BMCR 2006.01.33

The Recollections of Encolpius: The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 2

, , The Recollections of Encolpius : the Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction.. Ancient Narrative Supplementum ; v. 2. Groningen: Barkhuis, 2004. 1 online resource (344 pages).. ISBN 9789491431371 €65.00.

Gottskálk Jensson’s ‘The Recollections of Encolpius’ is a substantially revised version of his 1996 dissertation, incorporating ideas subsequently developed in two unpublished papers and a published article.1 The modestly stated aim of Jensson’s book is “to interpret the Satyrica in accordance with its original design as an extended fictional narrative, in defiance of the severe limitations imposed by the fragmented state of the extant text” (p. 3). Yet while this may sound like little more than the purpose of virtually every major study of the Satyrica, in fact Jensson is also arguing ‘in defiance’ of a whole raft of assumptions prevalent in Petronian scholarship since the nineteenth century, making this book a significant contribution to the field, with important correctives to the work of others and some genuinely groundbreaking conclusions.

The book is divided into three main parts. Part One, entitled ‘Narrative’ (pp. 3-83), analyses the act of narrating the Satyrica. Its first, introductory section (‘Text, Context and Identity’) argues the need for a new edition of the Satyrica based on a principle of ‘editorial conservatism’; summarises three trends (termed ‘historicist’, ‘formalist’ and ‘the study of national literatures’) which have dominated interpretations of the Satyrica for the last century; and rejects “the allegorical hermeneutics of the historico-biographical reading” (p. 21) wherein Encolpius is taken for the author Petronius, rather than as a separate character whose voice and name organise the text. A second section (‘The Desultory Voice of Encolpius’) demonstrates that the narrative structure of the Satyrica conforms to the ancient rhetorical category of narratio in personis, with a narrator impersonating either his younger self or others; argues that the Satyrica is performance literature, but not a drama; suggests that in the world of the Satyrica, all discourse apart from urbane conversation is treated as suspicious, mad or inhuman; reconstructs the text’s ideal second person addressee as a morally superior, literate Roman; and finally places the Satyrica in the tradition of Odysseus’ Phaeacian tale, i.e. “a travelogue and narrative of erotic intrigues told by an unreliable but entertaining vagabond” (p. 83).

Part Two, entitled ‘Story’ (pp. 87-187), attempts to reconstruct the plot of the Satyrica and ‘map out’ Encolpius’ travels, based on the evidence of the preserved text and some of the smaller fragments. Its first section (‘Sorting the Fragments’) suggests that the Satyrica is not a parody of Greek romance, but “an erotic fictional narrative with a structure and plot organization comparable to those of the fully extant works”; infers from two fragments that Encolpius’ journey begins when he is exiled as a ritual scapegoat from his native Massalia; accordingly rejects reading the ‘wrath of Priapus’ ( Sat. 139.2) as an overarching theme in the text; traces the different landing points in Encolpius’ travels; and rather brilliantly reconstructs the sequence of events in the Quartilla episode(s), showing that the fragments are in their proper order in the text. The second section (‘Retrospective Soliloquies and Dialogues’) uses back-references in the text to reconstruct (at times rather speculatively) missing episodes in which Encolpius escapes trial for theft, joins a chain gang (where he meets Ascyltos), is saved from the gladiatorial arena by a freak earthquake, murders (and robs) an erotic rival named Lycurgus, and impersonates Priapus at the rites of Quartilla. Finally, in a third section (‘Rewriting the Satyrica (My Turn)’), Jensson offers a speculative summary (mimicking the text’s first-person form) of his reconstruction of the Satyrica from its Massalian opening right up to the end of the extant text.

Part Three, entitled ‘Genre’ (pp. 191-301), newly defines the genre of the Satyrica in terms of its narrative form, and argues that, far from being a Roman original sui generis, Petronius’ text has both a generic and a specific model in Greek literature. Its first section (‘Ancient Narrative in Personis‘) proposes that the text’s extended structure as narratio in personis, or personal recollection, represents “an identifying signature, which squarely places the Satyrica within a single known ancient genre… Milesian fiction” (p. 192). He then launches into a lengthy digression in which it is argued that the novel’s moral and social criticisms emerge not directly from the narrator, but from his inferior position vis-à-vis an implied Roman aristocratic audience. In the second and final section (‘The Hidden Genre’), Jensson discusses the anachronistic fallacies that led many nineteenth-century German scholars to the view, popular to this day, that the Satyrica was uniquely Roman. He reconstructs the so-called ‘Milesian’ genre, named for the lost Μιλησιακά of Aristides (which was adapted into Latin by the historian L. Sisenna), as influencing the narrative form, ‘erotic travelogue’ content, and broadly Cynic values, of Petronius’ Satyrica, as well as of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, its lost (but attested) Greek source, and the pseudo-Lucianic Ἔρωτες. He then explains the strange mix of Roman and Greek elements found in the Satyrica by positing a lost (and unattested) Greek original, also prosimetric in form, which Petronius has freely adapted into a Latin palimpsest, producing the sort of ‘never-never land’ typical of ‘Roman reworkings of Greek texts’ (p. 292).

