This essay examines three Catullan references to Isiac divinities in the light of controversies over the restoration of Ptolemy XII Auletes to the Egyptian throne and popular struggles to establish sanctuaries of those deities on the Capitoline. It argues for connections between a mention of an eight-bearer litter in c. 10 and the lectica octaphoros belonging to the king, and between an allusion to a shrine of Serapis in the same poem and current religious disturbances. In c. 74, an obscene joke about the child god Harpocrates is linked to conspiracy allegations at the trial
of M. Caelius Rufus, but a comparable mention of that deity in c. 102 remains obscure. Catullus’ presentation of his translation of Callimachus’ “Lock of Berenice” as a gift to Q. Hortensius Hortalus might also be tangentially related to the Egyptian Question; certainly the project could have supplied him with a deeper background in Ptolemaic cosmological and religious ideology. Discussion of these references assumes that topical events would be at the forefront of Roman readers’ minds. The essay concludes, however, with speculations on whether the poet’s Bithynian sojourn might have exposed him to alternative perspectives on Isiac cults.
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