Vegetables and Bald Heads (Petr. Sat. 109.10.3-4)

Aldo Setaioli

University of Perugia

At Satyrica 109.9-10 Eumolpus recites some verses poking fun at the plight of Encolpius and Giton, whose head has been shaved clean to pass them off as fugitive slaves. In the hendecasyllables of 109.10 he says that Giton's head is smoother than polished bronze or than a vegetable, referred to as tuber, which is round, grows in a vegetable garden, and is generated by water (109.10.3-4 levior aere vel rotundo / horti tubere, quod creavit unda).

The oldest and most widespread interpretation takes this tuber to be a surface mushroom, but reliable linguistical support is lacking, as tuber seems never to be used in this meaning elsewhere.

Another interpretation, proposed by Burman and recently revived by some scholars, takes the tuber to be a truffle. Though tuber is often used to indicate truffles as well as other underground growths, this explanation is not satisfactory either, because truffles cannot be grown in vegetable gardens and are anything but smooth.

In the late 1800's Collignon suggested the horti tuber to ba a gourd, and this interpretation has been later defended by Scarcia and Grazia Sommariva. Apuleius' expression cucurbita calviorem (met. 5.9) does seem to testify that the gourd was proverbially associated with bald heads, but more cogent evidence is needed – both at the logical and the linguistic level – in order to accept the identification of the tuber with the gourd.

To obtain the requested logical evidence we may compare our passage, which links the tuber to the hortus – the vegetable garden – with an astrological passage of Firmicus Maternus (math.8.29) where, among occupations associated with Aquarius and having to do with water, the hortulani – people tending a vegetable garden – are repeatedly mentioned; this again must be compared with another Petronian passage (39.12), where Aquarius is in turn associated with gourds. Thus the circle (tuber – hortus/hortulani – Aquarius – gourd) is closed and the logical equivalence of the tuber and the gourd is demonstrated.

If we recall a passage of Gargilius Martialis (med. ex oler. et pom. 6, p. 140, 6-9 Rose) where the gourd is called "curdled water" (aquam… coagulatam), we shall understand both its association with Aquarius and why Eumolpus says that the horti tuber is not simply fed, but generated by water (quod creavit unda).

On the linguistic level, the proverb quoted by Apuleius (flor. 18), ubi uber, ibi tuber, permits us to go back to its original meaning as an agricultural saying: "fruits grow where the soil is fertile", though in Apuleius it is equivalent to our "there are no roses without thorns". In the original meaning of the proverb the tuber was neither undesirable nor necessarily attached to something else. For farmers it would naturally refer to the swelling of growing crops, and gourds and pumpkins would of course be foremost from this point of view. With this the linguistic possibility that the expression horti tuber may refer to a gourd is demonstrated.

On the other hand, the gourd's association with baldness is borne out by its survival in Italian folklore and colloquial speech.  


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