Catullus’ Hymn to Lesbia? A Re-evaluation of c. 34

Heather Waddell Gruber

Catullus’ hymn to Diana is an unusual poem compared to the rest of the polymetra; scholars have even gone so far as to call it “un-Catullan” (P. Y. Forsythe, The Poems of Catullus: A Teaching Text, London 1986).  The main issues concerning c. 34 revolve around its placement in the corpus (e.g. H. Dettmer, Love by the Numbers: Form and Meaning in the Poetry of Catullus, New York 1997) and the question of performance, whether it was meant to be publicly performed as a choral hymn, and if so, on what occasion (e.g. T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge 1985; G. P. Goold, Catullus, London 1983).  But an interpretation of the imagery and language in this poem is a glaring omission in the scholarship.  By comparing the language used in c. 34 to similar language elsewhere in the corpus, we find a highly sexual vocabulary juxtaposed with numerous verbal connections to Lesbia.  This hymn to Diana, noted for its strangely wholesome tone amid a number of obscene poems, emerges with an underlying meaning:  it becomes a poem about Catullus’ ideal Lesbia and her tempered sexuality.

The dominant theme of this poem is fertility.  This is particularly apparent in the third stanza, in which Diana is the mistress of the mountains, green forests, secluded groves, and babbling rivers. In typical hymnic fashion, Catullus describes the sorts of places she inhabits.  The specific words (mons, silva virens, saltus), however, are all attested metaphors for the female sexual anatomy, and the combined image is that of a place dark, wet, and sultry (J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, Baltimore 1983).

This graphic sexual imagery is not so much appropriate to Diana as it is to Lesbia.  The first line of the poem brings her to mind, with the use of the word “fides.”   Fides is a sort of leit motif for Catullus, especially regarding the kind of relationship he wants to have with Lesbia.  Fourteen lines later he makes other connections between the goddess and Lesbia, where Diana is invoked as Juno and Trivia.  These two particular names are striking, because they both refer to Lesbia elsewhere in his poetry:  Catullus compares his relationship with that of Jupiter and Juno (e.g. cc. 70 and 72), and he scorns Lesbia for prostituting herself at crossroads (c.58, quadriviis).  The equation of Diana and Lesbia is further supported through their connections to Cybele.  Diana has close ritual associations to Cybele, especially in her capacity as Diana Nemorensis; Lesbia , too, is equated with the Magna Mater, as in c. 63 where she brutalizes Attis, a symbolic Catullus.

The final two stanzas explain why Catullus has portrayed Lesbia as Diana.  The barns are filled with crops, and the world is fruitful.  This is a positive image of what sex can do.  Catullus has transformed Lesbia’s hyper-sexuality into a fortuitous and productive power; she is the exact opposite of the cruel, emasculating Cybele of c. 63.  Just as Diana-Cybele can represent the wild, uncultivated growth of nature, she can also symbolize domesticated fertility.  Catullus is playing with the dual nature of Diana-Cybele to represent the dual nature of Lesbia.  This poem represents the ideal Lesbia, the woman whom Catullus wants her to be.

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