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A “Performative” Lacuna in Petronius’s Affair of Circe and Encolpius (Satyricon 132.1-2)

Timothy Haase

Because of the complex textual tradition of Petronius’ Satyricon, marred by fissures and rearrangements—to say nothing of the disappearance of the overwhelming majority of the original text—scholars are particularly reliant on the history of editorial judgments about the location of lacunae. This paper will offer an alternate model of interpreting non-continuous narrative in the Satyricon, using as its case study the lacuna between 132.1 and 132.2, inherited from the L tradition, during Encolpius’ second liaison with Circe (fullest account of the L tradition: Richardson 1993).

This section as a whole (Sat. 126-132), amongst the most damaged of our Satyricon fragments, concerns the dalliance between Circe and Encolpius, sabotaged by Encolpius’ impotence. Critics have thoughtfully addressed the scene’s sexual content, including the significance of  Encolpius’ impotence and his scandalous rebuke of his mentula (Schmeling 2011; Murgatroyd 2000); the atmosphere of literary role-playing and reenactment (Rimell 2002; Slater 1990); and the dense literary texture, a parodic intersection of Homer, Plato, Greek romance, and theater (Repath 2010; Panayotakis 1995;  Blickman 1988). During Encolpius’ second encounter with Circe, there is an unquestionable break in the narrative’s continuity, noted by a lacuna dating back to 16th-century printed editions: at one moment (132.1), Encolpius is enthusiastically embracing Circe; at the next (132.2), he is being abused and beaten at her command. Many readers have remarked that what must have fallen out of the text is some short description of Encolpius’ second erotic malfunction (e.g. Courtney 2001). Instead, by considering two ancient models of literary experience (ancient reading habits and the novel’s theatrical texture), this paper will argue that it is not necessary to posit that any of Petronius’ original words have fallen out at 132.1-2. Instead, the comic energy of the scene is fully realized only though the effort of the reader himself, confronted with the sudden shift of tone and pace, to use his imagination to bridge the gap.

In recent years, scholars have closely examined the practices of ancient readers, constructing the notion of the “active reader” in antiquity, who energetically interacts with a text and interrogates its puzzling elements (Johnson 2010; Konstan 2009). The gap at Sat.132.1-2 offers just such an opportunity for the resourceful reader of Petronius, forcing him to reconstruct the action to appreciate the comic effect. The reader’s effort of comic reconstruction is rewarded when he realizes that the gap is a comic fulcrum for the whole scene: earlier terms become ironically reversed, usually to Encolpius’ distress (e.g. the insult of Circe, “gravem iniuriam accepi,” 129.8, becomes the thrashing of Encolpius, nec contenta mulier tam gravi iniuria, 132.3).

Petronius’ debt to drama, particularly the sub-literary form of Roman mime, has been well acknowledged (Panayotakis 1995 and 2009; Sandy 1974); these scholars often focus on mime as a source for Petronius’ scenes and for the general milieu of theatricality in the Satyricon. I suggest a further resonance with the stage: the ability for the text to leap ahead in the action and thereby involve the audience in envisioning action that has taken place off-stage. To adduce an analogy from Aristophanic comedy: in The Clouds, following Strepsiades’ initiation into the Thinktank, Socrates emerges after the First Parabasis (Nub. 627ff.), fuming in frustration at his new charge’s simple-mindedness. The audience can fill in the action that took place inside the Thinktank by interpreting Socrates’ reaction as well as the subsequent scene of botched education. So too can Petronius’ audience use the context of the moment to project what has taken place out of view; the sudden shift in tone, from dreamily erotic at 132.1 to piquant farce at 132.2, is not a byproduct of textual fortunes but an intentional comic effect generated by something taking place “off-stage.” The application of these two models to certain other lacunose moments in the text of Petronius can provide new insights into the original audience’s engagement with the Satyricon.

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Ancient Books: Material and Discursive Interactions

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