In demonstrating, with ample and thorough argumentation, that the Satyrica is an erotic travelogue of tightly interwoven scenes, all unified by recurring motifs, a logical geographical progression, and the controlling voice of a single narrator, Jensson’s book persuasively puts to rest the commonly held notion that Petronius’ text is merely a synthetic amalgam of arbitrary episodes and disconnected genres. Along the way, Jensson also offers a usefully comprehensive survey of Petronian scholarship of the last century or so. His account of the ‘Milesian’ genre, and the place of the Satyrica in it, will certainly give pause to anyone who supposes that Petronius’ text emerged from a vacuum. In short, this is a book full of impressively iconoclastic claims that are reached for the most part through sensitive reading and good sense. Nonetheless, its final, and perhaps boldest claim, that the Satyrica is adapted from a lost Greek work, is supported by a series of wild conjectural leaps that may well trouble readers of a more cautious bent (i.e. precisely the sort of readers that Jensson implicitly champions with his careful analyses of past scholarship and his pleas for a conservative approach to the received text).

Jensson asserts that “Encolpius is certainly of Greek origin” (p. 96), and goes on to argue (p. 96ff.), adducing Fr.s I and IV as evidence, that Encolpius’ birthplace is the Greek city of Massalia, and that his travels began when he was exiled from there as a ritual scapegoat. Yet the fragments reveal no such thing. Fragment IV (Sidonius Apollinaris Carm. 28.145-7) merely associates Massalia with the writings of Petronius (especially Sat. 139.2, as Jensson demonstrates on p. 101). Fragment I (Serv. ad Aen. 3.57), an ethnographic note said by Servius to derive from Petronius, is merely a generalisation on a Massalian scapegoating ritual (note its use of imperfects, as well as other frequentative markers like ‘ more Gallorum‘ and ‘ quotiens‘). Neither fragment implies that Massalia was the starting point of the novel’s narrative, let alone that it was Encolpius’ birthplace; and even if Massalia was mentioned at the beginning of the text’s narrative, Encolpius may already have begun his travels earlier, and just be passing through Massalia, much like the non-Massalian Amantius does in Sidonius Apollinaris Ep. 7.2, a passage brimming with echoic references to the Satyrica (see Jensson’s fruitful discussion at p. 293ff.); similarly, Apuleius does not begin the narrative of Lucius’ travels from the journey’s actual starting point (which remains a mystery), but with the protagonist’s arrival in Thessaly (Ap. Met. 1.2.1). Jensson’s (unsupported) insistence on a reference to Massalia in the lost beginning of the Satyrica could, if at all accepted, mark the endpoint, or a significant midpoint, of Encolpius’ travels just as easily as their starting point; one need only compare the prologue to Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, which includes references to both Corinth (a stopping place in Lucius’ adventures) and more prominently to Rome (the endpoint), as well as to other places (Miletus, Egypt, Sparta) whose relevance to Lucius’ adventures is of a more figurative kind. For all we know, the Satyrica may even have started in Rome (where Encolpius has certainly been before the extant sections of the text; see Sat. 69.9 vidi Romae…) and, after a round trip through Africa and Spain, have ended in Massalia.

From the (reasonable) generalisation that Encolpius is, much like his equally impoverished and opportunistic fellow-travellers, “well suited to play the φαρμακός” (p.99) in the scapegoating ritual outlined in Fr. I, Jensson slides all too easily into the (false) assertion that “according to the fragment of Servius ( Fr. ἰ, Encolpius was exiled, not for any crime committed by him, but because he volunteered to play the scapegoat in return for being fed for a whole year at public expense” (p. 152). Fr. I neither states nor implies that Encolpius, or for that matter any other character from the Satyrica, actually underwent such a ritual — for all we know, the ritual may merely be something that Encolpius witnessed, or heard about, or even lied about on his travels. Jensson states that specific references to Encolpius in the subsequent text as a ‘scapegoat’ ( Sat. 107.15 pharmace) and an ‘exile’ ( Sat. 81.3 exul) leave “no choice but to accept as genuine the extant information about Encolpius in Massalia at the beginning of the full-text Satyrica” (p. 108). Yet it is neither here nor there that Lichas addresses Encolpius as ‘pharmace’ in what is a decidedly heated and hyperbolic exchange. Jensson himself concedes (p. 109) that the word is used by Greek satiric and comic authors as a general term of abuse; alternatively it might even, as Edward Courtney has recently suggested, simply refer back to Lichas’ demand for some victim to purify the ship from pollution ( Sat. 105.1);2 or else, with the same transliterated spelling but a different Greek accent, the word can mean ‘sorcerer’ (p. 109 n. 248), and as such, might readily refer to Lichas’ (sarcastic) suggestion, made a line earlier, that Encolpius has harnessed the magical properties of a salamander to singe off his eyebrows ( Sat. 107.15 quae sola salamandra supercilia tua exussit?).

