The True Romantic Nature of the Greek ‘Satyricon’

Andrew Laird
Andrew Laird

The title of the ‘Satyricon Libri’ (or ‘Books of Satyrica’) is similar enough to the titles of some Greek romances such as the Ephesiaka or the Aethiopika to suggest to some the possibility that an original Greek Satyrica was a model for the Latin work.1 The narrator of the Satyricon, Encolpius, has a Greek name and he interacts with characters who also have Greek names. And the story of the Satyricon takes place in locations which seem Greek, at least in part — regions of southern Italy, and the suggestions of other places redolent with influences that are not Italian at all.2 But the Satyricon does not call attention to its Greek literary origins in the way that Apuleius forces his readers to confront the ‘Metamorphoses’ directly as a kind of reception literature. In Apuleius, we see a Greek literary legacy because the narrator regularly and explicitly advertises it.

Through Apuleius’ narrator, we learn that Greek genres, Greek ideas, and the language of a Greek model, are being translated and transformed for Latin eyes and ears.3 The Satyricon, on the other hand, signals its Greek connections rather more spontaneously and sporadically. It is Campanian setting, which will be briefly considered at the end of this discussion, may also be of some literary historical significance. Thinking of the Satyricon only as a Roman work may be inhibiting or even misleading: Roman literature, contrary to much loose usage and to the evident misconceptions of some professionals, is not always coextensive with literature in Latin.4 Whilst reading the Satyricon in the light of Greek literature is nothing new, interpretations of the work are increasingly characterised by the invocation of Greek fictional texts. Some of these texts survive in entirety, some are in fragments, and some are purely hypothetical. Yet their various connections to the Latin work are not always clear. There is evident doubt, discomfort and occasional confusion about whether some Greek texts should be considered as parallels, as precedents, or as direct sources for the Satyricon. No strong claims will be made in what follows — the first thoughts in this brief survey are really intended to provoke further debate.

Most current ideas of the relation between Satyricon and the Greek novel have their origins in the thesis advanced by Richard Heinze that the Satyricon reverses the standard story about the adventures of a devoted heterosexual couple by presenting the antics of a homosexual couple, at certain points a threesome, and by painting these events on the canvas of a lowlife scenario. Heinze identified resemblances and contrasts between features of the Satyricon and the second sophistic novels. He was aware that nearly all of the now canonical Greek romances, conventionally postdate the Satyricon — even as he effectively employed those very texts to make sense of the parodic quality of the Latin work.5 Heinze conjectured that earlier models for the Greek romances, as well as of texts that pastiched them, preceded the Satyricon and that these must have been the respective objects and inspiration of its own parodic reversals.

If reading the Satyricon in parallel with works of Greek fiction is to be worthwhile, it is necessary to be clear about the purpose of such a reading, and which Greek works can be considered. At times, the urge to invoke the surviving Greek novels as a precedent for the Satyricon seems almost as powerful as the tendency to posit or reconstruct a lost body of texts more or less like them. Bryan Reardon, for example, in a discussion of the specific relation between the Satyricon and Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Callirhoe’ has suggested that Chariton (or at least Chariton’s type of work) anteceded the Satyricon.6 In common with other recent authorities, Reardon puts Chariton in the mid-first-century AD, but hints that an early date for the Satyricon, in the 60s AD, means that the latter is unlikely to be a parody of the ideal romance.7

Heinze’s conjecture, made more than a century ago, may or may not derive more support from the subsequent papyrological discoveries.8 These finds point to an earlier tradition of Greek fictional texts which comfortably preceded the first century AD — including the ‘Ninus’ romance. But these papyri also suggest that the schematic distinctions between different modes and varieties once posited for these narratives — erotic, pathetic, parodic and so on — might break down. The Tinouphis fragment, for example, involves a prophet condemned to death for adultery but who is saved by a trick on the part of his executioner. This is relevant because the narrative is prosimetric, suggesting that this form could have been accommodated in Greek fiction, irrespective of the claims of Menippean satire to have influenced the form of the Satyricon.9

However, the Satyricon has a greater community in form and content with Lollianus’ ‘Phoenikika’ — a tale of a man’s sexual initiation and ritual cannibalism.10 And it has been frequently affirmed that the Satyricon has even more in common with the Iolaus.11 In the latter, Iolaus has a friend who becomes an initiate into Cybele’s cult in order to help him. The friend then elaborates in twenty Sotadean lines the knowledge he has gained from his initiation as a Gallus — knowledge which is to Iolaus’ advantage. The closing sentence of the fragment consists of a slightly altered sentence from Euripides’ ‘Orestes’ with which the narrator provides a sententious gloss on what has been recounted. The general mixture of prose with verse — sotadeans to boot (just as we find in the verses pronounced by a cinaedus in Satyricon 23.3) — and the insertion of those lines from the ‘Orestes’, (which are not unlike the verse gnomê on friendship in Satyricon 80.9) have prompted some speculation that the Iolaus might be a sort of model for the Latin text.

Is this possible? It should be emphasised, first of all, that these physical fragments of Greek narrative prose themselves date as papyri from the second-century AD onwards. They appear to represent a culminating floruit in the development of the genre. Such fragments may point back to earlier phases in the first and even second-century BC, but we can only speculate about those incipient stages. Nobody really knows how to date Lollianus: the Phoinikika might go into the same bag as the Iolaus and the ‘Onos’.12 The chronological relationship between the Iolaus and the Satyricon also seems impossible to establish, but it is worth considering a couple of influential discussions.

Peter Parsons noted that of all ancient comic narratives, the Satyricon comes closest to the text of the Iolaus “in both form and flavour”. Given that the Iolaus papyrus probably comes from the mid-second century and that its contents might have been composed almost as recently, Peter Parsons considered the possibility that they were derived from the Satyricon. In that case, Greek borrows from Latin and “the normal current” of literary influence would be reversed. But “on general grounds” Peter Parsons says, he “prefer[s] the opposite: to create a Greek picaresque tradition which [the Satyricon] parallels and imitates”. Peter Parsons’ final verdict was unequivocal: the Satyricon is not a new creation: “Natural reason long ago revealed a Greek model” he concluded, “either it had a Greek model but we can’t prove it; or else no model at all.”

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