The True Romantic Nature of the Greek ‘Satyricon’

The True Romantic Nature of the Greek ‘Satyricon’
© Photograph by Rebeca Saray

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.”

Jensson 2002 and 2004 makes a case for the Satyricon following a Greek original; there are sharp counter-arguments in Bitel 2006 questioning the presupposition of Encolpius’ Greek or Massaliot identity – though even if one regards Encolpius as a Roman, much hangs on how “Roman” is defined.
The influential work of John D’Arms and others has demonstrated the distinctive nature of the cultural, social, and economic milieu of Campania, especially around the Bay of Naples: D’Arms 1970; see too Frederiksen 1984 and Leiwo 1994.
Hall 1995; Kenney 1990 (on the ‘Greek’ oracle in Latin verse in Met. 4.33); Laird 1990, 156–7 (on Onos 55 in relation to Met. 1.1); Snell 1966 (on Met. 7.3).
Habinek 1998 exemplifies this kind of misconception: see now Feeney 2005, especially 229–31. Barchiesi 2005 is an illuminating and suggestive discussion of “centre and periphery” in ancient and contemporary perceptions.
‘The most assured result of these investigations is clear to me: the Greek love romance is neither a creation of the Second Sophistic, nor is it developed from the influence of an erotic element added to the basis of ethnographic and utopian fables. It would be more closely derived from the form we possess from a considerably later time laid out by Petronius – of a pathetic-erotic parody of the comic-erotic travel novel.’ Heinze 1899, 519 [my translation].
Reardon 1991, 43–4: ‘The purpose of the work [Sat.] is clearly satirical observation of society, and this makes it a very different thing from Chariton’s ideal kind of romance based on an edifying conception of love; furthermore the world it is set in is Italian not Greek. In form, however it looks as much as anything like parody of the ideal romance […] love is replaced by sexual perversion, idealizing morality by realism and even cynicism. Several other romance motifs occur in a distorted form: the standard shipwreck, the machinations of Tyche, the intervention of a deity – in this case, the phallic deity Priapus. The problem is that date (the age of Nero in the sixties of the first century A.D.), which seems early for such parody. But if, as seems possible, Chariton’s story predates Petronius, and is itself already based on a tradition of no doubt more primitive sentimental romance, there may be no need to indulge in critical acrobatics to fit it in some othertradition (if it is necessary at all to equip such a work with familiar antecedents).’.
For dating of Chariton to 25–50 AD, see Goold 1995, 1–2; the case of Papanikolaou 1973 for 1 st c. BC on linguistic basis is not widely accepted; Plepelits 1976, 8 maintains 1st c. AD on basis of apparent historical reference.
The texts and translations with their respective introductions in Stephens and Winkler 1995 provide the best account of these papyrological discoveries.
For a range of views on the relevance of the Menippean tradition to Petronius, see Astbury 1999 and Horsfall 1991–2.The editorial introduction of Harrison 1999b at I.4.5(b) presents a useful overview and bibliography.
Convergences with the Satyricon have been identified and examined in Sandy 1979; see too Sandy 1994.
Stephens and Winkler 1995, 363–5; Barchiesi 1986.
This seems to be the implication of Bowie 1994, e.g. at 449 (which could not take into consideration that there is a short extant papyrus fragment of the Onos, in Stephens and Winkler 1995). Compare too Bowie 1996, 89 and 101 (where there is some leaning on a first century dating for the Satyricon for the dating of the Iolaus et al.: ‘a Roman of the writing classes in the reign of Nero emerges as a fancier of one [ideal] or other [comic] sort of Greek novel and as a writer who expects his readers to appreciate that parody.’).


Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply