The term is not found used thus in antiquity (in fact it scarcely occurs
at all) and was first adopted by a German scholar in tire mid-nineteehtlr century.
However, it has become too useful, and popular, to discard. We know of
other such short narratives in the Greek and Roman literary tradition: Callimachus's
He!cale, tire Hylas (Idyll 13) of Theocritus, Cinna's Smyrna (95), an fo
by Calvus. The Aristaeus episode in Virgil's Georgics (4.315-558) is anotlrer example
of the genre, a poem-within-a-poem not unlike the Ariadne episode here
in 64. These epyllia generally take the main narrative facts for granted (thus presuming
a highly literate audience): both in Alexandria and later among the Roman
N eoterics tlrey stress arcane myt!rological allusions, concise phraseology, subjective
characterization, and the use of ecpArasis, Le., narrative extrapolated from
visual iconography, as here with the tapestry (50-264) that provides tire springboard
for the entire Ariadne episode (long and detailed analysis in Dyer 1994, especially
This episode, complete in itself, is 214 lines long, thus occupying over half of
the total narrative (for structural theories see Blusch 1989, and Cupaiuolo 1994).
It seems designed to provide a link to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis by hinting,
through Ariadne's rescue by Bacchus, at the benefits to be got from a divine
spouse: Yet, as always with Catullus, there are ambiguities. Peleus and Thetis had
anything but a happy wedded life (see glossary s.vv.); Ariadne's rescue by Bacchus
looks uncommonly like a rape (see below on 251-64). Furtlrer, from time im-
memorial mortals had been warned against overreaching themselves in aspirations
to the divine: "Do not attempt to climb the sky," the lyric poet Aleman warned,
"or to marry Aphrodite." Tragedy, in the shape of the yet unborn Achilles' career,
lurks behind almost every line of the all-too-prophetic wedding song sung
by the Fates (303-83). Catullus's readers and hearers, who knew the mythic background
of these episodes much better than we do, must have been acutely aware
of their grim undercurrents (weIl analyzed by Stoevesandt 1994/ i, 167ff.). And
even in his own terms CatuIlus surprises us with two passages (22-30 and 384(408)
reminding us that the old heroic days when gods consorted with-and on rare occasions
married-mortals are over. The gods have withdrawn from earth in disgust
at human degeneracy, and (the implication is clear) there will never be another
such marriage as that of the mortal hero Peleus to Thetis the sea nymph,
with the gods turning up in force as wedding guests. The loss of innocence is a recurrent
theme in Catullus (Petrini 1997, i6-17).
CatuIlus deals with the divine guest list in a disquieting and unusual way. ApoIlo
and Artemis (in his version only) disdainfully refuse to attend the wedding
(299-302), apparently out of contempt for Peleus, a mere mortal marrying above
his station; but Catullus's readers would remember another possible reason, and
not a pleasant one: cf. glossary s.v. ApoIlo. (It has also been argued [Thomson 1997,
427] that the divine siblings qua sun and moon are symbolically absent from what
will prove a dark and stormy union.) It is, ominously in every sense, the Fates,
rather than the Muses, who sing the hymeneal. And why, surprisingly at first sight,
is Prometheus on the guest list (294-97)? Because he warned Zeus that Thetis was
destined to bear a son greater than his father, something that made Zeus back off
his own earlier pursuit of Thetis with some alacrity (27), and urge her marriage
to a mortal. Omissions, too, are telling. One uninvited guest who, we know, showed
up in the myth as ~enerally told, but whom Catullus does not mention, is Eris
(Strife), whose mischief on this occasion led to a quarrel between goddesses, the
Judgment of Paris, and, ultimately, the Trojan War (Thomson 389-90), in which
the child of the marriage being celebrated was destined to playa crucial partand
to end by losing his life. Though modern efforts to see the entire epyllion in
ironic and antiheroic terms are dearly mistaken, and there is plenty of sheer sensuous
exuberance in the description of palatial wealth and luxury (for the vividness
of Catullus's sensual evocations, not only visual and aural, but also odorous,
as at 87-90 and 184 for example, see Rees 1994, 7iff. and cf. Jenkyns 1982, 150),
Catullus takes care that we never forget the dark shadows behind the narrative and
in the future of its protagonists (d. Putnam 1961, 192ff.).
Lastly, though we should beware of facile biographical inferences, it cannot
have escaped Catullus's consciousness-indeed, he must have been acutely aware
of the dilemma it presented-that Clodia Metelli (assuming her identity with Lesbia),
though by spring 59 a widow, still remained, even more importantly, "socially
far above him" (Treggiari 1991, 304), and.thus, in view of Rome's rigid class hierarchy
(notto mention the ambitious marital politicization of the Claudii as a clan),
virtually beyond his reach as a potential wife. It cannot have been pure coincidence
that when he came to write his epyllion he chose a mythical topic where hypergamy,
for once, came, off; at the same time, being a realist, he saw, all too clearly,
the dangers to which such a match would, inevitably, be exposed (Putnam 1961,
J98-99): the whole poem is obsessed by marriages, and not, for the most part,
happy ones (Edwards 1992, 193ff.).
