BMCR 1998.11.15

Petronius the Poet: Verse and Literary Tradition in the Satyricon

Catherine (Catherine Marie) Connors,

In Petronius the Poet Catherine Connors (hereafter C.) surveys the fictionalized role and representation of the poet in the Satyricon and analyzes thirty short and two long poems ( Troia Halosis, Bellum Civile) from the standpoint of current criticism in Latin literature. She also assesses the ways in which the Satyricon itself reflects, refracts, and then refashions a variety of earlier poetic forms and their cultural underpinnings in order to incorporate them anew into the literary landscape of Neronian prose fiction. While the book, which draws in part on the author’s University of Michigan doctoral thesis, is not without a number of shortcomings, it nevertheless presents a valuable, if sometimes discursive, overview of the relationship between verse compositions in the Satyricon and their surrounding narrative.

The book begins with a “prefatory note” (ix-x), in which C. offers some general comments about the Satyricon but which seems curiously out of place, preceding as it does the brief acknowledgements (xi) and the listing of abbreviations (xiii-xiv). In this prefatory material, the reader can only be amazed at the range of topics covered in such a limited space. For example, in scarcely more than a page C. acknowledges current scholarly preference for the (now commonly accepted) form Satyrica, discusses the distinction between the Bellum Civile ( Sat. 119-24) and Lucan’s Pharsalia, outlines the controversy about the author’s name, and adds information about the text of the poems and their authenticity. In view of C.’s comprehensive treatment of her approach to the material and to its generic affinities found in the Introduction, the unconnected snippets of information in these “notes” ought better to have found a home there, either in the text proper or in its footnotes. Indeed, nowhere is it made clear why these “notes” exist at all.

Happily, C. is on much firmer ground in the Introduction, moving intially from considerations of “the looseness of the generic boundaries of ancient prose fiction” and the inherent similarity of text and visual representation (1-4) through a measured exposition of her own analytical methods (4-6). As C. points out, modern commentary on Petronian verse in the Satyricon has generally considered individual poems as elements disruptive to the prose narrative; and she sets out to demonstrate that the poems and prose together work together to function “as rival structures of representation within the novel itself.” (2) Such a conjoining of modes of literary expression within a single work, moreover, serves to heighten the sense of pleasure derived by readers in experiencing overt literary artifice in much the same way that they would a theatrical production or painting. Thus C. does not intend to treat the novel comprehensively but proposes only to consider four aspects of Petronius’s role as a poet: his use of epic parody in the work as a whole, the incorporation of short poems of a less elevated nature into the prose narrative, and the poetic and cultural significance both of the Troiae Halosis and of the Bellum Civile.

The remainder of the Introduction (6-19) comprises C.’s extended account of Petronian criticism with regard to verse and genre. While this is not new territory, to be sure, it does provide C. the opportunity to discuss how verse in the Satyricon may serve as an indicator of the moralizing tendencies of its author. However, after several pages of analysis of the ways in which the verse selections have been used (and misused) by both subsequent authors and anthologizers, including her observation that “what is ironic and humorous in the Satyricon becomes a tame commonplace when isolated in an anthology” (9), C. makes no definitive pronouncement about the question and proceeds to consider the Satyricon’s generic affinities to other literary works. In the case of the mime, for example, C. cites Sat. 80.9.5-8 as evidence that the impulse to portray “real-life” situations is part of the novel’s “self-conscious awareness of its own fictionality” (13). She also makes a solid case that affinities of the work to the Menippean satire of Seneca, Varro, and others are superficial at best. Similarities of the Satyricon to Greek prosimetric fiction, however, are closer in that from the scanty evidence of the latter (especially the Tinouphis fragment) it is clear that a mixture of prose and verse are used to relate different aspects of the same incident. (18) C.’s eventual conclusion is simply that for the work of Roman authors in general, and for the fragmented text of Petronius especially, a certain flexibility of genre was natural and that this fact alone serves as the best reason for examining closely the verse included in the Satyricon.

Chapter One, “Refashioning the epic past,” concentrates on the ways in which Petronius knowingly fragments epic and reforms the pieces into a narrative to parodic purposes. In this sense the chapter concentrates less on verse than on the author’s technique in effecting this re-incorporation. C. introduces the overall concept at the outset by carefully dissecting Trimalchio’s faulty account of the origins of Corinthian bronze ( Sat. 50.5-6) with its Vergilian allusions (e.g., the play on the proper name Aeneas and the adjective aeneus) and suggests that Petronius’s use of the motif functions “as a metaphor for the Satyricon’s parodic reformulation of epic as fiction.” (21)

