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Time-psychology in the Cena Trimalchionis

Karen Ni-Mheallaigh

University of Exeter

This paper presents a new Petronian-Plautine entanglement as a key to help us understand Trimalchio’s obsessive attention to time in the Cena Trimalchionis, arguing specifically that this was related to his status as an ex-slave.

Trimalchio’s fascination with time is well-known (see Branham 2001, esp. 23–8). The narrative is liberally furnished with chronometric devices, real, fanciful, and imaginary, e.g., a clock, probably mechanical (Sat. 26; see Magnusson 2000); a parapēgma (Sat. 30); the zodiac dish (Sat. 35); the sundial on Trimalchio’s tomb (Sat. 71). Moreover, he is himself a connoisseur of astrology, who knows precisely how much life-time is left to him (Sat. 35 and 77, with de Vreese 1927).

This paper opens up a new interpretation of Trimalchio’s peculiar obsession, based on a comparative reading with a fragment of a comedy called The Boiotian Woman, which is attributed to Plautus and preserved in Aulus Gellius’ miscellany (NA 3.3.5). In this fragment, a parasite bemoans the shift from a primitive, subjective, and ultimately more satisfying form of “gastro-chronology”—in which one judged the time of day according to appetite—to an objective chronology based on the movements of the Sun and measured out by the newly invented sundials that decorate the city (see Gratwick 1979; Schechner 2001). The hungry parasite curses the inventor of the sundial, which now governs his day—whereas in his youth, his own belly was the truest “clock” (nam unum me puero venter erat solarium / multo omnium istorum optimum et verissimum).

This Plautine passage offers us important insights into ancient time-psychology and how the introduction of new chronometric instruments impinged on it (Schechner 2001). I will argue that Trimalchio’s lavish display of time-devices can be read in this light as an attempt to control time, which is a symptom of his status as a former slave who had no control over his hours. I shall further show that the mechanical horologium (Sat. 26) can be interpreted as a metaphor for the ex-slave who was formerly, in accordance with Aristotle’s famous definition, a mere “tool with a soul” (Pol. 1253b27). Mesomedes’ two poems on horologia (frr. 7 and 8), which are themselves works of an ex-slave, will be adduced as illuminating comparative material in the final section of the paper. By entangling Petronius with Plautus and Mesomedes, we open up the richly nuanced time-psychology of the Cena Trimalchionis. The comparative reading with Mesomedes’ poetry also adumbrates a new and important dimension of the reception of ancient time-technology, suggesting that clocks—like lamps—might have been “good to think with” about slavery in antiquity (on lamps and slaves, see Bielfeldt 2014; Sabnis 2011).

This analysis will illustrate how the material imaginary of the novelistic story-world serves not only to authenticate the fiction by orienting it towards the reader’s world and by “fleshing it out” (the so-called “reality effect”); it can also complicate our reading by nudging our horizons of interpretation beyond the confines of the fictional world. Striking or enigmatic objects in particular can be intertextually charged, i.e. prone to entangle one text or world with another as the reader tries to gain a clearer understanding of their precise nature or role. Trimalchio’s wondrous horologium, I will argue, is one such intertextual artefact whose presence entangles the Cena with other meditations on time and time-devices. This approach offers us insights into the semiotic superabundance that is a hallmark of novelistic fiction with its intricately realized story-worlds.

Session/Panel Title

Novel Entanglements

Session/Paper Number

73.2

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