Eumolpus' Pro Encolpio and Lichas' In Encolpium: Petr. Sat. 107.1–15

Costas Panayotakis

University of Glasgow

This paper offers a close reading of one of the less studied scenes in Petronius' novel: the debate between the poetaster Eumolpus and the captain Lichas during the "trial" of Encolpius and Giton, who pose as shorn and branded fugitives on board Lichas' ship.

            Trial-scenes are commonly found in Greco-Roman fiction, and the careful structure of this episode suggests that the narrator Encolpius was well aware of the rhetorical and literary conventions of the sources he was exploiting when re-shaping this episode of his past. The scene is noticeably divided into four mini-speeches (107.1–6 Eumolpus' deprecatio; 107.7–11 Lichas' iniqua declamatio; 107.12–4 Eumolpus' argument about the shorn locks; 107.15 Lichas' rebuttal of this argument), and there are clear verbal links among them which make the narrative cohere and flow smoothly (for instance, 107.2 casu in has plagas incidisse ~ 107.9 casu incidisse noxios in plagas; 107.3 satisfactione ~ 107.8 satisfactionem). But inconsistencies in the argument are also easy to spot (for example, although Encolpius and Giton pretend to be fugitive slaves, Eumolpus refers to them twice as free-born: 107. 3 patimini liberos homines ire sine iniuria; 107.5 ingenui honesti), and it is no accident that these occur in Eumolpus' section. Lichas, who ironically will be deceived and eventually drown in the storm, turns out to be a much more careful and clever advocate than Eumolpus, who survives the storm, and whose rhetorical flaws contribute to his already established characterisation as an incompetent poet.

            Moreover, I will argue that, although certain points in this debate are similar to motifs frequently and effectively employed in Ciceronian speeches (e.g. the reference at 107.1 and 107.11 to the ties of friendship connecting the opponents, and the phrase in plagas incidere), Eumolpus and Lichas may also be viewed as amateurs involved in a rhetorical controversia of the type studied by the Elder Seneca and used by the Younger Seneca in the plot of some of his plays (see, for example, the debate between Phaedra and her Nurse in Sen. Ph. 129–266). But even more interesting than the portrayal of Eumolpus as a "hopeless Cicero" or an unskilled student of rhetoric is the way in which the trial-scene in Petronius "disintegrates" from a pair of equally long speeches to a pair of uneven arguments and then to mere slapstick and blows. This is characteristic of the way in which Petronius constructs his text and elicits humour: several literary sources are exploited for the composition of a single, multi-layered episode, whose plot eventually crumbles and falls to pieces.


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