Monday, July 13, 2009


Version at BMCR home site J. R. W. Prag, Ian Repath (ed.), Petronius: A Handbook. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xii, 256. ISBN 9781405156875. $100.00. Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University

Clearly, the market for "handbooks," "companions," "readings in," and other such anthologies of scholarship on all manner of classical topics has not proven so saturated as to preclude a continuing, indeed steady stream of additional titles. To its credit, the present volume is, to the best of my knowledge, the first such collection of articles or chapters exclusively devoted to Petronius's Satyricon (or Satyrica).1 The present volume also contains entirely original work, with nothing reprinted (revised or otherwise) from some other source. Honesty compels the observation that the price of this "handbook," and others like it from the same publisher, is woefully inflated, though the production values are impeccable, from proofreading to binding.

The stated goal of this collection is to provide a series of articles on a "range of topics" that reflected in part a desire to being together work from a variety of "different approaches" on an admittedly challenging text. By and large the editors' goals have been accomplished, and creditably so, by this volume. All students and teachers of Petronius will want to have access to this "handbook," even if, as is perhaps inevitable with collections of this sort, the end result is something less than the sum of its constituent parts.

It is difficult to discern the audience(s) for this handbook; we are sent to "Homer's Iliad" (sic) to learn about more the name "Agamemnon," while elsewhere a more sophisticated readership seems to lurk. It is regrettable that Petronius's Latin is not often used for quotes from the novel, which was the end result this reviewer feared when classics titles started printing translations of all Latin and Greek along with the originals.2 There are no footnotes or endnotes, but rather internal citations that are a bit distracting; there is an uneasy union here, as in other books of this type, of a desire to document and accessibility to a neophyte readership that is unlikely to pursue many of the cited references. More seriously, broad brush strokes sometimes obscure points of serious scholarly debate. There is a tendency to internal cross-referencing between the chapters that seems rather self-serving, even if the attempt at unity between the contributions is commendable (however limiting if not impossible). One gathers that the intention is for the reader to proceed sequentially through the chapters, though I would suspect most users of this book will sample according to taste. Besides the individual chapters there is a comprehensive bibliography that (refreshingly) does not limit itself to anglophone scholarship, as well as an Index Locorum and ample general index.

The editors begin with a useful introduction that includes a helpful glossary of characters from the novel and an abbreviated guide to texts, translations, and some secondary work, though strangely much of this is duplicated in the bibliography section appended to the first article, Slater's piece on "Reading the Satyrica". A conspicuous omission from the introduction is a summary of the manuscript tradition of the novel.

N. Slater's chapter is an application of reader-response criticism to Petronius's fragmentary novel that comes as no surprise to readers of the author's previous monograph.3 What is most valuable here are the reminders about the reality of book production and the practical logistics of "reading" and "listening" in Roman antiquity that students of the ancient novel need to keep in mind as they begin work on Petronius, even if "reader-response" criticism sometimes seems an exercise in dressing up the obvious.

J.R. Morgan's chapter is on the influence of Greek literature on Petronius, with the expected study of Homer, Plato, and the Greek novel. Morgan's essay also touches a bit on Petronius's relationship to Virgil, especially in considering the Cena Trimalchionis as Virgilian and Homeric underworld (though the interesting connection between Virgil and Petronius's labyrinth imagery is not made clear).

C. Panayotakis' chapter is a companion to Morgan's that focuses on Latin literature. Panayotakis observes that if it were not for the Greek novel and other related texts, he might think the Satyricon were an "impertinent Aeneid," though the necessary major correspondences are lacking, and it is more than stretching to support a connection between Encolpius' penis and Dido because both names are grammatically feminine. It is regrettable that the connections drawn with Latin literature only begin with Horace and virtually ignore everything before. The influence of the Roman elegists on Petronius is also missing here. And where is Lucan? The scant coverage is explained by material found in other essays in the volume, though most readers interested in the topic will want to find more on this vast subject in the present chapter, even if only cursory coverage. It is good to see a reference to Collignon's magisterial study, too often neglected by modern Petronians.4

Victoria Rimell's chapter is on language and sound, and one of the better offerings in this collection. Petronius's Latin is finally allowed to see the light of day, and Rimell does it more than justice; this chapter (and Caroline Vout's below) should be required reading for seminars on the Satyricon. Because of the appearance of the extensive Latin, there is almost a sense of shock when one studies this chapter after a sequential reading of the preceding ones. The crucial intertext between Lucan, Petronius, and the omnipresent place of civil war in the Roman psyche is here masterfully studied.

