An update on the Late Latin, “Cattus/Gattus.”

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An update on the Late Latin, “Cattus/Gattus.” 

As you may recall, I mentioned that Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis–March 1, 40 CE-ca. 102/104 CE), the original Insult Comic, according to Wikipedia (and I think it’s a good call), is credited with the first use of a form of the word “cattus” around 75 CE. I finally tracked it down. It is from his Epigram 13.69, and also, surprisingly, from the Jerome & Company Vulgate translation of the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures completed under Ptolemy II in Alexandria) text of Baruch 6:21 (in Catholic Bibles). Chapter 6 is known as the Letter of Jeremiah in Orthodox Christian Bibles and is printed separately. There is no surviving manuscript evidence that either has a Hebrew antecedent; however, some scholars theorize that the differences between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic Text stem from the use of different Hebrew source-texts. Some passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to indicate that there were variant Hebrew texts in existence.

Cattus in Martial

Martial’s Epigram 13.69 reads as follows:


Pannonicas nobis numquam dedit Vmbria cattas:
mavult haec domino mittere dona Pudens.

Umbria has never supplied us with Pannonian [Cattae]:
these are the gifts Pudens prefers to send to his lord.

Apparently Martial was ticked off that his friend the Centurion Aulus Pudens (from Umbria) never sent him any Pannonian Cattae, but rather sent these directly to the Emperor.

(In some manuscripts, cattae and cattas are transmitted as caltae and caltas.)

Now “here’s the rub.” No classical scholar knows what catta was in 75 CE! There are theories that it is an unknown species of bird. The fundamental Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short defines it as that. In 1931 John Phelps argued for that theory based on his reading of the 4th Century Latin Vulgate’s translation of Baruch 6:21.

Cattus in Baruch

Let’s look at the Latin Vulgate (=people’s) translation from the late 4th Century CE. The Greek of the Septuagint, followed by the Latin, and then English is

ἐπὶ τὸ σῶμα αὐτῶν καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῶν ἐφίπτανται νυκτερίδες, χελιδόνες καὶ τὰ ὄρνεα, ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ οἱ αἴλουροι.

Supra corpus eorum et supra caput eorum volant noctuæ, et hirundines, et aves etiam similiter et cattæ.

Owls, and swallows, and other birds fly upon their bodies, and upon their heads, and cats in like manner.

The only problem with Phelps’ theory is that the Greek αἴλουροι really means “Domestic Cats.” There was even a Non-Chalcedonian Pope of Alexandria in the 5th century known as Timothy Aelurus (Αἴλουρος), Timothy the Cat.

In the absence of an original Hebrew text to compare the Septuagint version with, we are hard pressed to come to any other conclusion. Cattus/Catta seems to mean “cat.”

If anyone out there knows if Pannonia was known for its cats, please comment!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant