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Fabula Muta: Ovid’s Jove in Petronius Satyrica 126.18

Debra Freas

Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies

At the International Ovidian Society’s inaugural panel, “Ovid Studies: The Next Millennium,” Sara Myers presented an overview of current trends in Ovidian scholarship. Among the promising avenues for further research that she outlined were imperial receptions of Ovid and the application of gender and sexuality studies to Ovid’s poetry. The panel more broadly addressed Ovidian reception (Newlands and Keith), and concluded with a consideration of Ovid’s Philomela episode in relation to the accounts of survivors in the #MeToo movement (Libatique). In my paper, I will return to such questions of reception, canonicity, and sexual violence but in a more immediate successor to Ovid, Petronius. (For the reception of Ovid in imperial authors, see McNelis 2009.) Considering a short poem from Satyrica §126.18, I argue that Petronius turns a critical eye to what I term an Ovidian poetics of sexual violence.

Near the end of what survives from Petronius’ Satyrica, Circe, a wealthy matron from Croton, sexually propositions Encolpius, who positively responds and offers three elegiac couplets that invoke Jupiter and sexual violence by recounting the god’s previous rapes of Europa, Leda and Danaë. Encolpius’ poem has been variously read as “the degradation of the epic model” (Schmeling 2011), an irreverent attack on Jupiter’s sexual potency (Courtney 1991), and an ironic presentation of Jupiter as an aging elegiac lover (Adamietz 1995). Others have addressed the episode’s allusive engagement with numerous literary antecedents including Iliad 14 (Roncali 1986), the Odyssey (Fedeli 1988), Vergil’s Aeneid (Walsh 1970), and Ovid’s Amores 3.7 (Walsh 1970; McMahon 1998; Courtney 2001; Hallett 2012). I will propose, however, that these couplets make another, overlooked, allusion to Arachne’s tapestry from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I would like to consider why, when faced with a more than willing sexual partner, Encolpius offers a poem about Jovian rape in an Ovidian mode.

After establishing that Satyrica 126.18 alludes to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I will explore how the Arachne intertext informs an understanding of Encolpius’ elegiac couplets on the subject of rape. When considering this poem, Slater (1990) rightly asks, “Why has Jupiter become a fabula muta, a fiction emptied of content?” I will argue that this phrase and the elegiac poem reference the poetics of sexual violence that pervades the Metamorphoses and is emphasized in the Arachne episode (see James, 2016). Encolpius’ elegiac poem can thus be read as the critical reception of an Ovidian poetics that is deemed passé and redundant, on perhaps both stylistic terms and sexual ones: Is Encolpius’ poem offering a critique of the repetitiveness of rape in Ovid’s poetics, or does it condemn rape more generally? These are questions worth considering in light of the pressing need for classicists to engage more fully Ovid’s legacy which is inextricably associated with rape.

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