Dr. Mark Possanza, professor at the University of Pittsburgh, gave an evening talk on Roman Republican Fragment Poetry on Wednesday, April 13.
Dr. Possanza is a chairman of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Classics and a National Humanities Center Fellow. He is currently on research sabbatical to work on his upcoming manuscript.
Entitled “The Frankenstein Effect: Creating a Corpus of Latin Fragments for the Loeb Classical Library,” the lecture featured Possanza’s interpretation of a two-lined fragment.
A corpus is a collection of story fragments, grouped by different manners of relation to each other. They usually come from different sources and fit uncomfortably, often in unappealing ways, according to Possanza. Here the comparison to Frankenstein’s monster is made, in how they are cobbled together, and sometimes repulsive in nature.
“They beg for attention,” Possanza said.
Possanza referred to the Loeb Classical Library’s publications as being among the best for Roman literature. Founded by James Loeb in 1911, the Library publishes translations of Roman works to eliminate the student need to learn Latin to study them.
Possanza praised their improved texts and detailed commentary over the years. There are currently nine volumes of Latin poetry fragments alone, with detailed coverage and expanded timeframes.
Possanza warned that one must be careful when interpreting fragments.
“Sometimes there is one text when it seems there are two,” Possanza said.
Possanza’s text gathers a variety of fragments from different time periods and genres. These have the Latin language, meter and Republic-era origin as common factors.
Possanza is interested in integration, stating that the label “fragment” is often insufficient.
To illustrate, he described a brief passage in which Lucan, a Roman poet, mocked Nero by using his privy flatulence to denigrate a line of the emperor’s poetry.
“Subterranean thundering you’d think,” Lucan said, concluding the passage.
Thunder in Roman poetry often referred to mythology. By comparing it to flatulence Lucan is mocking the high-sounding poetry of Nero.
This line, according to Possanza, seems mundane, but added context reveals a complex nature of references.
The lecture’s body consisted of Possanza’s detailed analysis of a two-lined fragment:
“Men of the city, guard your wives; we are leading in the bald adulterer,” and “In Gaul you squandered on sex the gold you borrowed here.”
Possanza noted that fragment-readers’ expectations are generally low, except when the subject is Caesar. With that in mind, he stated that many found the couplet underwhelming.
It begins with a taunt to Gaulish men, warning them to hide their wives, for Caesar, famed ladies’ man, was there. This is standard battle posturing, boasting of their leader’s sexual prowess and conquering ability.
The next line is where many are lost. It turns a taunt into a weak reference to Caesar’s notorious debt in Rome from sex-money squandering, implying that Caesar had to borrow money for sex in Gaul.
Possanza believes that the line means something different and is not soldiers poking fun at their leader.
“There was no humor or mockery in it,” Possanza said.
Possanza believes that the author writing down the poem changed ‘auro’ to ‘aurum’ in the second line. This altered the meaning from the original, which he thinks translated to mean Caesar “wore out wives and took the country’s gold.” The lines are implying that Caesar is both a borrower of money and a borrower of wives.
The soldiers got their humor elsewhere, referring to Caesar not by name, but with “cosmetic irony.” He was well known for both his baldness and sensitivity towards it. Many called him “cincinnatus moechus,” or the curly-haired adulterer.
Possanza concluded his segment by reaffirming his belief that Caesar was not a figure of crude humor in the couplet but one of the complex wordplay typically expected of poetry. The lines asserted his military power, rather than mocking him.
“The fragments of Roman poetry of the Roman Republic deserve our serious attention,” Possanza said.
He stated that, despite their unattractive nature, fragmentary poetry holds great value, in what they say and the representation of knowledge lost.
Possanza expressed his hope for the impact his finished manuscript might have on readers and other scholars.
“I will make a silent wish that this volume of fragmentary Republican Latin may help bring to poetic life texts that will lead to a better understanding of Latin language and literature,” Possanza said.