Individual treatments of specific episodes follow, each of which discusses an aspect of the relationship between parody and epic. In the first case, C. uses the oft-discussed theme of the wrath of Priapus to exemplify the “contamination of epic” (24) achieved by mixing it with material of a less exalted literary (and cultural) status. Presenting familiar evidence to link the theme to the epic wanderings of Aeneas and Odysseus, she also suggests that the role of the pastry figure of Priapus at Trimalchio’s cena ( Sat. 60.4) represents an idea of epic refashioning identical to Trimalchio’s Corinthian bronze. (30) Other refashioned epic figures and incidents underscore the argument: Vergil’s Sibyl, embodied as Quartilla and as one element in Trimalchio’s autobiography (48.8); Homer’s Circe and Encolpius’s unsatisfied lover of the same name in the episode at Croton; Oenothea, evoking both Ovidian epic ( Met. 8.611-724) and the Callimachean Hecale [2]; and Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops and his recognition by Eurycleia refashioned into a trio of novelistic adaptations. The chapter closes with C.’s deft (though somewhat tentative) analysis of avian imagery in a Petronian poem from the Latin Anthology (fr. 45 M) as representative of a literary program of refashioning and novelistic reinterpretation of epic material. Although the chapter covers much ground already familiar to students of Petronius and while C.’s efforts to draw conclusions about the role of literary parallels in novelistic reworkings of earlier poetic material at times seem strained , the whole is nonetheless of value as an introduction to the overall tensions between epic poetry and parodic prose fiction.

Chapter Two, “In the frame: context and continuity in the short poems,” continues the investigation of the position and function of verse in the general structure of prose fiction but rebuts previous interpretations by demonstrating that “what is figurative within [the poems] is made literal in prose.” (51) The chapter falls into four parts, each of which treats a particular aspect of the role of the poems. C.’s methodology is straightforward: an analysis of the verse as poetic expression and a subsequent expansion upon thematic elements as expressed in the framing prose. The performed poems of Trimalchio are considered first, and C. regards the “punning manipulation of figurative language” as transcendent of their role in displaying Trimalchio’s pretenses to literary accomplishment. (51) Thus, the moralizing epigram about the shortness of life and the necessity of enjoying its pleasures before death ( auferet Orcus) (34.10, l.2) melds into the prose narrative’s description of the ferculum with a pun on the root fer. Yet simple interplay between verse and prose is also accompanied by much more complex verbal, literary, and cultural correspondences as in the intricate web of references suggested by the mention of the “Silphium Man Mime” ( Laserpicarius) at 35.6. Here, by drawing on evidence from such writers as Plautus, Pliny, and Columella, C. suggests close links between textual expression and the cultural and social realities of the ancient silphium trade. Indeed, C.’s treatment of other literary efforts by Trimalchio delves deep into contemporary Roman attitudes and behaviors to show that “Trimalchio controls the relation between his poetic performances and his life, lived, as everyone’s is, in prose.” (61)

An examination of the minor verse of Eumolpus forms the second section of Chapter Two. Like Trimalchio, Eumolpus establishes connections between poetry and framing prose. According to C. one important aspect of Eumolpus’s versification is that the fictive poet readily collapses “distinctions between what is metaphorical and what is real” and attempts to present himself as a “literary work come to life.” (63-64)

To Encolpius’s thirteen poems C. devotes considerable attention and space. Unlike Trimalchio and Eumolpus, as narrator Encolpius controls the prose frame of his own verses more completely than do the others, and his poems are not performed for the other characters but as a self-reflective commentary on his own actions. (68) Here C.’s analysis is thorough and orderly; and, while there is little particularly novel in her overall treatment, she does touch on all of the important imagistic elements in each of Encolpius’s poems. This part of the chapter, then, becomes quite useful as a concise overview of how the narrator presents himself in a variety of situations. Especially worthwhile is the discussion of the elegiac verses contrasting Cato and Epicurus (132.15) that serve both as a defense of Encolpius’s candor and as Petronius’s own (parodic) justification for his observations about the human condition within a prose framework that allows him to function as fortuna itself in imposing his control over events and characters in the work. (72-75)

The chapter concludes with a further analysis of the theme of fortuna and suggests that the Satyricon participates “in a discourse which opposes chance and design.” (76) The focal point is the Lichas episode in which the account of the shipwreck serves as a metaphor for the uncertainties of life. Vergilian echoes figure prominently here, as does Petronian parody of Senecan moralizing. Both the lines spoken by Tryphaena (108.14) in epic parody and certain moralizing selections from the Latin Anthology come under scrutiny; and by examining historical accounts of Neronian Rome, C. makes the case that in the real world “the emperor and others mask dangerous designs with fictions of chance.” (83)

