Catullus # 32

Farewell Ipsithilla

Here is a curious little poem from the pen of the witty Catullus, but one which leaves you wondering if it is complete, if there is something else that we should know, if we are merely missing the point. It seems to be in the form of a short personal note, something like a salacious post-card which is mailed out for everyone to see, although the message is personal and private. It ihas always been assumed by literary readers that Catullus is writing a note to a local prostitute named Ipsithilla, asking for an afternoon session. I will in this paper make a correction of the name into the title "Ipsimilla" or "Lady. . . . .Ma'am", which requires some explication as in the discussion below. But first look at the poem in a traditional light.

Please, my sweet *Ipsithilla*,
my delights and charms, I ask you
tell me to come to you this afternoon .
If you do so, grant me a favor,
don't let anyone set the bolt on the door ,
and don't on a whim go to town.
But stay there at home, and just make ready
nine uninterrupted fuckings.
But if you are engaged, let me know right away
because I have had dinner and am lying here loaded,
about to bore through my tunic and overcoat.
Amabo mea dulcis *Ipsithilla*,
meae deliciae, mei lepores,
iube ad te veniam meridiatum.
et si iusseris, illud adiuvato,
ne quis liminis obseret tabellam,
neu tibi lubeat foras abire.
sed domi maneas paresque nobis
novem continuas fututiones.
verum si quid ages, statim iubeto.
nam pransus iaceo et satur supinus
pertundo tunicamque palliumque

This would seem to have been written as a "slice of life" poem, documentation of a note sent one afternoon to a prostitute with a very odd name. But does this make a clever poem, something worthy of our poet's usual quick wit? Is this enough as it stands?

Invite me (iube) to come after noon (meridiatum) and do me a favor (adiuvare), don't let someone lock the door and don't you decide to go out. Now if you are staying home, will you please prepare something for me, which suggests a kitchen scene, and perhaps a string of sausages from the botularius's shop, or tomacula or anything you could get from a fast-food popina. But it is past noon dinnertime, Catullus has dined and is replete, and he is having trouble with his rising . . . energy. As to the menu to prepare: Nine nice uninterrupted fucks will do nicely.

It is the nine sexual sessions which catches the reader's eye, beside which the rest of the poem is idle chatter of little interest. All that stuff about the locked front door, the lady going out for something or other, him being full and flat on his back, there is nothing there but word fluff and weak innuendo. On the other hand the poem is smooth in its word flow, it is coarse in meaning but not rough poetically, and we might well suspect that there is some secret message in there. Perhaps?


There has always been a problem with the name Ipsithilla, which I have marked as corrupt or suspect, since it is neither Greek nor Latin and not found in any oother text. Editors for five centuries have tried meaningless emendations, like Ipthchilla, Ipsicilla, and Greekish Hypsithilla, even ipsi Thila and a useless ipsa illa. Facing confusion, the odd and unique Ipsithilla has persisted to this day.

I suggest that the traditional name Ipsithilla, which has confused text editors for centuries now, be abandoned in favor of "ipsimilla" with the meaning of "The Lady of the house". In that light we can re-examine the poem as addressed to a lady whom Catullus knows well, a more than casual acquaintance, to whom he writes a note as the lady of the house, which in colloquial Latin would be Ipsima. But since he is in a joking mood, he adds the hypocoristic and diminutive ending, turning "ipsima" into Ipimilla, "my little Lady herself".

In scholarly wise D. F. S. Thomson (Catullus. l997, p.287 ) has tracked down this name in close piece of palaeographical detective-work, noting remarkable similarities among the similar manuscript characters for /m/ or /ch/ and also /th/, which may well account for the MS spellings "ipsithilla" and "ipsichilla", both of which got into our printed texts centuries ago. He proposed in this text "ipsimilla" on palaeographical evidence. Now I suggest that this is a formal social title rather than as a personal name, meaning "Lady of the house" or "Ma'am".

We have a basis for this in Petronius' word "ipsimam" as Herself, the Lady of the house , a late and singular parallel. Look at Petronius' phrase: "sic solebam ipsumam meam debattuere, ut etiam dominus suspicaretur" (and thus I was able to screw the lady of the house, without the master knowing about it. . .) Petr.69.3. Clearly in this passage ipsumam (= ipsimam) is colloquial for "the Lady of the house", an exact parallel to the master "ipsimus" who is the dominus, both words as used here by the colloquial Petronius. Colloquial terms are often unknown to our literary texts, persisting underground through the centuries. Here Catullus would seem to be archly addressing his familiar lady friend with a colloquial turn of phrase, sending a note to her at her home, as "Herself, Lady of the house, Ma'am", and this usage must be for some special reason.