A. Richlin's chapter is on sex in Petronius. I am not sure there was a "common Roman stereotype of women as sex-crazed." The opening of this chapter is best, where an overview of Roman sexual customs is presented lucidly and succinctly; less effective is where Bakhtin, Freud, and first-person shooter computer games make unnecessary appearances. I am not convinced "that jokes establish norms much as laws do" and that jokes do not tell us anything direct about their targets; good humor is funny precisely because of its truth. "Histories of Latin literature. . .identified the main characters as Greeks and/or freed slaves" because that is what they are, not because of any agenda to keep Roman citizens out of the picture. Nor am I sure that "freeborn" connoted "chaste" to a Roman audience, or that novels offer "video" where "other kinds of texts offer snapshots" to the historian of Roman sexuality. Richlin concludes her essay with a valuable summary of the Satyricon's history as a banned text, even if I cannot share the author's concern about the possible future banning of the book (worthier of fear is the already serious decline in the number of those who can read it in Latin, as many of the conventions of this collection bear witness). Craig Williams's work should have been included in the chapter bibliography. So also Ellen Oliensis's.

Caroline Vout's chapter on the Satyrica and Roman culture is an outstanding essay, and the volume's finest contribution. Vout begins where we must, with Nero and his courtiers and the important work of the late Kenneth Rose. Not surprisingly, as with Victoria Rimell's chapter, Vout's work is excellent in part because of its close study of the Latin text, which again makes a welcome appearance. If we must imagine Petronius's original audience if we are to gain a better understanding of his work, Vout's essay provides the right material for study. Refreshingly, the prose is attractive and the ideological axes are left for others to grind. Her discussion of the Cyclops as metaphor for the emperor (after Philostratus) is splendid.

J. Andreau's chapter on freedmen is translated by Paul Dilley (if we cannot expect Latin competence these days, still less French!). One of the finer contributions, Andreau's work provides the necessary prolegomenon to understanding a crucial social dynamic at play in Petronius's novel. Good here is Andreau's reflection on John Bodel's work on the non-future of Roman freedmen.

K. Verboven's work on the economics in the Satyricon is a companion to Andreau's in offering essential material on a still relatively understudied aspect of this novel. Especially good here is the section on the agricultural underpinning of Trimalchio's economy.

V. Hope's chapter concerns itself with Roman funeral traditions and the tomb of Trimalchio, and provides a fine pairing with S. Hales' contribution on "vulgar villas." Hales offers a particularly good section on the absence of hunting narrative from the art in Trimalchio's domus.

One imagines that many people know something of Petronius from the film Quo Vadis, itself an adaptation of a novel originally written in Polish, published complete in 1896 and later translated into English. Historical fiction such as this, the most famous work of the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, is the subject of a fine essay by S.J. Harrison on (mostly) English novels relevant to Nero's Rome. These are the novels that (in some cases at least) many classicists have seen on dusty shelves and may even have read as part of a childhood sparking of interest in antiquity; Harrison provides a useful overview of a neglected area of inquiry.

The last essay is J. Paul's work on the Fellini-Satyricon. Paul is working on a monograph devoted to depictions of ancient Rome in film, and one gets the sense that word count worked against her in this essay; she clearly has much more to say, and to say well, on a vast subject (the same is true of Harrison's essay). One wishes in particular for more commentary on the haunting frescoed ending of Fellini's film.

The success of this volume as a whole depends of course on one's definition of "handbook." The baker's dozen of articles provided here (including the introduction) certainly cover a broad range of relevant topics, and some of the contributions offer treatments of a given topic that are both sophisticated and accessible to a wide range of audiences. The editors are to be commended for what must be one of the most lasting and praiseworthy products born over a "couple of pints of beer in a pub in Nottingham."


1.   Harrison, S.J. Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel, Oxford, 1999 covers both Petronius and Apuleius. 2.   The editors note (p. 4) that all Latin is translated (true); less accurate is the statement that "the Latin is often quoted or referred to," since only Rimell and Vout do so to a significant degree. In referencing the handbook's chapters I have in general resisted the temptation to follow Nicholas Horsfall's admirable and useful convention of citing individual contributions by surname, initial, or Christian name based on the relative merit of the essay. 3.   Reading Petronius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. 4.   √Čtude sur Petrone: La critique litteraire, l'imitation et la parodie dans le Satiricon. Paris, 1892.

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