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Priapea: Poems for a Phallic God

translated and edited by W.H. Parker
Routledge/Croom Helm, 216 pp., $27.00

At a time when obscenity has been so long the rage that it is becoming as big a bore as prudery was a century ago, there was bound to be a new translation of the Priapea, which are widely regarded as the most obscene poems in Latin surviving from antiquity. In 1931 A.E. Housman, who was then generally recognized to be the most distinguished living Latin scholar, offered to the leading classical journal of his own country a set of notes about problems in various obscene poems, mostly from this collection. Although presented in what Gibbon calls “the decent obscurity of a learned language,” to wit Latin, his contribution was rejected, and had to be published in Germany, whose scholars he had so often excoriated. Only two translations into English have been made before. Of that which appeared under the pseudonym Outidanos, a Greek word meaning “worthless,” but came from the pen of the famous traveler, explorer, and translator of the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton, W.H. Parker truly says that it is “often clumsy, stilted and unnatural”; I have not seen the version (in a limited edition of 150 copies) of the American M.S. Buck (1937).

A modern version was certainly to be expected; but I am surprised at the quarter from which it comes. Dr. Parker is a respected scholar, who for many years taught geography at Christ Church, Oxford. I have many times enjoyed his company in the common room of that college without ever suspecting that he was not only a geographer, but a classical scholar. He has provided us not only with a translation, but with a useful introduction that contains a history of the genre of priapic poetry, an account of the collection and of its history, a text with a selection of the comments of earlier critics, and brief notes and appendixes dealing with difficult problems of Dr. Parker’s own. I do not think Dr. Parker would echo the publisher’s claim that the book is “a major contribution to the field of classics.” Indeed Dr. Parker has carefully studied the literature of the subject, though he has unfortunately not used J.N. Adams’s The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Johns Hopkins Press, 1983), an excellent book which would have helped him greatly. But he is not well qualified to decide between the opinions of the scholars whom he quotes, still less to make new and independent interpretations of the text. Of the translation I shall speak later. Still, this is a useful and respectable contribution to the understanding of a work that English-speaking scholars have almost entirely neglected.

The god Priapus, around whom priapic poetry revolves, is very much an outsider in the Greco-Roman pantheon. His cult originated in Lampsacus, a town in the Troad, on the east coast of the Hellespont, and from about the time of Alexander the Great began to make its way around the Mediterranean world. Priapus was a humble god, similar in status to such a minor divinity as Pan;…

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