Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.24

Aldo Setaioli, Arbitri Nugae: Petronius' Short Poems in the Satyrica. Studien zur klassischen Philologie 165.   Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 2011.  Pp. vi, 433.  ISBN 9783631605837.  $101.95.  

Reviewed by Niall W. Slater, Emory University (

Table of Contents

The present volume collects together Setaioli's studies of all the verse in Petronius's Satyrica, excepting only Eumolpus's major poems, the Trojae halosis and the Bellum civile (with three additional specialized appendices). Most have previously appeared, primarily in Italian, but many have been updated or expanded for this long-planned publication in English. The extremely useful result is a volume no Petronian scholar will wish to be without.

Following a clear and forceful introduction on the function and power of the novel's inset verses, most chapters follow a fairly regular pattern: Setaioli's text with full apparatus criticus, more detailed textual commentary, and then a synthetic literary study of the poem in its context. Chapters usually treat a single poem or passage of verse, in the order of the preserved text, but some combine more than one. The reader researching particular verses will have no trouble finding the relevant analysis. The comprehensive notes (Setaioli seems to have read everything from the earliest commentators onward) are thoroughly cross-referenced as well. Space limitations allow comments on only some chapters.

Agamemnon's verses on the orator's education (Sat. 5) are the subject of a full and feisty first chapter. Setaioli revives Collignon's suggestion that Agamemnon's schedium Lucilianae humilitatis refers not to the verses he is about to recite but a lost verse passage from Encolpius. This is worth careful consideration, as Setaioli shows how little evidence there is of Lucilius in Agamemnon's lines. Do his verses, split between choliambics and hexameters, "undoubtedly form an organic whole" (21)? The debate is long-standing, and Setaioli offers much that is new (including a convincing but previously unnoticed reference to Quintilian). The effect for a silent reader or one hearing the text read may be a little more disruptive (and the parallel to Persius's choliambics followed by hexameters less far-fetched) than Setaioli wishes to allow. Setaioli always seeks to read the poems first on their own terms and then (very keenly) in context. He thus takes Agamemnon's educational program in verse seriously— something much easier to do the less the reader already knows about Agamemnon.

Sat. 14.2 seems to be the only verse spoken by Ascyltus in the novel. Setaioli also notes the colloquial tone of nulla (for non) "meant to bestow a tone of directness and closeness to reality"—perhaps then also a touch of characterization for Ascyltus?

Next come the hendecasyllables of 15.9 (the only poem preserved incomplete, says Setaioli) and Quartilla's couplets at 18.6. In the victoria parata of 15.9 Setaioli hears echoes of both Callimachus and Livy. His discussion of judicial metaphor and the rejection of Stoic ethics in the latter paints an already less than compromising Quartilla.

The two examples of Sotadaean verse (23.3; 132.8) are taken together. Setaioli endorses Bettini's view that these allude to Sotades' two types of poetry, cinaedic verse (the eunuch's "aria") and much more learned epic parody (Encolpius in his attempted self-castration). In the repeated ter ... ter of the latter Setaioli hears not so much Aeneas grasping for the ghosts of his wife or father (Aen. 2. 793-794 = 6. 700-701) as Dido trying but failing to rise from her bed (Aen. 4. 690-691). Even more intriguing is his suggestion that Encolpius's attempted attack on his own member followed by verbal abuse recalls the Iliad's opening quarrel of Achilles with Agamemnon.

Trimalchio's two epigrams (34.10 and 55.3) merit little as poetry but much for characterization and the overall narrative. Setaioli's very helpfully discusses the silver skeleton and the Roman larva as a spirit of the evil dead here. Trimalchio prepared his first epigram in advance as part of staging the dinner; the second, responding to the acrobat's fall, is a true improvisation, with unsurprising metrical defects.

Few scholars accept the verses on luxury, recited by Trimalchio and attributed by him to the mime writer Publilius Syrus (55.6), as genuine. They are Petronius's composition, but to what end? Does Trimalchio mistake an unknown (to us) writer for another, or does he attempt to pass off his own composition on luxury as the work of the famous Publilius (Setaioli's view), seeking his guests' approval, though not openly? This is certainly intriguing, although many will strain to see the Trimalchio who just failed at improvising an epigram (55.3) as the author of a line such as pietaticultrix gracilipes crotalistria (55.6.6).

Setaioli praises the hendecasyllables of 79.8 for their "conceptual and expressive originality," transforming an earlier tradition by introducing not just to the novelistic but the whole literary tradition the notion of lovers' mutual exchange of the soul through a kiss—a very important point. One thus misses here at least a nod to the development of the larger theme of mutuality in David Konstan's Sexual Symmetry.

The couplets on friendship and the theatricality of life at 80.9 have struck many as two separate poems (beginning with Pithou's second edition in 1587). Their lack of context adds to the challenge of interpretation, but Setaioli forcefully defends the unity of all eight verses and, while stopping short of calling them "programmatic" for the novel as a whole, does point to their "confirmation and acknowledgment" of the novel's "degradation of lofty literary models" and its "whole 'mimic' component."

In Eumolpus's first poem, a priamel (83.10), Setaioli traces not only the connection to Horace's first ode but also the poem's function as proem to the rest of Eumolpus's oeuvre. He suggests that Eumolpus composes no poetry in Croton because the "mime" they stage there is his poetic production throughout.

