(BLSB) - An Excerpt from the 'Satyricon' by Petronius

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Silenus and Eros. Fragment of a Roman terracotta relief, early 1st century AD. Found in 1760 at Scrofano (Sacrofano) in Latium (Lazio), Italy. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Médailles.


From Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Footnotes omitted.

Note: The poet character who appears in the excerpt below is named Eumolpus.

Petronius was a master of entertainments in Nero’s court, who eventually fell into disfavor due to false accusations and was forced to commit suicide. He left behind a picaresque novel concerning the adventures of Encolpius (the first-person narrator), a young man cursed with impotence by the god Priapus, and Giton, a slave boy whom he loves. Only excerpts from one part of the novel survive. The setting appears to be southern Italy.

[...]

[83] I happened into an art gallery with an amazing collection of paintings. I actually saw some originals by Zeuxis, unscathed by all the years, and sketches by Protogenes that so rivaled the truth of nature herself that I trembled to touch them. But when I got to Apelles—the piece the Greeks call “The Goddess on One Knee”—my admiration began to verge on worship. So precisely did the look of his creations conform to nature, you would have thought they were animated! Here a soaring eagle bears Ganymede to heaven; there fair Hylas fights off a wicked Naiad; Apollo damns his own murderous hands and adorns his unstrung lyre with the first hyacinth. Surrounded by these painted lovers I exclaimed as if alone: “Look, even the gods are touched by love! When Jupiter cannot find what he desires in heaven, he harms no one by erring on Earth. The nymph who ravished Hylas would have mastered her desires, had she thought that Hercules would intervene. Apollo invokes his lover’s shade in a flower. In all these stories the embraces of love are unimpeded by a rival! But I befriended someone crueler than Lycurgus!”

Even as I contended with the winds, a gray-haired gentleman entered the gallery. His face bore the stamp of experience and seemed to hold out the promise of something great. Not that he was well dressed; in fact, it was plain from his appearance that he was one of those literati rich men love to hate. He walked up and stood beside me. . . .

“I am a poet,” he said, “and, one, I hope, of no mean talent, if the garlands of victory still mean anything when favoritism so often crowns the undeserving! ‘Then why are you so badly dressed?’ you wonder. For just that reason: a passion for beauty never has made a man rich!

The trafficker at sea brings back a bundle;
The soldier for his pains wears cloth-of-gold;
The two-bit yes-man lounges drunk in purple;
Even the marriage-breaker sins for hire;
Eloquence alone, left shivering in its rags,
Invokes forgotten arts with pauper’s pleading.

[84] No doubt about it: if any man is averse to all the popular vices and insists on following his own steep path through life, that very fact—his being different—makes him hated. For who really likes what’s at odds with himself? So those whose goal in life is to pile up interest-bearing accounts want it believed that there is nothing in the world better than what they themselves possess. So they attack those who love literature however they can in order to make them seem inferior to money, too!” . . .

“I don’t know why but the sister of talent is poverty . . . I wish the enemy of my discipline were so harmless that he might somehow be mollified. But in reality, he is a seasoned thief and shrewder than any pimp.” . . .

[85] “When I went to Asia to serve on the quaestor’s staff, I was put up as a guest in Pergamum. I was happy to stay there, not only because my lodgings were elegant, but also because my host’s son was truly beautiful. So I hatched a plan to insure that I would never be viewed with suspicion by the paterfamilias: whenever the conversation at dinner even hinted at the sexual attractions of beautiful boys, I would blush like a virgin and object in the severest tones that my ears were offended by such obscene talk. The mother came to regard me as a veritable philosopher! So I started taking the boy to the gym, I organized his studies; I was his teacher and warned him not to let any sexual predator into the house. . . .

“Once we were lying around the dining room on a holiday when the long hours of play had made us too lazy to retire; around midnight I noticed that the boy was still awake and so, in the softest whisper, I said a prayer: ‘Venus, who art in heaven, if I can kiss this boy without his noticing, tomorrow I will give him a pair of doves.’

“When he heard the price of pleasure, the boy started to snore. So I went over to the little faker and stole some kisses. Happy with this beginning, I got up early the next morning and, as he expected, brought him a choice pair of doves, and so fulfilled my promise.

[86] “When the same opportunity arose the next night, I changed my prayer and said, ‘If I can caress this boy with my naughty hands without his feeling it, I will give him two ferocious fighting cocks for his patience.’

“At this promise the boy came over to me on his own and, I think, he was even afraid that I had nodded off! I reassured him on this point and gorged myself on his entire body, stopping just short of the summit of pleasure. The next morning I gave him what I’d promised and he was elated.

“When my moment came the third night, I whispered . . . in his ear as he pretended to sleep: ‘Immortal gods, if I could enjoy in full the complete satisfaction of my desires while the boy sleeps, in return for this bliss, tomorrow I will give him a choice Macedonian thoroughbred, so long as he has felt nothing!’

“Never has a young man slept more soundly! So, first, I filled my hands with his milky breasts, then I inhaled kisses, and, finally, all my desires converged into one.

“In the morning he sat in his room waiting for my usual visit. Well, you know very well how much easier it is to buy doves and cocks than a thoroughbred. Besides, I was afraid that so extravagant a gift would make my kind attentions look suspicious. So after wandering around a few hours I returned home and gave the boy nothing but a kiss. He hugged me round the neck as he looked about and said, ‘Please, sir, where is my thoroughbred?’ . . .

[87] “Because of my broken promise the door I had opened was slammed shut, so I resorted again to wheedling. A few days later a similar occasion put us in the same lucky situation. Since I could hear his father snoring I started asking him to be friends again, to let me make it up to him, and all the other things a swollen libido inspires one to say. But he was obviously angry with me and only said, ‘Go to sleep or I’ll tell my father.’

“There’s no obstacle a lack of scruples can’t overcome. While he kept threatening ‘to wake up father,’ I wormed my way around him and took my pleasure by force in spite of his half-hearted resistance. He was not entirely displeased by my ambush, and after he’d complained for some time that he’d been deceived, and then was laughed at and reviled by his fellow students (to whom he had boasted of my wealth!), he said, ‘But look, I’m not going to be like you, if you want to, do it again.’

“So with all my sins forgiven I was back in business on friendly terms; I enjoyed his favors and then slipped off into postcoital slumber. But the boy was ripe for pleasure—at that age, they’re insatiable—and he wasn’t satisfied with a mere repetition. So he woke me up saying, ‘Well, don’t you want something?’ And I admit, it was no unpleasant task. So somehow I panted, sweated, and banged away till he got what he wanted, then I fell asleep again, exhausted with pleasure. Less than an hour had passed when he started jostling me with his hand and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing it?’

“I was furious at being woken up so many times, so I gave him a taste of his own medicine. ‘Go to sleep,’ I warned, ‘or I’ll tell your father!’”


The poet Eumolpus bringing a pair of doves to the Pergamese boy.

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