Petronius, Satyricon

LCL 15: 6-7

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INTRODUCTION

A WORK OF FICTION

The Latin Satyrica is often referred to as a satire of early imperial manners, especially of freedmen, slaves, and marginal characters from the Greek-speaking Near East. Most of the names of the characters are Greek, and the action of the extant Satyrica takes place in predominantly Greek southern Italy, first in the area around the Bay of Naples and later in Croton. If the Satyrica is satire, it is of a most gentle and general kind. The characters created by Petronius are both ill-mannered and sympathetic, and they are creations in fiction: the central actor in the Cena Trimalchionis (26.7–78, a section that comprises one-third of the work) is not a parody of Nero, but a humorous portrayal of a wealthy freedman. Like Eumolpus, poet, scoundrel, marvelous storyteller, and chief actor of the last third of the Satyrica (83–141), Trimalchio is one of the most memorable characters in Latin literature. The first-person narrator of the Satyrica is Encolpius, and everything that readers learn about the characters and actions in the Satyrica, they learn from Encolpius. The narrator is an older Encolpius looking back at episodes in his earlier life, and in that sense the Satyrica can be read as the confessions of a very literate narrator who describes himself almost without exception as a failure, but in settings that regularly characterize him as a bad example of a mythical hero (Schmeling6). The main characters of the outer structure of the story appear in triads, first Encolpius–Ascyltos–Giton, then Encolpius–Eumolpus–Giton, all of whom live on the margins of society, stealing what they need and engineering elaborate hoaxes to get more than they need:

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INTRODUCTION

the glue that holds the triad together is sex, and this triadic structure also gives the story its inherent instability of rivalry.

The reader of the Satyrica recognizes from the first words that the work is extant only in fragments, and that much that had been narrated by Encolpius has been lost. In addition, attached to the Latin text of the Satyrica is a collection of fifty-one fragments from disparate sources, which with varying degrees of certitude have been attributed to the Arbiter, Petronius, or the Satyrica (but no one knows where, or even if, these fragments actually belong in the work). From meager medieval evidence (Schmeling4, xxii), the extant Satyrica can be said to come from Books 14, 15, 16, and since the work has numerous affinities to the Odyssey in twenty-four books, scholars have suggested that the complete Satyrica must also have consisted of twenty-four books. If that is so, then we possess little of the original work. Even though the Satyrica apparently was a long narrative work, the extant text (except for the Cena) is not at all a narrative but rather a collection of disjointed pieces and mutilated excerpts, totaling about 35,000 words.

The reader of the Satyrica also notices from almost the beginning that the work is a mixture of prose and poetry. Many of the characters in the Satyrica are poets, and thus the reader should not be surprised that the work contains so much poetry: not only thirty poems (not counting the Fragmenta), ranging from 2 verses to 295, but in nine different meters; see Ernout (211–13) for a list. This mixture is often described as a prosimetrum. The mixed form has led some critics such as Northrop Frye to see a specific

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.petronius-satyricon.2020