Petronius and Anti-Heroic Epic Essay

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Petronius and Anti-Heroic Epic

The Satyricon of Petronius is a work that employs many tropes of epic in order to create a work that is ultimately a mock-epic or anti-heroic epic. Although the text of the Satyricon is fragmentary, enough of it survives for the modern reader to recognize that the work is consciously intended as a commentary on the epic mode. I hope through examination of three key features of Petronius' work -- the characterization of its narrator, the employment of comic substitution in its plot, and outright literary allusion to existing epic works -- to demonstrate that Petronius' basic purpose is to remind his readers of the epic mode, while subverting it with obviously anti-heroic matter.

Characterization is the first means by which Petronius establishes the anti-heroic purpose of the Satyricon. While the heroes of classical epic are generally warriors -- Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad, Odysseus in the Odyssey, Aeneas in the Aeneid -- the protagonist of the Satyricon, Encolpius, is anything but warlike. For a start we must consider his very name. Traditional epic tends to oppose sexual indulgence to soldierly virtues: when Odysseus is caught up in sexual dalliance with Circe, or when Aeneas trysts with Dido, it is ultimately seen as an obstacle to their overall heroic destiny of returning to Ithaca or founding Rome. The name Encolpius is, as Walsh notes, a joke: it literally means "On the Bosom" just as the name of his boyfriend Giton means "Neighbour…in the sexual sense" (Walsh xvii-xviii). These are lovers, not fighters. Sexuality, however, plays a major role in the characterizations of epic heroes, so it is crucial to note that sexuality not only plays a role but virtually defines Petronius' main characters. Perhaps the most salient example comes when Encolpius' friend Ascyltus seduces and absconds with Giton. Speaking in the first person, Encolpius responds thus:

So I packed my bags, and in the grip of melancholy rented an isolated place close to the sea. I shut myself in it for three days, and as I reflected on being deserted and humiliated, I thumped my grief-wracked breast and groaned repeatedly from my heart's depths. I kept crying: 'Why could I not have been engulfed by a landslide, or by the sea that vents its rage even on the innocent?...And who has saddled me with this solitude? A young scamp polluted with every manner of lustful behaviour, who on his own admission deserved the decree of banishment, a youth not merely free but freeborn devoted to debauchery, his years spent in gambling, hired as a girl even by the person who assumed him to be a man! As for the other one, on the day for donning the man's toga he put on a woman's dress instead, his mother coaxed him to reject his manhood, he played the woman's role in the slaves' quarters, and when he ran out of money he switched the direction of his sexual favours. He has renounced the claims of an old friendship; to his shame, he has behaved like a common whore, and sold his all in a one-night stand. So now they lie as lovers committed to each other all night long, no doubt jeering at my loneliness as they lie exhausted from their lustful dueling. But they will not get away with it. Either I am no man, no free citizen, or I will avenge my wrongs with their guilt-stained blood. (69-70).

What is most interesting about this passage in terms of analyzing the Satyricon as an anti-heroic epic is that it puts its characters in the same situation as Homeric epic, but subverts it through the details of the characterization. Walsh notes of this passage that "Encolpius here becomes a second Achilles, resentful at the loss of the slave-girl Briseis to Agamemnon. Achilles too mopes by the sea." (Walsh 183). The Homeric scene that Petronius parodies is, in fact, the opening of the Iliad, where -- in B.M.W. Knox's words -- "Agamemnon finally announces he will take recompense for his loss from Achilles, in the form of the girl Briseis" (Iliad, 3). But the crucial difference lies in how the characters are represented. The two Greek kings who are fighting a ten-year war, and who quarrel over the ownership of a slave-girl, now become two overeducated young men who are fighting over a boyfriend -- we are meant to laugh at the disconnect between Encolpius' grand invocation of avalanches and tidal waves, and the fact that, by Encolpius' own admission, the two who have betrayed him are already promiscuous whores. It is worth noting that the characterization in Petronius, and the anti-heroic nature of it, is accomplished by something Homer does not do: allowing the character to speak in the first person and tell his own story.

Within the actual story of the Satyricon, however, we often find comic substitution in which a standard epic plot-device is rendered anti-heroic simply by changing the details. Scholars are agreed that the Satyricon in many ways follows the Odyssey in its plot-structure. But the details of the plot are extremely different. We may recall the famous scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus warns his hungry crew not to harm the livestock that belong to the sun-god Helios:

"Friends, we've food and drink aplenty aboard the ship

Keep your hands off all these herds or we will pay the price!

The cattle, the sleek flocks, belong to an awesome master,

Helios, god of the sun who sees all, hears all things." (281)

Of course the trouble comes when the crew ignore Odysseus' warning and decide to assuage their hunger by eating the oxen of the sun:

"All ways of dying are hateful to us poor mortals, true, but to die of hunger, starve to death that's the worst of all. So up with you now, let's drive off the pick of Helios' sleek herds" (281)

There is a precisely similar episode in the Satyricon of offending a god by harming the god's sacred animal. The difference is that it is anti-heroic in the telling. Helios is the Greek god of the sun itself -- whereas Priapus is the Roman god of the erect penis, usually seen as a rustic fertility god. In Petronius' text, it is therefore hard to take seriously the transgression committed by Encolpius:

"You villain!" she said. "Do you even dare to ask? You do not realize the enormity of the crime you have committed. You have killed the favourite of Priapus, the goose on which all the married women dote. Let me free you of the delusion that your deed was innocent: if the magistrates get to hear of it, you'll be strung up. You have defiled my dwelling with blood; until today it has never been polluted." (140).

We must remember, though, that Priapus the boner-deity is basically an anti-heroic substitution for more traditional epic material. As Walsh notes, "The anger of Priapus, which overhangs the hero throughout the extant novel, is clearly a comic evocation of the wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, and of the malice of Juno against Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid." (Walsh xxv)

In case we might miss Petronius' obvious Homeric joke here in the episode with Priapus' priestess, the name of this priestess is Circe, borrowed from the Odyssey, just as various other names in the Satyricon (like those of the old schoolteachers Agamemnon and Menelaus) are borrowed from elsewhere in Homer. These names are part of a larger pattern of outright literary allusion which constitute the most crucial way in which Petronius turns epic material into anti-heroic comedy. Most of the name-borrowings are intended to be comic in some way -- when the warrior-kings Agamemnon and Menelaus give their name to a pair of elderly pedants, we are perhaps reminded of the difference between Homeric characters in epic and the people who were reading and teaching Homer in Petronius' time. But often the allusion is further subverted by sexual content and obscenity. For example, Homer's Odyssey contains a very famous scene where Odysseus returns to Ithaka in disguise to retake his kingdom, but finds the plan might almost be thwarted when his old nurse Eurycleia sees through the disguise by recognizing a scar he had since youth:

Odysseus, sitting full in the firelight, suddenly

Swerved round to the dark, gripped by a quick misgiving

Soon as she touched him she might spot the scar!

The truth would all come out.

Bending closer

She sarted to bathe her master…then,

In a flash, she knew the scar

That old wound

Made years ago by a boar's white tusk when Odysseus

Went to Parnassus, out to see Autolycus and his sons. (403)

Petronius knows this epic moment very well, but his allusion to it is entirely anti-heroic. The disguised Encolpius is recognized by a sea-captain not because of a scar, but because of his remarkably large penis:

Lichas, who knew me in and out, also raced forward… He didn't bother to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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