'A sea-monster in court (Apul. Mag. 32)' *
text published in: Museum Helveticum 54, 1997, 62-4
In 158/9 AD the philosopher and orator Apuleius of Madaurus was accused of having practised magic to seduce the rich widow Pudentilla into marrying him. In the speech he delivered at the occasion, the extant Pro se de magia, he employs a wide range of rhetorical techniques to defend his case.
For example, the accusers had asserted that Apuleius had bought fishes for magical purposes. He firmly rejects the charge, and even makes fun of it by means of a reductio ad absurdum:
Ceterum eodem piscium argumento etiam Menelai socios putabis magos fuisse, quos ait poeta praecipuus flexis hamulis apud Pharum insulam famem propulsasse; etiam mergos et delfinos et scillam tu eodem referes, etiam gulones omnes, qui impendio a piscatoribus merguntur, etiam ipsos piscatores, qui omnium generum piscis arte adquirunt. (c.32)[i]
The first sentence draws some literary figures into the argument, suggesting that Menelaos' comrades must equally be considered magicians, since Homer pictures them as catching fish (Od. 4, 368-9).[ii] The preceding chapter of the speech, c.31, had already contained two Homeric quotations, and allusions to six episodes, five of them from the Odyssey.
Before the similar references to 'gourmands' and fishermen, comes a clause with three non-human examples: 'large diving sea birds'[iii], dolphins and one problematic word, spelled scillam in the most important MSS, FÞ.
Scilla is recorded as a general term for crustaceans; cf. OLD s.v. squilla.[iv] But this poses a curious problem, since the present sentence is manifestly about 'devourers of fish.' Some editors propose a correction to squalos, which is rather distant from the MSS and offers no serious solution, since the squalus appears to be some kind of fish itself. Lexica a.l. give the sort of explanations which send readers off empty-handed, such as the dreaded 'unidentified sea-fish' (OLD).
Instead, we may keep the text of FÞ much as it is, but interpret it as a name and print it with a capital (Scillam); this ingenious suggestion was made in 1954 by Cataudella.[v] In his view, the allusion is to the seabird ciris, into which Scylla, daughter of Nisus, was changed (cf. Ov. M. 8,81-151). The metonymia of a human name for an animal would be paralleled by examples like Procne and Filomela. Alternatively, the famous sea-monster Scylla may be meant, a suggestion merely touched upon by Cataudella.[vi]
Against both mythological Scyllas, objections were raised by the Italian ornithologist Capponi, in a short study from 1991.[vii] He argues that a mythological monster here would not correspond to the culture and experience of Apuleius. Secondly, the judicial setting of the speech would seem a bad context for such a reference. Finally, Capponi argues, Apuleius is always precise in his terminology for birds and fish, and the name of a third species would therefore seem most natural.
However, these arguments remain unconvincing. The first allegation is actually incomprehensible to any reader of the speech: Apuleius constantly displays his knowledge and erudition, in which mythology and literature occupy as important a place as biology and other sciences. This becomes manifest even in the immediate context, where a mythological example from Homer has just been given.[viii] In a modern courtroom, mythological exempla perhaps seem misplaced, but Apuleius clearly thought otherwise:[ix] he expected the judge and the crowd attending the trial to appreciate such allusions. Finally, Apuleius' zoological interests and accuracy in no way imply that another real animal must be mentioned here. The singular form, following the plural mergi and delfini, is rather suggestive of a shift to something else.
The first mythological Scylla proposed by Cataudella does not indeed seem a very likely option. Metonymical use of the name Scylla analogous to Procne and Filomela seems unparalleled. And sadly, as Cataudella admits, the ciris is no particularly great consumer of fish. More importantly, such an uncommon, learned allusion to a bird would probably go over the heads of the audience and hence be detrimental to the speaker's case.
There are, on the other hand, strong arguments in favour of the Homeric monster, which seem to have remained unnoticed up to now. First, we need not look for a specific bird at all, whether legendary or real. The change from birds (mergos) to marine animals (delfinos) already proves this. Apuleius mentions the sea-monster Scylla in Soc. 24 (178) along with some other highlights from the Odyssey, including Circae poculum.[x]
In the present passage, the ravenous monster seems well at its place in a short list of fish-devourers: the story was widely known and must have been familiar to Apuleius' audience. Scylla's incredible voraciousness makes her the perfect rhetorical climax here. In the Homeric passage on Scylla, she is even described as 'fishing for dolphins'; cf. Od. 12,95-6. The parallel seems significant, and may even explain Apuleius' order here.[xi] That he may have thought of the Homeric passage at all, rather than of any other text, seems more than likely if we consider the strongly Odyssean 'colour' of c.31-2 as a whole.
So, we must read scillam as Scyllam[xii] and interpret it as the sea-monster known from the Odyssey. This adds a further Homeric touch to the passage, and is rhetorically effective: Scylla as a magician seems quite absurd. Hence, terrifying as she is, she is bound to raise a laugh with all who attend the trial.[xiii]
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