Appropriate Transgressions: Parody and Decorum in Ancient Greece and Rome

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Peirano Garrison, Irene


Through the close analysis of Greek and Roman parodies and writings about parody, this dissertation seeks to defamiliarize the process by which readers identify one text (or genre, image, action, body, and so on) as a parody of another. Parody differs from other modes of adaptation in that it introduces an incongruity that was not present in the original. To read a text as parody, then, is to claim that the parodying text lacks the decorous integrity, the appropriate fitting-together as a whole, possessed by its model. At the same time, however, parodies are not simply failed, incongruous imitations. The very function of the word “parody” is to provide such texts with a justification in terms of decorum: parodies are texts for which it is appropriate to be inappropriate. This understanding of parody as an “appropriate transgression” presents an opportunity for investigating the often implicit norms of decorum by which Greek and Roman communities operated. Decorum—that which counts as appropriate, fitting, suitable—is after all not a matter of fact. Decorum is a normative construct: a concept that justifies beliefs about how texts ought to be composed and how people ought to behave, speak, and look. From inside a community, however, norms of decorum often seem so self-evident that they are rarely explicitly addressed. Parodic texts, through their double relationship to norms of appropriateness (transgressing against the decorum of their model while justifying themselves through some other logic of propriety) thus create a space to explore, and identify the limits of, decorum as a norm-giving principle. Chapter 1, “Lentil Soup and Cologne: Parōidia and Parody as Appropriate Transgression,” shows how the notion of parody as an “appropriate transgression” goes back to the ancient genre that gave modern parody its name: Classical Athenian parōidia. A close reading of a fragment of Hegemon of Thasos, the “inventor of parōidia” who bore the nickname “Lentil Soup” shows that the poet is actively trying to justify his work in terms of propriety even as he is purposefully applying Homeric style and language to bathetic subjects. Chapter 2, “The Elusive Decorum Manual: Appropriateness in Greek and Roman Thought,” introduces decorum as a crucial notion in ancient philosophy, literary criticism, and rhetoric. Despite the prominence of decorum in these discourses, close readings of Cicero’s Orator, On the Orator, and On Duties, of Book 11 of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, and of Plautus’ Asinaria, reveal that decorum is a flawed basis for normative thought, ripe for parodic exploitation. Decorum is seen as a centrally important virtue, yet impossible to talk about. It is understood as purely rational and self-evident, yet often reveals itself as socially constructed and subject to negotiation or adjudication. And decorum is regarded as unitary, but is in fact often a contradictory basis for behavior or utterance, in that individuals are often subject to multiple conflicting demands of propriety at once. The second half of the dissertation offers a few case studies of parodic texts which explore these tensions in decorum as a normative concept. Chapter 3, “The Cyclops and the Yacht: Reverse Parody in Catalepton 10 and Virgil’s Eclogue 2,” shows how two texts in the Virgilian corpus retroactively interpret their models, Catullus 4 and Theocritus’ Idyll 11, as parodies, as Fremdkörper within their authors’ oeuvres. Catelepton 10 and Eclogue 2 rewrite these source text in such a way that they are arguably better suited to the typical authorial styles of Catullus and Theocritus, and to the genres associated with these authors, than the poems written by Catullus and Theocritus themselves. In doing so, these “reverse parodies” raise the question of how readers form a sense of an author’s “proper” style, and how norms of genre decorum are shaped. Chapter 4, “Crimes Against Fate: Reading Crossdressing as Gender Parody in Statius’ Achilleid,” illustrates how the process of parodic reading can also clarify the workings of decorum beyond the literary-critical sphere, in the realm of ethics. Statius’ epic repeatedly stages scenes in which one character tries to persuade another that Achilles’ sojourn on the island of Scyros in the disguise of a girl was not a failure of masculinity, but an “appropriate transgression.” The shifting justifications for this act of crossdressing, depending on changing audiences and changing circumstances, show that decorum is an unstable basis for normative moral behavior. What counts as appropriate, after all, must constantly be renegotiated and re-adjudicated. The dissertation shows that parody, as a form of imitation deeply implicated in historically and contextually determined notions of decorum, is an unconventional but illuminating method of engaging with philosophical and literary-critical problems. As such, this project not only contributes to our understanding of ancient intellectual history and intertextuality in Greek and Roman literature, but it is of broad significance to scholars interested in the intersections between humor, literary adaptation, and normativity.

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