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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.52

Gareth Schmeling, A Commentary on The Satyrica of Petronius.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xlix, 681.  ISBN 9780199567713.  $185.00.  

Contributors: With the collaboration of Aldo Setaioli.

Reviewed by Gottskálk Jensson, University of Iceland (

A commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius and a new text edition, including of the fragmentary remnants of this ancient novel, have long been needed. The present volume is the first complete textual commentary in English. Although perhaps not much compared to the multi-volume Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius, it includes 730 notable pages. The least damaged third part of the text, the Cena Trimalchionis (26.7-78), which has been treated in commentaries (Friedländer, Marmorale, Maiuri, Sedgwick, Perrochat, and Smith), receives the most detailed commentary, but the importance of this publication lies primarily in covering the other two thirds of Petronius' fragments, Ch. 1-26.6 (pp. 1-81) and Ch. 79-141 (pp. 329-549). For Ch. 79-110 the authors acknowledge a debt to the new German commentary of Peter Habermehl.1

The writing began over two decades ago as the collaborative effort of J. P. Sullivan and Gareth Schmeling, longtime editor of the bibliographical The Petronian Society Newsletter. Sullivan had been working on a similar project in the sixties with his student K. F. C. Rose, who died at the age of 29.2 In 1993, soon after Schmeling joined the effort, Sullivan himself died, and the work was again interrupted, until Aldo Setaioli agreed to take over Sullivan's work on the verse. Simultaneously with the current volume Setaioli has republished his earlier studies on the short poems in Petronius.3

The Introduction is divided into alphabetic sections, starting with a discussion of the author and date (A), along the lines suggested by Rose in his 1962 B.Litt (not D.Phil.) thesis, supervised by Sullivan and later edited by him for posthumous publication (The Date and Author of the Satyricon [Leiden 1971]). There is a new awareness here that the problem might not just be whether the Neronian consular Petronius, whose suicide is memorably described by Tacitus Ann. 16.17-20 (Schmeling and Setaioli speak of Petronius' "attractive style of dying", xvii), is the author, but the very historicity of Tacitus' description, which is characterized by the historian's predilection for antithesis. Besides, the context of the Satyrica may strongly color our reading of it.

A brief summary follows on the testimonia and manuscripts (B), listing the witnesses without going into detail; then two welcome sections (C, D) on the important but necessarily speculative reconstruction of the story told in this badly damaged text. It pleased the reviewer to see that the reconstruction offered is largely along the lines he himself proposed in 2004, the main difference being the addition of an ending in Lampsacus, which, along with the emphasis placed on the role of Priapus in Massalia, makes the Satyrica a sort of Priapic epic. After a section on the language and style of Petronius (E), there is a relatively long section on the question of genre (F).

Schmeling and Setaioli take a one-sided modernist stance, following Sullivan, who followed Martin Rosenblüth's Beiträge zur Quellenkunde von Petrons Satiren (Berlin, 1909), who imagined the genre of the Satyrica to be "synthetic", a cocktail of various ancient genres; and they subscribe to a definition of the modern novel, proposed in 1927 by the novelist E. M Forster, peppering their commentary with references to (largely US and British) novelists. They do not seem to differentiate between genre and intertextuality, since allusions to other ancient works are treated as "constituent parts, or ingredients, or influences (or parodies)"; accordingly, "once the ingredients have been identified, then the critic needs to discover only the correct recipe, or in literary terms, the correct synthesis" (p. xxxii).

The historical school is poorly represented in this commentary. In 1892 Karl Bürger argued that the Satyrica and its sister novel, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, belong to an established Greek genre, Milesian fiction (fabula Milesia), named after the first-century B.C. Μιλησιακά of Aristides, which was adapted into Latin by Sisenna.4 This was a first-person road novel with a number of subordinate comic/erotic tales that had supposedly been picked up by the main narrator (Aristides) traveling to, from or through the city of Miletus in Asia Minor, and were then related by him to the reader, from recollection and for the purpose of entertainment. This narrative structure is identical to that of the Satyrica and the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, a Greek text adapted into Latin and unambiguously assigned to this genre with the adjective Milesius (1.1; 100.16-19). "The generic affiliation of the Satyrica to Milesian Tales goes a long way to accounting for both the subject matter and the tone of those episodes which are often taken for parodies of the idealistic novel".5 While some Milesian fictions were prosimetric like the Satyrica, others clearly were not.6 Bürger's essential article is absent from the otherwise copious Bibliography (551-594). Another conspicuous absence (perhaps because it appeared too late) is Stefan Tilg's Chariton of Aphrodisias and the Invention of the Greek Love Novel (Oxford 2010), which presents a well-argued hypothesis on the rise of the Greek Love Novel as further development of Milesian Fiction, with obvious relevance for the Satyrica.

