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‘Just as Honeycomb’: Queer Money in Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis

Elliott Piros

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Mortality and familial continuity are central preoccupations for attendees at Petronius’ cena Trimalchionis. My paper argues that money, invested profitably, figures as an alternative to biologically reproducing marriages for freedmen, not least Trimalchio himself. The agent of this substitution is a recurring metaphor wherein monetary objects are said to be as fertile as honeycombs. Drawing on recent developments in queer theory, which explore queer notions of futurity, I suggest that material and metaphorical monetary objects constitute alternative trajectories of life for characters in this fragmentary Roman novel.

Building on Paul Veyne’s characterization of Petronius’ freedmen as members of a group blocked from integration into more elite strata of Roman society, John Bodel has shown that the underworld themes of the cena express the mentality of Trimalchio and his colliberti, a symptom of their stigmatized civil status (Veyne; Bodel 1994; Bodel 2003; Andreau). In response, Marilyn Skinner argues that the freedmen extend themselves into the future by training enslaved boy favorites rather than siring legitimate offspring (Skinner). These relationships, erotic and also paternal, therefore supplant normative methods of reproduction through which social mobility could occur.

I show that in the cena themes of infertility and truncated intergenerational structures coincide with the image of a fortune growing tamquam favus, “just as honeycomb.” For Chrysanthus, the deceased man lamented by Phileros at Satyrica 43.1, metaphorical fecundity of wealth contrasts with the severing of ties between family members and the allocation of his patrimonium to some anonymous heir. At Satyrica 76.8, in a rant against Fortunata provoked by her response to his kissing the puer non inspeciosus, Trimalchio uses the phrase tamquam favus to oppose her infertility with his financial savvy. Already at Satyrica 39.15, with the edible zodiac, Trimalchio had used the phrase of mother earth, who has every good in herself tamquam favus. I connect this earthly richness to Trimalchio’s autarkeia, self-sufficiency, and to his standing as a self-made man, ex se natus.

The honeycomb metaphor, evoking an efflorescent outgrowth of wealth, appears in tandem with the ambivalence of the freedmen toward their futures. Even as some would bequeath skill at moneymaking to their favorite boys, with homoerotic attachments displacing heterosexual procreation, in general they share a desire to live fully in the present. The temporality of monetary growth, the analogue of which, honeycomb, is a conventional element in pederastic imagery, thus functions as a limit to a more dominant paradigm of growth supplied by sexual procreation. I am aided here by speculative work on queer futurities (Muñoz; Edelman).

To conclude, I contrast money as honeycomb with the productivity of money elsewhere in the Satyrica. The coins hidden in the tunic at Satyrica 12-15, in an episode that stages the hidden treasure motif from comedy (Panayotakis), model a narrative rather than social trajectory. Hidden treasure reappears towards the end of the novel in verses that compare gold coins to the imagined restoration of Encolpius’ sexual potency (Connors). Both instances illustrate the singularity of describing financial growth as honeycomb in the cena.

Session/Panel Title

The Ancient Novel and Material Culture

Session/Paper Number

82.7

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