blog post

Weaving love.

Catullus 64
— Ariadne
— Parcae

1. Pliny the Elder (1st c. CE) Natural History 8.194:

Varro [1st c. BCE] informs us, on his own authority, that the wool on the distaff and spindle of Tanaquil [wife of Tarquinius Priscus, 5th king of Rome] (who was also called Gaia Caecilia) was still preserved in the temple of Sancus; and also in the shrine of Fortune a pleated royal robe made by her, which had been worn by Servius Tullius [6th king of Rome]. Hence arose the practice that maidens at their marriage were accompanied by a decorated distaff and a spindle with thread.

2. Karen Hersch, The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity (2010: 177-178): 

“When the bride arrived at her new home, Pliny said, she smeared the doorposts with the fat of a pig or a wolf, the latter ‘to keep out all evil potions’ [mali medicamenti, Plin. NH 28.142]. Later authors claimed that the bride both anointed the doorposts and decorated them with wool, and the word uxor [“wife”] was said to have derived from unguere, “to anoint,” for a bride anoints the doorposts of the groom’s house. Servius [4th c. CE] noted that as soon as brides reached the threshold, they affixed vittae [“headbands”], which are signs of chastity. The wolf’s fat is more complex: those who write about weddings, claimed Servius, say that a new bride coats the doorposts with wolf’s fat ‘because both the fat and the limbs of this beast are used as a remedy for many things.’ Others claim that the ritual was established at the time of Romulus’ lupine adoption. Servius added that wolves are notable for their fidelity, and finally that a new bride ‘does these things, so that she might know she is entering a sanctified house, and at the same time carrying wool she was promising (skill in) woolworking’ [Serv. Aen. 4.458].”

3. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 61.114-128. Translated by Peter Green.

Hey boys, raise high your torches — I
see the flame-coloured veil approach!
All together in chorus now:
“Io Hymne Hymeneal, io,
io Hymen Hymeneal!”

Time, high time, for the ribald and
cocksure bantering; time for the
boy toy, finding himself cut off
from his master’s affections, to
hand out nuts to the children!

Scatter nuts to the kids, you limp
boy toy! Long enough now you’ve been
playing with nuts: but today you must
yield your rule to the marriage god:
boy toy, scatter your nuts now!


3a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.1-7. Translated by Peter Green.

Once on a time pine trees from Pelion’s summit
are said to have swum through Neptune’s crystal ripples
to the breakers of Phasis and Aeëtes’ territory,
when chosen young men, the strong core of Argive manhood,
eager to filch that gilded hide from the Colchians,
dared in their swift vessel to traverse the briny shoals,
sweeping blue, deep-sea vistas with their blades of fir-wood.


3b. (Close up of) Athenian red-figure volute krater (late 5th/early 4th c. BCE). Name vase of the Talos Painter. Discovered at Ruvo, Italy. Image: Furtwängler and Reichhold. The Argonauts on the Argo (left). Medea (right). Talos is a metal giant that Medea defeats for the Argonauts (see: Apollonius Rhodius‘ Argonautica 4.1638–93).

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4. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.12-21. Translated by Peter Green.

And the moment its prow sheared through their wind-whipped surface,
and waves glistened spume white from the twist of the oar blades,
wild shy faces emerged from the foaming eddies,
deepwater Nereïds, in wonder at this portent.
That was the day, never matched, when mere mortals witnessed
marine nymphs rising up from the dappled sea surge,
mother-naked to breasts and below. It was then that Peleus —
so goes the story — burned up with love for Thetis,
then that Thetis did not reject a human marriage,
then that the Father himself felt that Peleus and Thetis should wed.


5. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.31-35; 46-51. Translated by Peter Green.

When in due course this most eagerly awaited
wedding day dawns, guests from every distant quarter
of Thessaly throng the house, the palace is crowded
with a rejoicing multitude. All bear gifts, their faces
beam pleasure.

and there at its heart is set the goddess’s own bridal
couch, all smoothly inlaid with Indian ivory,
its purple drapery dipped in the mollusc’s blushing dye.
This coverlet, decorated with antique human figures,
portrays in marvelous art the brave deeds of heroes.


6a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.52-65. Translated by Peter Green.

There, gazing out from Dia’s surf-loud shoreline,
eyes fixed on Theseus as he and his swift vessels
dwindle away to nothing, with uncontrollable passion
filling her heart, not yet able to credit the witness
of her own eyes, roused that moment from treacherous slumber,
Ariadne finds herself left on the lonely strand, poor creature,
while her heedless young lover vanishes, oar strokes flailing
the shallows, scattering broken promises galewards.
Him from afar, there on the wrack-strewn beach, eyes
agonized, Minos’ daughter, a stony bacchant, watches,
ah, watches, in breaking waves of grief unbounded,
lost the fine-woven net from her golden tresses,
lost the light garment veiling her torso, lost the
rounded breast-band that gathered her milk white bosom —


6b. Roman wall painting. Ariadne weeps as Theseus sails away. House of Meleager, Pompeii (Napes Inv. 9051). Image: wikimedia.


Fredrick 1995: 272: “There are 43 paintings of Ariadne abandoned or discovered in Pompeii — roughly somewhere between 5 and 10% of the total number of panels. This makes Ariadne the single most popular individual subject in Pompeii.”

6c. The Roman statue known as “Sleeping Ariadne” from the Vatican Museum. Because the statue has a bracelet in the form of a serpent, it was long believed to be of Cleopatra. Ennio Quirino Visconti identified it as Ariadne in late 1700s. Image: Vatican Museum.



7a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.110-115. Translated by Peter Green.

so Theseus brought down the monster, mastered its body
as it butted its horns in vain against airy emptiness,
then walked back out unhurt, in a cloud of glory, guiding
his fallible footsteps with that one slender thread, lest
during his emergence from the Labyrinth’s windings
its deceptively mazed confusion should frustrate his purpose.

7b. Elaine Reichek (2009) Ariadne’s Lament. Image: MFA Boston.

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7c. Elaine Reichek (2011) “The Graces With Their Own Hands.” Hand embroidery with beads on linen. Remix of Giovanni Battista Crosato’s (18th c.) “Bacchus crowning Ariadne with a diadem of stars” and Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica 4.423-435). Image:


8a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.303-327. Translated by Peter Green.

When the guests had settled themselves on the white-backed seating
the tables were piled high with an array of dishes;
and meanwhile, old bodies prey to infirmity’s tremors,
the trio of Fates [Parcae] began their prophetic chanting.
Each wore a long white robe that enfolded her tremulous
frame and fell to her ankles, purple-bordered; the three
had bandeaux of roses on their snow-white heads,
while their hands were properly busy with their unending labor,
the left gripping the distaff, all shrouded in soft wool,
while the right, first, teased out the threads with upturned
fingers and formed them, then twisting with down-turned thumb
spun the spindle, balanced on its rounded whorl,
while constantly with their teeth they nibbled and smoothed the work,
and to their thin lips nipped-off wool tufts adhered
which before were excrescences on the even thread line,
while before their feet the soft fleeces of bright white wool
were stored in little baskets of woven osier.
They now, still carding their fleeces, in clear articulate tones
poured forth in god-inspired song these prophecies —
a song no future age would accuse of falsehood.
“O you who augment high achievement with great virtues,
Emathia’s safeguard, most dear to the son of Ops,
accept what the Sisters reveal for you on this auspicious
day, a true oracle. But you which the fates follow,
run, drawing the weft out, run, you spindles!

8b. Aulus Gellius (2nd c. CE) Attic Nights 3.16.9-11:

But Varro [1st c. BCE] says that the early Romans did not regard such births as unnatural rarities, but they did believe that a woman was gave birth according to nature in the ninth or tenth month, and in no others, and that for this reason they gave to the three Fates names derived from bringing birth, and from the ninth and tenth months. “For Parca,” says he, “is derived from partus with the change of one letter, and likewise Nona and Decima from the period of timely delivery.” But Caesellius Vindex [2nd c. CE] in his Ancient Readings says: “The names of the Fates are three: Nona, Decuma, Morta.”