Furthermore, given Encolpius’ propensity for criminal escapades and adulterous liaisons, his apparent status as an exile might be explained in any number of ways entirely unconnected with either Massalia or indeed scapegoatery; and in any case, Encolpius calls himself an exile in a context so hyperbolic that it might be taken for a metaphor, in much the same way that Jensson appears to regard mendicus, the word immediately preceding exul at Sat. 81.3, as a metaphor (his translation of mendicus on p. 146, and again on p. 150, is the decidedly un-literal “poor as a beggar”).

In fact there is no real evidence, beyond the Greek form of his name, that Encolpius is Greek at all, and even that could hardly be said to represent good evidence. Slaves (of any origin) would have whichever name their master saw fit to give them, freedmen would normally retain their given name as a cognomen, and it was even possible for Roman citizens to have a Greek cognomen. ‘Encolpius’ may be a nickname, or a pseudonym, like the name Polyaenos under which Encolpius travels in Croton ( Sat. 127.7, 129.4, 130.1). In the absence of more concrete information about Encolpius’ orgins or status, it is simply impossible to be sure that he is a Greek. He might even be a Roman.

All this might be regarded as mere quibbling on minor points, were it not for the fact that one of Jensson’s boldest theses, concerning the existence of a lost Greek Satyrica, is predicated in large part on his questionable assumption that the “main character and narrator is a Greek exile from Massalia, who was brought up … in the Greek language” (p. 283; cf. 289 “the Massaliot Encolpius”, 290 “Encolpius, the exile from Massalia … Encolpius the Greek”). As long as it remains possible that Encolpius is not a native of Massalia, nor reared exclusively in Greek language and literature, then many of the elements in the Satyrica that Jensson regards as anomalous need not in fact be so. If, contrary to what Jensson supposes, Encolpius has been raised in a Latin-speaking environment and is not a Massaliot, then his sensitivity to the correct pronunciation of Latin (p. 283) need not be a cause for surprise; his interest in Latin as well as Greek declamation (p. 284) requires no further explanation; and his reference to Greeks in the third rather than the first person (p. 289) need not be seen as “paradoxical”. If Encolpius proves not to be Greek after all, then responsibility for the Romanisation of Greek elements in the text can be attributed entirely to him as he translates his experiences in a Greek world to a Latin-speaking audience, rather than to the author Petronius (a figure whom Jensson elsewhere shows a reluctance to include in interpretations of the text; see pp. 19-26) as he adapts a putative Greek text. The Greek setting of most of Encolpius’ (extant) adventures can easily be explained in purely generic terms, without further need for a specific Greek model; for all Milesian tales, as their name implies, have a Greek setting, so that the genre affords Roman authors a special opportunity to scrutinize their own culture from a decentred perspective.

None of this is to declare that Jensson is simply wrong. His positing of a Greek Satyrica is ingenious, consistent with the text as it stands, and certainly quite possible. It is, nonetheless, not a necessary reading, and until such time as further evidence comes to light, the court must deliver an open verdict on this. If I may, however, be permitted one truly petty quibble, Jensson is quite mistaken in his assertion (p. 171) that Lucius does not return home in the Latin version of the ass-tale; he does so before going on to Rome, even if he fails entirely to indicate where ‘home’ is (Ap. Met. 11.26.1 recta patrium larem revisurus … contendo). Otherwise, Jensson’s is a stimulating and well-researched book, broad in scope and full of astute analyses of both the text and its critics, and with some conclusions about the text’s genre that radically transform our understanding of the ancient novel as a whole; and, unlike so many other studies of Petronius, it reaches far beyond the cena Trimalchionis in its characterisation of the Satyrica. I recommend it heartily, both for newcomers to Petronius and for his more inveterate enthusiasts.3


1. Jensson 2002 ‘The Satyrica of Petronius as a Roman Palimpsest’, Ancient Narrative 2, 86-122.

2. E. Courtney 2001. A Companion to Petronius, 43.

3. Please note that ‘The Recollections of Encolpius: The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian fiction (Ancient Narrative Supplementum 2)’ is also available on-line in an electronic version at Ancient Narrative.