‘Breast is Best’: Catullus 64.18

Classical Quarterly 41 (01):254- (1991)
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Abstract

Catullus' use of nutrices for the Nereids' breasts in line 18 of Poem 64 is not perhaps the most important problem in the poem, but it is not without interest and may have significance beyond its narrow context. This ‘weird preciosity’ has been integrated into a wider reading by Francis Cairns, who interestingly drew attention to Artemidorus 2.37–8 where to dream of Aphrodite emerging from the sea and naked as far as the ζώνη is a good omen for sea-travellers because her breasts are τροΦιμώτατοι. So too, to dream of Nereids and Amphitrite is also a good omen. Cairns linked this passage to the persistent connections of Aphrodite and the Nereids with marriage, concluding that the Argonauts are presented with a very good omen as they set out and as the prospective bride and groom, Peleus and Thetis, meet. Cairns naturally finds support here for what we might call the ‘positive’ view of Catullus' heroic age, a view now apparently in the ascendant after the doubts created by John Bramble's well-known paper. Problems remain of course – Catullus 64 is not a dream – and the purpose of the present note is to keep debate alive by calling attention to a rather different set of considerations which complicate, rather than undermine, Cairns' reading

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