Greece and Rome (Second Series)

Research Article

In Defence of Catullus' Dirty Sparrow

Richard W. Hooper

Poliziano's theory that the sparrow of Lesbia in Catullus 2 and 3 is none other than the phallus of the poet has not fared well in recent years. H. D. Jocelyn has mounted a spirited attack against it, taking most effective aim against the arguments of E. N. Genovese and G. Giangrande, whose articles, as he points out, ‘seem to have no nineteenth or twentieth-century predecessors’. This attack has been facilitated by the tendency of both Genovese and Giangrande to dilute their arguments with extravagant claims. Thus Genovese would have the passer stand not only for the poet's phallus, but for an actual pet of Lesbia, a fascinum charm around her neck (with bells on it!), and a human rival, possibly named Passer, as well. Similarly, Giangrande spends too much of his time attempting to attach poem 2b to 2 by means of a tortuous interpretation of the Atalanta myth, just as he develops a convoluted argument about the tension between topoi of Totenklage um Tiere and impotence at the end of 3. Even Jocelyn gets too far away from the poems themselves with detailed examinations of masturbation and fellatio among the ancients (pp. 429–33) and a careful footnote on the missionary position (pp. 433 n. 65). There are only two ways to establish the probability of an obscene allegorical interpretation of Catullus 2 and 3: to examine the usage of passer in the poems themselves, and to see whether Catullus' imitators in antiquity – especially Martial – were aware of and exploited Catullus' double entendre. In defending Poliziano's theory, this paper will argue these two points in more detail than they have been treated in the past.