Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Bryce Walker :“Ulysses Captator: The Appropriation of Myth in Roman Satire”


Sweet Briar College

“Ulysses Captator: The Appropriation of Myth in Roman Satire”


We can trace the use and abuse of myth in Roman Satire back to the portrayal of a council of the gods in the fragmentary first book of Lucilius. In this typical mythic setting the gods convene to discuss surprisingly the luxury of Republican Rome and the vices of Lentulus Lupus, an enemy of Lucilius. Subsequently, mythological figures as well as allusions and topoi appear consistently throughout the genre’s corpus, but rather than providing a sense of tradition and gravitas, the satirists appropriate myth and alter traditional accounts in ways that collapse and exploit the distance between the mythic past and contemporary social vices. The satirists skillfully manipulate the language in these moments to upset expectations of mythic and contemporary circumstances with a biting and often ironic humor. This nuanced use of language to describe mythological scenes and figures in Roman Satire influences our interpretation of the myths presented, the direction of the satirist’s attack, and our view of the satirist himself. In this paper I will examine the appearance of Ulysses, one of the most prominent, striking, and intriguing examples of this appropriation, as the satirists show him learning how to swindle the elderly out of their fortunes, prance around in the armor of Achilles, and arouse the disdain of the Phaeaceans for his tall tales.

While Ulysses appears first in Lucilius where the satirist seems to parody of incidents in the Odyssey, it is Horace who provides us with the first extended surviving satirical treatment of Ulysses. Sermones2.5 is a refiguring of the conversation with Tiresias in the underworld, but Ulysses now appears as an emerging legacy hunter and Tiresias as his teacher. What makes this example even more intriguing is the fact that it is the first use of the term captator for this emerging social role (Muecke, 177), a choice that invites inquiry both into the use of Ulysses as a model and his relationship this new technical term. I will show how Horace’s treatment of this scene requires the specific mythic background and figure for the success of its humor and social commentary.

Another dimension to this casting of Ulysses occurs when he appears in Juvenal’s fifteenth satire as a lying aretalogist (ut mendax aretalogus, 15.16) recounting his adventures to Alcinous. Here Ulysses’ narrative and the response it provokes in his listeners is established as a comparandum for Juvenal’s “true” story about Egyptian cannibals. This juxtaposition and important similarities of narration and response encourage us to consider further the relationship between Ulysses and the satirist.

By looking at these and other depictions of Ulysses, we will see how the Roman satirists selfconsciousness as writers in a genre of appropriation and adaptation remake myths in their roles as social critics and defenders of traditional mores. With their focus on the rhetorical language of attack and criticism they provide a lens through which we can explore the dynamic relationship between myth and culture in the Roman world.

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