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  • Members Only?The Non-Aggression of Phalluses in Lucilian Satire1
  • Ian Goh

Recently, a claim from a British Museum exhibition catalogue caught my eye (Roberts 2013.52): “The Romans saw nothing shocking in this—the protective phallus was everywhere in Roman culture. Intentionally erotic Roman imagery certainly exists, but most ‘sexualized’ or ‘eroticized’ images were seen by Romans as symbols of fertility, amulets of good fortune, or just comic.” In this article, I want to read some fragments of Gaius Lucilius (180–103/2 b.c.e.), the supposed founder of the one truly Roman genre, verse satire (Quint. Inst. 10.1.93), against the supposed ubiquity of the phallus in Roman life.

Juvenal’s splenetic and cartoonish portrayal of women in his sixth satire, and of Naevolus’s and Virro’s joint exploits in his ninth, plus Horace’s diatribe about sex in Satires 1.2, among others, have taught students of satire to be on the lookout for obscenity as a marker of “frank talk,” an announcement that these poems that embody libertas will not shy away from the “facts of life,” even as their speakers turn out to be addled and unreliable. The words for genitalia are supposedly standard elements in this genre of aggressive, streetwise poetry.2 And the republican inaugurator of the tradition was apparently a raunchy bachelor (Christes 1971.17, 60) who refused to grow up and settle down. Splattering the page with obscenities, [End Page 35] he celebrated his sexual conquests and purveyed a macho image with a tone “savage and jolly at the same time” (Richlin 1992.169). But is it true that the activities we associate with the phallus, urination and ejaculation, typify Lucilius, such that the “single common element in Lucilius’s attitudes is that of staining” (Richlin 1992.170)? Rather, is there not a conservative strain of self-control to satire?3 I will argue that the Lucilian fragments which seem to involve the appearance of penises need to be reinterpreted in a less overtly sexual light. Indeed, we have in Lucilius no parallels for Horace’s three deliberate uses in Satires 1 of the term cunnus, “vagina,” even if my Cook’s tour below will encompass references to ψωλός, caulis, and mutto (all words for penis).4

If we approach the question through the lens of genre, we find several possible models for Lucilius’s super-sized poetic mode. Firstly, we can turn to Horace’s infamous and important claim at the opening of Satires 1.4 that the Old Comedians served as Lucilius’s inspiration. Eupolis, Aristophanes, and Cratinus are named (Sat. 1.4.1), and Lucilius is said to “depend utterly” (“hinc omnis pendet Lucilius,” 1.4.6) on these authors. While Horace cites the Old Comedians primarily because they supposedly savaged their enemies in public (notabant, 1.4.5), the phallus featured prominently in costumes for performances of their plays.5 While these are usually “wholly within the fictional world” (Ruffell 2011.240) and not referred to self-consciously, the very prominence of the visual element in the theatre puts the phallus front and centre; in contrast, the lack of an acting component in satire and the concomitant reliance on [End Page 36] the text arguably lessens the (deliberate) outrageousness when a phallus appears.6

Moreover, in Old Comedy, comic obscenity is “strongly identified as masculine through the figure of the comic buffoon” (McClure 1999.205). Was Lucilius a buffoon? Invective language and obscenity are typical both of the more overtly public works of Old Comedy and of the iambic poetry of the private symposium, and much has been made of the cross-pollination between these modes, with particular focus on literary rivalry and self-presentation (a treatment pioneered by Rosen 1988). As far as the phallus is concerned, though, there is a difference between stylised banter about masculine prowess and the presentation of comic wretchedness or paradox via actors’ underclothes.7 We should also note that the Hellenistic world was also well used to the public presentation of phalluses.8

At Rome, by contrast, iambic had a particular impact on the poetry of Catullus, which contains memorable examples of hyper-masculine invective featuring what...