With that correction of the text, we can approach the poem in a somewhat different light. Catullus apparently knows her previously, he calls her the usual familar dear and darling words without special meaning and now he is writing to make an afternoon date. But 'deliciae' is often used for a pet animal, a dead pet bird in Poem 2, a use common in early comedy and inscriptions, And 'lepores' refers to charm and wit, not good for a call-girl b ut suitable for the literary Clodia. Accustomed lovers use such terms easily, those who we find using them will turn out to be familiar lovers.

Now we can come back and write a more pertinent translation of the poem. The words are the same as the Latin text, but the sub-meanings on which the sense of the poem rest, are quite different. It does seems a shame to have to go through involved a word investigation of a poem, before we can put it into parallel English words. But that is the chance we take when we approach a literary text from the distance of more than a millennium.

Would you please, my dear lady, dear "Ma'am",
my pet and the charmer that you are,
ask me to come over this mid-afternoon,
and doing so, grant me a favor or two:
No locked doors with nobody answering, or
"Sorry, Milady is not at home presently".
But you stay there and start to 'prepare' for me
as entertainment nine uninterrupted fuckulations.
Now if you are busy, let me know right away,
because I had dinner and lie here quite distended
sticking it through my robe and underwear.

Now don't let the door get locked, and you stay right there at home, and get ready with the business you understand? I f you are busy with something let me know right away. No, nothing to eat, I ate and am full, and having trouble with my rising expectations. . . . . ..

This is whimsical language for use with an old girlfriend, not suitable for a call-girl prostitute like the hypothetical Ipsithilla. And if we ask who cf course this would be no other lover than the famous Lesbia!

We can by pure chance see this Lady herself, with her deceased husband as the master of this very house, chatting together in Catullus' poem 83. Catullus is visiting Lesbia/Clodia and her husband Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer. They sit all together in a conversation. She is upbraiding the poet for something or other. Metellus is laughing at the scene and enjoying it. He is a fool or even better a "mule" in Catullus eyes, since he is sleeping with her and the mule as an animal is sexually sterile. That interview must have been before 59 BC when Metellus died, perhaps poisoned by his wife. But now a few years later, we can go back to their house, where the Lady of the house is at last free to do what she wants. If her new lover writes: "Don't lock the door as for a street lover's serenade. And don't go out, you stay right there and get prepared. . . ." then she understands the message quickly with a smile.


So let us revise the programme for this poem. It is sent to an old lady friend, it is this Lady of the house who the poet addresses. She is someone he knows well enough to call her dearie and darling, and he tells her to 'prepare' something as if for dinner. But it will be mid-afternoon and Catullus has dined. The wine has gone to his head, the energy has gone to his erection and she knows what he is after at that hour. Intuition and experience between the two makes the setting perfectly reasonable for him to ask and perfectly clear to her what he wants.< /p>

If this has not been clear to the post-Renaissance scholarly and literary world, rememeber that it is more than a millennium since the days of Catullus and the friends in his literary coterie, who would have been quick to pick up tones and words with all their sub-significations. Such things evaporate completely in the course of a decade or two. They would have known that "My Pet" was only a whimsical word, that "My Charmer" was the charming Clodia, and that she was Lady of her own house after Metellus was conveniently gone. It would be hardly surprising that she left a door unlocked or her own private purposes . . . . . for a young Catullus, for a Caelius and for many another. Famous and infamous, wealthy and courtly, smart and witty, standing high in Roman society, she was able to do anything she wanted, and that seems to have been the course of her famous career. She knew all about Catullus and his after dinner need for a sumptuous sexual dessert, she knew what was on his mind and she knew perfectly well what to prepare.

We can now read this bit of Catullus' mid-afternoon's visit with its sly words and intentional coarseness, as rewritten into a readably sly English translation, as an entirely different little poem. It takes something as private as a note for a date and turns it into a curious bit of half hidden verse, which invites the circle of the poet's friends to guess (with a wink and a smile) who it is sent to and what the poem is really about.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College