Chapter Three, “Troy retaken: repetition and re-enactment in the Troiae Halosis,” establishes the faulty perceptions of Encolpius and Eumolpus about the traditional myths represented in the picture gallery (83.4-5) as a basis for an analysis of the ways that they “reveal their preoccupations and concerns when they put art into words.” (84) Eumolpus’s lengthy poem on the fall of Troy, moreover, exposes broader thematic connections to the contemporary Neronian perspective of Rome’s own relationship to the Trojan past. C. divides her discussion of the poem into two parts, the first of which demonstrates that, despite differences in meter and content, Eumolpus’s composition is derived from Vergilian origins while maintaining (as in his other compositions) a clear congruence of the metaphorical and the actual. The second part of the chapter initially concentrates on the ways that Eumolpus’s lack of literary control over the material and Petronius’s acknowledgement of the failure of contemporary literary efforts to equal earlier models are revealed in the Troiae Halosis. More important, however, is C.’s extended discussion of the integral role played by claims of Trojan ancestry for the Julio-Claudians and especially for Nero. As a result, any imperfect depictions of the Troy legend by Petronius (or Lucan) appear to be “just as interested in asserting the futility or absurdity of such attempts.” (96)

Chapter Four, “The Bellum Civile,” is the book’s longest chapter, ranging widely over a broad spectrum of literary, cultural, and historical realities. C. considers the poem on three levels of narrative: as history and epic, as the product of Eumolpus’s poetic programme, and as framed by Encolpius in his novelistic narrative. Citing Bakhtin’s differentiation between epic and novel, she contends that the Bellum Civile is adversely affected by the novelistic tendency toward continuation and conclusion and yet serves to reproduce the contemporary world of Petronius in an “idiom of epic distance” to be contrasted with Encolpius’s portrayal of that same world via the novel’s “idiom of proximity.” (105) The satiric tendencies of the poem, moreover, criticize Rome’s imperial vision but also emphasize the role of discord in that system, an observation that comports well with similar tendencies evident from the novelistic frame. Related is the implicit idea of decadence, and in an extended discussion of the poem (109-114) the motif of consumption is in turn linked directly back to similar themes evident in Trimalchio’s dinner. Treatments of the presence of divine machinery in epic recounting of events, of the correspondences between poetry and the representation of travel within the framework of the epic (and its parodic representation in the novel’s prose frame), of the conceptual affinities between the poem’s descriptions of geographical boundaries and generic boundaries, and, lastly, of the place of the Satyricon as a compendium of literary information similar to the contemporary encyclopedia of Pliny enable C. to extend the reach of her investigation to encompass literary, cultural, and historic territories as yet unexplored and as yet unincorporated into studies of the Satyricon. A brief epilogue touches on C.’s approach to the poetry in the Satyricon and reiterates the importance of the work for understanding the contemporary world in which it was produced.

While the book as a whole is well organized and for the most part well written, several weaknesses detract from its overall success. Most prominent is the absence of any substantial discussion of the very first poem in the Satyricon (14.2-3) from the episode of the stolen cloak ( Sat. 12-15). Although C. has clearly stated that she does not “aim to produce a comprehensive treatment of the novel,” the reader can only wonder why she chose not to discuss this episode at all. If nothing else, one would expect that since the episode is briefly mentioned (3), an explanation for its omission from the general discussion would be warranted even if it did not fit into the overall plan of the book. Another, though less substantial, weakness is that C. occasionally wanders rather far afield in making associations to support her contentions. For example, the discussion of Encolpius’s moralizing on the seashore over the body of Lichas (77-78) touches on the Senecan Consolatio ad Marciam and Consolatio ad Polybium and their imagery of calculation ( si bene computes); but C.’s attempt to link this verbal echo to a concept of accurate reckoning voiced by Encolpius ( si bene calculum ponas) and thence to the image of the shoreline pebbles is less convincing than her other (and better formulated) analyses. In addition, problems of diction occasionally distract the reader. Nevertheless, Petronius the Poet has much to offer the general reader and the specialist both in interpreting the function of individual poems within specific narrative frameworks in the Satyricon and in surveying the larger theme of literary refashioning throughout the work as a whole.

This review follows C.’s use of Satyricon throughout. For example, C.’s suggestions about the words of the Sibyl which “hang” in the bottle (35) are difficult to reconcile with her otherwise relatively sensible account. The correspondence between the content of the verses and the framing narrative is so closely linked so as to unite the entire episode into a parodic treatment of the Cynic philosophy and lifestyle. For further information on this relationship see my “A Petronian Parody at Sat. 14.2-14.3,” Mnemosyne 50.1 (1997), 77-81. For example, on page 72 we read: “The stream too has undercurrents suggesting trouble for these lovers.”