In section H of the Introduction, the relationship of the Satyrica to epic is discussed, and finally there is a brief note on bibliographies (I). However, the introduction does not end here but with a section headed Lector intende (J), where Schmeling and Setaioli announce their differences of character and attitude towards the text: Setaioli is a "conservative textual critic", while Schmeling "relies on the critical judgement and vigilance of editors"; moreover, "Setaioli is more likely to take the text literally, Schmeling more likely metaphorically, because he holds E[ncolpius] the narrator as absolutely unreliable" (xlix). It may worry the reader that these are polar opposite positions towards the text and its interpretation. At best they might result in a balanced commentary, covering the whole spectrum of textual and interpretive possibilities, at worst in a schizophrenic one. Most of the text does present its first person plural in unison; only occasionally do the authors spell out their disagreements (cf. xxxv- xxxvi, 13, 16-17, 31, 42, 343, 482, 488). The fact that Setaioli is described on the title page as only a collaborator seems to contradict the authorial plurality in the main text.

A further point made in this section regards the Latin text underlying the commentary: there is none. A list of variants from Müller's 2003 edition would at least have been helpful. The reader learns that "Schmeling is producing a critical Latin text (perhaps for the OCT series and thus a companion to this volume) almost contemporaneously with this commentary, the first reading listed in the lemma in this commentary is likely [sic] to be the reading found in his critical Latin edition" (xlviii; cf. vii).

Interspersed among the lemmatized main body of the running commentary are occasional short introductory essays on a few chapters at a time. Some subsections are provided with headings that may strike the reader as superfluous (e.g. "42. 1-7 Seleucus' speech has a negative tone). Rarely one finds brief "examinations" or "interludes" on specific subjects, such as on terms of abuse (29-30) or the analysis of the speech of Hermeros (233-235), but there are no appendices with critical essays, as e.g. in Smith's 1975 commentary on the Cena Trimalchionis. No space is wasted on basic grammatical analysis or references to Latin grammars (apart from specialized studies on lower class sociolects and the language of the Satyrica). Greek phrases, e.g. 28.3 iatraliptae or 59.1 scordalias, and exceptionally strange Latin instances, as in the speeches of the freedmen, are at times translated at the beginning of the discussion, but most often the lemma is not given an English rendering. The commentary provides a wealth of textual parallels, both from elsewhere in the text and relevant comparanda in other ancient texts, listed in systematic manner in the 60-page Index locorum at the end.

There is much knowledge on the Satyrica for the expert gathered together in this commentary, and the enormous erudition of the authors is displayed everywhere by their admirable control of the vast scholarship on the text. On the whole the discussion and views of other scholars are represented fairly and accurately, but there are exceptions to this, which at times have to do with the uncertain textual basis on which the commentary rests. My own points of disagreement are marked by the authors at several places in the text, however, not always correctly. On page 18 it is stated that "Jensson (2002), 115, reads the S. as a parody of the Greek novel". I do not. On the same occasion, I am judged to be mistaken when I conclude that "an educational programme like this one [Agamemnon's, ch. 5] never existed anywhere in Graeco-Roman antiquity". The authors are of course allowed to disagree, but it would have been relevant to mention that my conclusion is based on the transmitted text, while they work from an editorial conjecture. The absurdity of Agamemnon's programme is, in my view, that it refers to Greek boys (from Athens and the Greek colonies of Tarentum and Naples) who experience the switch of language from Greek to Latin as "relief of the burden of Greek sound", 5. vv. 15-16, modo Graio / exonerata sono. Schmeling's text has Müller's modo Graio / vox operata sono.

