Priapic Imagery in poetry as a basis for a Patriarchal Roman Society



A really nice 
shot of an arch in Rome.
Throughout the poems of Catullus, there are obvious and detailed references to the priapic imagery prevalent in previous Greco-Roman poetry. These poems often seem basely obscene, but usually perform a much more crucial task. The empowerment of the male, especially in phallic symbolism, mirrors the way in which males dominated Roman society. Throughout the republic, all the senators were male, and all important rights, such as landholding, were passed from father to son. Widows could only gain control of land if there were no other surviving male relatives, a law that obviously was meant to establish a patriarchal powerbase. In Republican Rome, due at least in part to the legal importance of males, the ideology centered around male power becomes entirely based upon phallic symbolism. Throughout the remains of Pompeii paintings can be seen that emphasize the importance of the phallus in the everyday life of the Roman citizen. Whether these gods were meant to keep away evil, bring good fortune (economically speaking), or provide fertility, their importance illustrates the typical Roman attitude on sexual performance, emphasizing the role of the male and typifying it as a struggle rather than as an art of love, as the Greeks would have portrayed it.
Throughout his poetry, Catullus makes no attempt to hide his baser instincts, often using vulgar language and offensive innuendoes. In poems such as the oft-quoted XVI, which states that "I'll bugger you, and stuff your gobs,/ Aurelius Kink and Poofter Furius," (1-2), Catullus, though obviously toned down in translation, is demonstrating physical prowess in the only way available, an affirmation of his manhood. By reminding the reader of his power, Catullus embraces the concepts demonstrated throughout the patriarchal Roman society. These phallic ideas represent the continuous sexual urges forcefully brought forward by the conditioning of the Roman consciousness. The pictures that remain in towns such as Pompeii clearly emphasize the power of the male, especially the tremendous length of the male phallus, which represents the base strength of the man.

a phallic god 
from the House of the Vetii in PompeiiThe debasing of the women of Rome is also evident in Catullus' poetry, through a larger sense of women as the whores of society. This lowering of their position allows Catullus to begin his poem XLI with the unflattering "Ameana, the female fuck-up. . . That girl with the unattractive nose," (1, 3). This blatant disregard for tact allows the modern reader to understand the truly menial position regarded most women in Catullus' Rome.

Catullus' attraction, from a historical perspective, is that he is "the first Roman to give artistic (and truly national) expression to the experience of his inmost heart," (Kiefer: 185). The frankness of his works allow for an unprecedented insight into the relationships between men and women in the late Republic. Although Kiefer proposes Catullus as a gentle, naive, and whimsical poet, clearly there is a darker side, for the hatred that Catullus expresses towards his enemies does not come from the same side of him as the thousand kisses do. Throughout his writings, Catullus mimics the popular and patriarchal society that surrounds him, utilizing violence and sexual aggression to overcome his enemies and whispering sweet nothings to his love. By degrading others, Catullus mimics the political hierarchy in Rome, one that was held in place by male dominance of the society. This dominance was emphasized by the phallus, which became symbolic and implied domination of weaker, or 'smaller' beings.




To the main page
The Life of Catullus
Examples of Catullan poetry
The Life of Lesbia
The Life of Luxury
A list of works cited