Petronius Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Satyricon, Petronius’s only extant work aside from a few poems, survives as a group of fragments which may represent as little as one tenth of the entire original. The nature of the work is difficult to characterize, not only because the story is impossible to reconstruct in full but also because The Satyricon is unlike anything else that comes to modern readers from antiquity. The only comparable book is The Golden Ass (c. 150) of Lucius Apuleius, written a century later. The book was written for Nero and his court and was probably intended for recitation. Fragments of the text were known during the Middle Ages, but it was the rediscovery in 1650 of a codex containing the most significant and coherent section of the work, the famous Cena Trimalchionis (Dinner at Trimalchio’s) that justified renewed interest in Petronius.

The Satyricon

Sometimes considered the first realistic novel, The Satyricon describes the picaresque adventures of the narrator Encolpius and his sometime lover, the boy Giton, through the largely Greek cities of southern Italy. As usually reconstructed, the story begins with Encolpius engaged in a discussion of rhetoric with the teacher Agamemnon. He breaks away to pursue Ascyltos, his companion and rival for the affections of Giton. After various adventures during the day, the three spend a farcical night, interrupted by the priestess of Priapus, Quartilla, and her retinue. After a break in the surviving text, the three are brought to Trimalchio’s banquet by Agamemnon. This is the Cena Trimalchionis, which is followed after another gap by a scene in which Encolpius meets the poet Eumolpus at a picture gallery. This provides an opportunity for poetic parodies and some roughshod art criticism. The two then dine together with Giton, and another rivalry develops over the boy. Encolpius and Giton pretend to attempt suicide, and at the height of the hubbub that follows, Ascyltos appears with an official, looking for Giton. The boy, however, hides himself by clinging to the underside of a mattress, similar to Odysseus under the ram of Polyphemos. Ascyltos leaves empty-handed, and Eumolpus and Encolpius are reconciled. After another gap, the reader finds Encolpius, Eumolpus, and Giton on shipboard, apparently fugitives. As it happens, the captain of the ship, Lichas, is an old enemy of Encolpius, while one of the passengers is Tryphaena, a woman with some claim on Giton (presumably both of these characters have appeared in parts of the story subsequently lost). A voyage full of intrigue, suspense, and violence climaxes in shipwreck, but the three companions survive and make for Croton, a city reportedly full of legacy hunters. Beyond this point, the story becomes increasingly fragmentary, but several episodes are concerned with Encolpius’s impotence and with other mishaps that befall him amid witches, priestesses, and thieves.

Fragmentary as it is, The Satyricon is one of the few surviving examples of several classical genres. Along with the Apocolocyntosis (c. 55), attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca, it is the only extant example of Menippean satire, a form that mixed prose, verse, and satirical observation in an episodic narrative. The result is a kind of intellectual comedy of which the closest modern relatives might be Candide (1759) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

Within the Menippean framework of the book there are traces of two other all but vanished genres: Roman mime and the Milesian tale. Mime, a kind of obscene farce in colloquial language, generated out of stock characters, seems to have influenced several episodes, such as those among the legacy hunters of Croton. The language of mime is explicitly parodied at least once, and the naturalism of the book may owe something to this and other theatrical models. Milesian tales, marked by raciness and an inclination to satire, are forerunners of the novella tradition that reached maturity in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353). Two of the best-known tales in The Satyricon are of this type: “The Boy of Pergamum” and “The Widow of Ephesus.”

“The Boy of Pergamum”

In “The Boy of Pergamum” (chapters 85-87), Eumolpus tells how, while a guest in Pergamum, he schemes to seduce the son of his host by presenting himself as an ascetic philosopher. With the parents’ approval, he accompanies the boy constantly to protect him from seducers. One night, noticing that the boy is awake, Eumolpus whispers a prayer to Venus: “If I can kiss this boy without his knowing it, tomorrow I will give him a pair of doves.” Hearing this, the boy at once begins to snore loudly. Eumolpus takes his kisses and next morning produces two doves. The whispers become louder, the desires more extensive, the gifts more valuable, the boy’s sleep more improbable, until on the third night Eumolpus promises a thoroughbred in return for consummation. He gets his wish, but since thoroughbreds are harder to come by than doves, the boy’s impatience next morning breaks the spell: “Please sir, where’s my horse?”

Later, Eumolpus attempts a reconciliation, but the boy, still piqued, warns him, “Go to sleep or I’ll tell my father at once.” Passion drives Eumolpus to force himself on his ward. No longer resisting, the boy even offers to do it again, to prove he is not so stingy as Eumolpus (the thoroughbred has not materialized). After being awakened three times by the boy, however, who asks, “Don’t you want anything?,” it is Eumolpus’s turn to say, “Go to sleep or I’ll tell your father at once.”

This tale, really two linked tales, is like a primitive novella. The ribaldry of the anecdotes creates an impression of realism, but there is nothing real about the characters; they are interchangeable blanks. The boy, for example, can be, and has been, replaced by a girl without difficulty. These tales are above all formal inventions. Such familiar structures as the neat turnabout at the end, or the repetitions in threes, are formulas from which all kinds of stories can be generated. This is fiction aspiring to the efficiency of the joke.

“The Widow of Ephesus”

“The Widow of Ephesus,” also told by Eumolpus, is much more impressive. A woman renowned for her virtue is widowed. Not content with ceremonial grief, she keeps vigil with the corpse in its vault, accompanied only by a devoted maid to share her grief and keep the lamp lit. Unable to dissuade her, relatives and...

(The entire section is 2701 words.)