Dismissive of my contribution to the problem of Greek origins, the authors write on page xxxi, "[t]he current rises even higher when Jensson (2004) 329 discovers ... from no real evidence beyond 'natural reason'" that the Satyrica is a remake of a lost Greek text" (xxxi; – 'natural reason' is a term from Peter Parson's 1971 publication of the Greek Iolaos novel fragment). The reference is to the abstract at the end of my book, where no evidence is presented. In the main text, however, I point to the Greek title, the predominantly Greek characters, the Massaliot identity of the narrator and protagonist, who is an "exile" (81.3, exul) on Roman territory (his origins in Greek Massalia go a long way to explain the scribentis intentio of the Satyrica); further, to the setting on a Greek ship en route to Tarentum and in three other ancient Greek colonies of the West (Massalia [fragment 1 and 4], Naples [81.3 Graeca urbs],7 and Croton), showing that the interest of the author is in the Greek diaspora; additionally, to the prosimetric low-life novels attested in Greek literature from the early first century B.C. (the Μιλησιακά of Aristides), and the early to mid second-century papyri (Iolaos and Tinouphis fragments); moreover, to the text of the Satyrica, which apart from being "replete with Greek words and expressions" (xxviii) - much more so than e.g. the graffiti of Pompeii - bears marks of being adapted from a Greek source (to the extent that they haven't been removed in modern editions); and, to the literary-historical fact that the Romans systematically created their own literature by rewriting Greek texts (e.g. Sisenna and Apuleius).

Finally, I have found a few errors of fact in the text, along with typos and missing punctuation. In discussing the transmitted title, Satyricon (sc. libri), Schmeling and Setaioli reproduce a persistent error in calling it a linguistic "hybrid", partly derived from the Roman term satura (xvii). The title is "a genitive plural of a Greek title [Σατυρικῶν] with libri understood, as in Virgil's Georgicon, Lucan's Iliacon, Manilius' Astronomicon" (Rose 1971, 1), and if we prefer the nominative only, Σατυρικά, transliterated Satyrica, the title is simply Greek. On p. xxiv, ante cryptam, 16.3, "before the crypta", is translated "in a crypta"; the crypta in question is probably the crypta Neapolitana of fr. 16. The shrine of Priapus is the sacellum (17. 8 in sacello Priapi). The mistake is not corrected ad locum, 47. A word is repeated on p. 56 ("here"), a quotation from CGL v. 654. 7 is muddled twice (62, 69); there are typos on p. 65 (KGL for GLK) and 75 (infomration); and occasional missing punctuation (e.g. 66 line 7, 491 line 9).


1.   Petronius, Satyrica 79-141. Ein philologisch-literarischer Kommentar vol. 1: Sat. 79-110 (Berlin; New York 2006).
2.   In memoriam for K. F. C. Rose, a University of Texas, Austin, memorial.
3.   A. Setaioli, Arbitri Nugae: Petronius' Short Poems in the Satyrica (Frankfurt am Main 2011).
4.   "Der antike Roman vor Petronius", Hermes 27, 345-458.
5.   J. R. Morgan, "Petronius and Greek Literature", in J. Prag and I. Repath, Petronius: A Handbook (Malden, Mass.; Oxford 2009), 46.
6.   Bürger's hypothesis is restated and supplemented in G. Jensson, The Recollections of Encolpius: A Reading of the Satyrica as Greco-Roman Erotic Fiction (1997 University of Toronto Ph.D. dissertation); and S. J. Harrison, "The Milesian Tales and the Roman Novel", GCN 9 (1998): 61- 73. In G. Jensson, The Recollections of Encolpius (Groningen 2004), 263-5, it is argued that the main testimony on Aristides' work, the Lucianic Erotes, reproduces the narrative structure of the original Milesiaca, which was most likely prosimetric; cf. Regine May, "An Ass from Oxyrhynchus: P.Oxy. LXX.4762, Loukios of Patrae and the Milesian Tales", Ancient Narrative 8 (2009), 1-26 [not in the Bibliography].
7.   On Greek in Naples, M. Leiwo, Neopolitana. A study of Population and Language in Graeco-Roman Naples (Helsinki 1994); on Greek in Massalia, M. Clerc, Massalia, histoire de Marseille dans l’antiquité (Marseille 1971), 458-564.

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