Martial’s Dexiocholus

The word dexiocholus, ‘lame in the right leg’, though securely attested in Martial 12.59.9, is not to be found in either the Oxford Latin Dictionary or Liddell-Scott-Jones: no doubt each editorial team thought it could safely be left to the other. (I have not checked Housman’s list of “Greek words used by Martial and, so far as can be learnt from the dictionaries, by no other Roman author” [Classical Papers 1167] to see whether they are in OLD, or LSJ, or both, or neither.)

Martial lists the dexiocholus among the people one would not wish to kiss:

Tantum dat tibi Roma basiorum
post annos modo quindecim reverso
quantum Lesbia non dedit Catullo.
te vicinia tota, te pilosus
hircoso premit osculo colonus;
hinc instat tibi textor, inde fullo,
hinc sutor modo pelle basiata,
hinc menti dominus periculosi,
†hinc† dexiocholus, inde lippus
fellatorque recensque cunnilingus.
iam tanti tibi non fuit redire.

9 hinc ] istinc uel hinc et Lindsay

One of my uncles has a wooden right leg, and such an inoffensive debility has always seemed out of place in this list of the diseased, the perverted, and the practitioners of filthy professions, particularly when limited to the right side only. As Housman put it in his usual pithy way (CP 993):

Neither leg, so far as I have noticed, is much used in kissing; and it therefore does not appear how lameness can lend horror to a kiss, nor what difference it makes if the lame leg happens to be the right one.

Seven years later (CP 1105) he answered his own question:

Men lame of the right leg were to be dreaded because it was unlucky to meet them. Lucian pseudol. 17 hemeîs dè kaì toùs kholoùs tôi dexiôi ektrepómetha, kaì málista ei héothen ídoimen autoús, Pliny n. h. xxviii 35 ‘despuimus comitiales morbos . . . simili modo et fascinationes repercutimus dextraeque clauditatis occursum’.

It’s odd that Housman does not say why a dexiocholus would be unlucky. The prejudice was hardly arbitrary or inexplicable. We all know that the Romans made a point of entering rooms and setting out on journeys dextro pede, ‘right foot first’ (cf. e.g. Petronius 30.6, Juvenal 10.5, Vitruvius iii.3). A dexiocholus would tend to drag his right leg behind him, and would therefore enter every room and begin every journey or enterprise left foot first. That would suffice to make him hated by the gods, permanently unlucky, and well worth avoiding. I suppose there is also some idea that his bad luck would ‘rub off’ on anyone he embraced. (For a while, I wondered whether a man whose left leg was lame might be particularly popular, but I don’t suppose the man who can’t help doing things dextro pede has much advantage in fortuna and felicitas over those who are careful to do so on every occasion.)

As for the missing syllable just before, I wonder whether Martial wrote hinc stat dexiocholus, inde lippus. Does Latin use compound for simplex? That is, can stat mean instat when instat precedes, or is that a Greek practice? (Time to ransack the unabridged grammars! I have a paper on compound and simplex somewhere in my files, but they are not as well-organized as they might be.) Or might there be a tiny joke in the lame man just standing there expecting a kiss while the others press forward? Perhaps not, since the same verb would apply to the last three horrors. And stat does not seem particularly likely to drop out in this context. So the textual problem may be more recalcitrant than the exegesis.

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