I-II This proem offers a neat pastiche of myth: the central reference is to the legend of
Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed eastward to Colchis at the furthest point in
the Black Sea to get the Golden Fleece ("that gilded hide," 5) from King Aeetesand,
though Catullus does not say so (but his audience would not need reminding),
also to steal his daughter Medea, who, like Ariadne with Theseus, would give
crucial aid to the leader of the adventurers, Jason, and (again like Ariadne) end up
betrayed by him. Note the (typically Hellenistic) use of rhetorical synecdoche,
where a part-here the material: pine trees, fir wood-is used for the whole, or
for the finished product, a ship's oars (1,7). In the same way, by metonymy (change
of name or title) in Catullus's Latin text (1) Amphitrite, Poseidon/N eptune 's wife,
stands for the deep sea as such.
21,26-27 The reason that Zeus/Jupiter approved the marriage, and withdrew his own bid
for Thetis, was of course, the threat caused by the prophecy that Thetis's son would
be more powerful than his father (see above).
35 "Scyros" (Siros 0, Syros X), already read by Renaissance scholars, is clearly correct
(Arkins 1994, 217), and Meineke's emendation "Cieros," accepted by M ynors,
39-41 Despite Quinn's reassurances on the speed of rusting in the open (1970, 308), it
does look very much as though Catullus is mocking a popular literary theme here:
as Godwin says (1995,142), "the length of time ittakes to attend a wedding is hardly
enough to see all this ruin in the fields."
43ff. Are we meant to feel envy and admiration for all this opulence in Peleus's establishment,
or (if Catullus is addressing good N eoteric Epicureans) disgust (as at
Lucr. 2.20-36)i' Or a mixture of the two? Cf. Godwin 1995, 142.
50-266 The extended ecphrasis--during which the wedding of Peleus and Thetis is put
on hold-describes (Dyer 1994, 227ff.), on the basis of a tapestry spread over the
bridal bed, the seduction, abandonment, and divine rescue of Ariadne. Note that
her dealings with Theseus are not recounted in chronological sequence, but as a
series of vivid snapshots: we begin with Ariadne's abandonment (50-70), go back
to their first encounter and the dispatch of the Minotaur (71-1 Ii), proceed to their
flight together and her abandonment on Dia (116-31), are regaled with her curses
on Theseus (132-70), followed by a flashback to the start of his expedition and arrival
on Crete (171-76). Further imprecations (177-201) are promptly answered
by Zeus/jupiter (202-206), and followed by Theseus's omission to change his sails,
thus precipitating his father's death (207-48), and, finally, Ariadne's own "rescue"
by Bacchus (2 )2-64). Ironically, the silent figures on the tapestry, Ariadne herself
in particular, talk their heads off, while the living characters of the wedding,
whether human or divine, say nothing-till the Fates begin their prophesying at
323 (Godwin 19% 144-45).
9;-96 The address is to Cupid and his mother, Aphrodite/Venus.
TO) The name of the mountain range, Taurus ("Bull"), neatly anticipates Theseus's
victory over the Minotaur. Further, the pine tree's epithet, "cone-bearing" (conigeram),
is virtually indistinguishable from cornigeram, "horned" -so much so that
the MS tradition actually read the latter, only being corrected by an Italian scholar
in 1468: Catullus clearly meant to awaken the association in his audience's mind.
Cf. Salat 1993, 418-19.
113 The thread here is the ball of twine which Ariadne gave Theseus to ensure his safe
return from the maze. (A problem I have never seen confronted is how he found
his way in correctly to begin with.)
132-201 Ariadne's lament: the longest section of the poem, with, as Godwin reminds us
(199;, 1;1), "no possible source in the tapestry being described."
1;0 (cf. 181) The relationship is intensified for the sake of dramatic effect. The Minotaur
was not Ariadne's full brother (germanum), but her half brother only, his father
being the great white bull with which Pasiphae (Daedalus aiding and abetting) committed
her act of miscegenation.
152-)3 A deep and universal fear in the ancient world was the fate of a wandering soul if
its corpse had not received at least the scatter of earth symbolizing proper burial
(well brought out in Sophocles' Antigone). An equal (and more immediately understandable)
horror was that of becoming mere carrion for birds and beasts of
prey to tear and devour (Fordyce 1961, 297; Godwin 1995, 1)3).
162 Those "white-soled feet" (candida . .. uestigia) are interesting. Thomson (1997,
414) says that candida "is of course proleptic," i.e., that Ariadne makes the feet white
by washing them. There is no "of course" about it. What Catullus, rather mischievously,
makes Ariadne do, in a context where she sees herself as a willing slave,
is to enhance Theseus's opulence by contrast: he doesn'~ have to walk and work,
the soles of his feet are white and unworn. This is not calculated to make the reader
207-50 Theseus's behavior is exactly what Ariadne's curse had sought (200-201), and
Zeus/Jupiter had approved (205-206). Seldom can divine retribution have been
so promptly enforced.
221-37 Thomson (1997, 419) appositely cites Freya Stark, The Lycian Shore (1956, 38), on
tlIe sponge fishers of Kalymnos: when they had sailed, tlIeir wives on the quayside
exchanged their white headscarves for black ones, and wore tlIese till tlIeir husbands
2)1-264 Ariadne's "rescue,"Catullus is implying, was not a peaceful affair, and in a sense
victimized her almost as much as Theseus had done: what choice did she have but
to submit to Iacchus's advances? Note also that all tlIe emphasis in Catullus's description
of this rout is on its noise-something hardly to be gotten from a tapestry.
At 259, Mulroy (2002, 73) points out tlIat there is just such a wicker basket represented
on the great fresco of the Villa of the Mysteries outside Pompeii, witlI a
(partially concealed) phallus in it.
267-77 Despite the supposed intercourse between men and gods in these mytlIical times,
mere mortals are not invited to tlIe wedding feast, and respectfully depart after
viewing the wealth on display in Peleus's palace. Their going is celebrated by Catullus
in an elaborate simile that owes something to two such similes in Homer's
Iliad (4.422-26, 7.63-64).
278-84 Chiron the centaur is invited, not only as the future tutor of tlIe bridal pair's son,
Achilles, but as a local Thessalian deity from Mt. Pelion (where his cave was later
pointed out, and his supposed descendants, the Chironidae, formed a kind of medical
guild). Perhaps most important, he was a personal friend of Peleus, and furnished
him witlI crucial information on how to win his reluctant bride. The flowers
he brings to tlIe wedding in Catullus's version are a far cry from the great ash
spear which is his gift in Homer's Iliad (16.143,19.390), and which Achilles later
285-93 The final effect may be of a pleasant green grove shading tlIe palace, but there is
something irresistibly grotesque-perhaps deliberately so-about the picture of
Penios staggering under the weight of "a giant dendroid bouquet" (Godwin 1995,
163), so out of scale witlI everytlIing and everyone else.
323-81 Though this wedding song begins (323-36) and ends (372-80) witlI good wishes
to the happy pair, its major theme otlIerwise is tlIe fate and achievements of the
one child born of tlIe marriage, Achilles-a very practical reason for its being delivered
by tlIe Fates rather tlIan (as in Euripides' Jphigenia at Aulis, I040ff.) by tlIe
Muses: a "song of tlIe Fates" could more easily concentrate on tlIe future than could
a normal epitlIalamium. Cf. Fordyce 1961, 317-18; Godwin 1995, 166.
340-4I Achilles' legendary speed as a runner ("swift-footed" is his regular formulaic epithet
in Homer) was, as Catullus makes clear here, also put to good use to make
him a famous hunter no less than a warrior (cf. Pind. Nem. 3.43-)2).
346 The "third in line" from Pelops was Agamemnon, the first and second being Atreus
3 )7-60 A reference to Achilles' dealings with the Scamander river in Hom. It. 21.
376-77 One of the oddest old wives' tales from the ancient world, confirmed by the third
centuryc.E. poet Nemesianus (2.IO; cf. Syndikus 1990, 182 withn. 344; Goold I989,
2)4): that the successful consummation of a marriage was proved by an increase
in the size of the bride's neck.
382-408 The idea that the gods once enjoyed communion on earth with mortals (in a betterand
nobler age) goes back to Homer (Od. 7.201-206, where King Alcinous applies
it to his specially favored Phaeacians), and is implied by lyric poets such as
Sappho, whose poems envisaged an easy and even teasing personal intimacyhowever
conceived-between deity and mortal suppliant.
The degeneration from this happy state of affairs is even more strikingly documented.
The locus classicus is Hesiod in the Works and Days (176-20I), who describes
his own lifetime in terms of toil, grief, hatred, bitterness, lack of religious
reverence, contempt for tradition, and the departure of the last of the immortals,
Shame (Aid8s) and N emesis, from earth. In the Hellenistic period the astronomer
Aratus echoed Hesiod in his Phaenomena, lamenting the loss of the Golden Age
and the advent of wars and bloodshed (e.g., at 338-60, that involving Achilles,
Godwin 1995, 174)·
The epilogue leaves Catullus's readers-as so often-uneasily conscious of
possible ambiguities and ironies. Will Achilles (as Fordyce believes, [1961, 322])
prove to be "the consummation of the heroic age," and, even if he is, can we avoid
the dark side of his history? Or is this so-called heroic age being shown up as cruel,
bloody-minded, murderous, amoral, and altogether embarrassing in modern, i.e.,
late Republican Neoteric, terms? Godwin concludes a shrewd analysis (I995,
171-75) with the observation that this "is the last of many paradoxes and ambiguities
with which this poem leaves us." The literature on 64 is enormous; for a
good selective bibliography see Thomson I997, 438-43.