Tryphaena's hexameters appealing for peace on board Lichas's ship (108.14) present more than one puzzle, notable among them the presence of the verbum dicendi in the very first line, exclamat. This word cannot be part of what Tryphaena "actually" said; Setaioli agrees, while noting that such intermingling of narrative and direct speech is a feature of the later literary epic. He adds the very nice point that the prose narrative immediately after the verses resumes with three spondees, confusing the boundary between direct speech in poetry and narrative prose just as much as exclamat at the beginning. For Setaioli the numerous epic and historical allusions in and around these verses "contribute to making the reader almost ask himself whether he is not reading an epic poem." That "almost" acknowledges that, amidst many fascinating touches of parody, we have still not found the perfect reception frame to solve the problem of exclamat.

As with Agamemnon's verses in Sat. 5, Setaioli takes Eumolpus's elegiacs followed by hendecasyllables on baldness (109.9-10) as a single composition, with connections to scoptic poetry (and an ingenious explanation for Eumolpus's own generic term (elegidarion).

Setaioli accepts Beck's view that the Satyrica reflects both an experiencing ego narrator and an older Encolpius reflecting back on his experiences. The elegiacs of l28.16 could be either, but Setaioli suggests that these might reflect Encolpius's thoughts at the time, rather than an address to Circe, while their "blasphemous" hints at Jupiter's impotence help prepare for Encolpius's own coming affliction.

The poem at 127.9 comparing Encolpius's encounter with Circe to Jupiter and Juno in Book XIV of the Iliad is "structured as a simile in perfect epic style," but Setaioli hears echoes of cletic hymn, Theocritean pastoral, and even Archilochus as well. He also connects Circe's role as aggressor with Encolpius's imminent impotence.

Many consider the dream poem at 128.6 incomplete. Setaioli convincingly demonstrates how it functions with the preceding prose text to form an epic simile of a well-known Latin type, reversing the order found in Greek epic. His analysis of the simile type also offers a genuinely new contribution to the well-entrenched debate as to whether Petronius responds directly to Lucan: citing a storm simile in Eumolpus's Bellum civile with ac velut (Sat. 123. 229-237), he suggests that Petronius/ Eumolpus "corrects" Lucan's usage at 1. 498-509.

It is no surprise that Setaioli devotes one of his longest chapters to the much-debated verses addressed to " Catones" at 132.15, finding in them a "consistent and sophisticated literary manifesto" of Petronius's principles. Against Conte's view that these belong to the narrator Encolpius but not necessarily the "hidden author" Petronius, Setaioli insists that, in the absence of a framing device, the opus defended by these verses must belong as much to Petronius as to the narrator. Setaioli seeks to bolster his case through Roman reception, arguing that Martial's defense of simplicitas in the epistle to his readers follows and builds on Petronius's verses here. The allusion is quite plausible—though not a guarantee that Martial read Petronius aright. Sommariva has argued that verses placed so late cannot be programmatic for the whole novel; Setaioli regards this as her "most powerful argument" but counters that, if "the Satyrica was made known by installments," such verses could quite reasonably answer earlier audience response—a very important point for discussion of Petronius's original method of composition and the circulation of the Satyrica. While these points may not persuade all, they have certainly breathed new life into the debate.

The poems at 133.3 and 139.2 (Ch. XVIII) are crucial to discussion of the role of Priapus in the novel. The prayer to Priapus (133.3) is the only surviving verse certainly spoken aloud by Encolpius, while the second, another priamel, firmly situates him among other mythic heroes persecuted by gods. Setaioli's new insight here is to suggest that Encolpius sees his impotence at first as a fault to be confessed and only later as a punishment for other misdeeds.

Setaioli suggests Oenothea's self-advertisement in verse (134.12) has not received the attention it deserves, and his analysis certainly yields substantial rewards. His new suggestion of the influence of Dido's description of the Massylian sorceress (Aen. 4. 487-491) is very persuasive, as is the climactic pattern he finds in her claims. His discussion of the convergence between the sorceress's claimed miracles and the poetic figure of the adynaton is also enlightening.

Setaioli traces not just the contrast between the idealized verse picture of Oenothea's hut in 135.8 and the surrounding prose but the progression in each. He argues the iam of line 2 imagines a future in which, like the house of the Callimachean Hecale, Oenothea's miserable hovel has been transformed into a shrine. The result "aims to unmask the conventionalism and insincerity of so much of the so-called 'serious' literature" (316) of his time.

Through 136.6, following Encolpius's Herculean killing of the goose, Setaioli suggests we move from epyllion to epos. As with 128.6, he sees the verse as the parabole of a simile, completed by its prose context.

While two of three appendices focus on narrower points (Appendix I: the tuber at 109.10.4 is not a mushroom but a gourd; Appendix II: Oenethea's lost incantation while performing magic on Encolpius with spittle and mud at 131.4-6 has contemporary parallels), Appendix III will be of the widest interest. How could Petronius parody the Greek ideal romance when no direct evidence for the latter pre-dates Petronius? Setaioli forcefully seeks the proof in the parody, cataloguing examples both familiar and new. He has a very good eye for the deformation of romance story conventions. Quite appealing is his suggestion that the whole set-up of the Widow of Ephesus story parodies the motif of the heroine buried alive in the romance.

Forty-three pages of "Works Quoted" close the volume with a particularly welcome feature: each entry includes a listing of all the notes (by chapter and note number) citing that work, thus making it very easy to follow Setaioli's engagement with other scholars' views more generally and largely obviating the need for a more conventional index.

These studies then are an invaluable resource for understanding the range of Petronius's poetic gifts and their deployment within the novel. While we continue to wait for a full-scale modern commentary on the whole of Petronius, this volume regularly offers the fullest account of the shorter poems, in terms usually accessible even to advanced undergraduates. As such, it should be a most welcome addition to every serious classical library.

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