Lesbia's controversial bird : Testing the cases for and against passer as sparrow

Journal article

Green, Ashleigh. (2021). Lesbia's controversial bird : Testing the cases for and against passer as sparrow. Antichthon. 55, pp. 6-20. https://doi.org/10.1017/ann.2021.7
AuthorsGreen, Ashleigh

The identity of the passer in Catullus 2 and 3 has been a subject of controversy for hundreds of years.1 Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the great authority on birds in the ancient world, sums it up best with his own musings: ‘Whatever Lesbia's “sparrow” may have been, I am pretty sure in my own mind […] that it was not Passer domesticus, the most intractable and least amiable of cage-birds.’2 Some scholars opt for an obscene interpretation of passer, while others argue that passer must refer to a bird like a bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). To test the validity of these arguments, this paper examines four key components of the passer poems, and the passer debates. Firstly, it determines the Roman cultural view of sparrows and whether they regarded the birds as pets, pests, or something else entirely. Secondly, it analyses Roman trends in bird-keeping and looks for other examples of pet passeres in art and literature. Thirdly, it considers actual bird behaviour to reveal whether a sparrow could act the way Catullus describes. Finally, it analyses the different potential meanings of the word passer to determine which birds fell under its descriptive umbrella. In this way we can judge whether the passer was indeed a sparrow while also determining the place of sparrows in Roman thought and pet-keeping culture.

KeywordsCatullus; passer; pets; birds; bird-keeping; ornithology
Journal citation55, pp. 6-20
PublisherCambridge University Press
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.1017/ann.2021.7
Scopus EID2-s2.0-85125179847
Open accessPublished as ‘gold’ (paid) open access
Page range6-20
Publisher's version
All rights reserved
File Access Level
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online11 Feb 2022
Publication process dates
Accepted27 Jan 2021
Deposited20 Jan 2023
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