Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Satyricon - Menippean Satire or 'Alterum Genus'?

And you thought Apuleius was a bit saucy!

The Satryricon of Gaius Petronius Arbiter 27-66 CE is a fragmentary but kaleidoscopic work portraying the more salacious side of Roman life. It comes across as a deep down and dirty rollercoaster ride through the gamut of players on the roman urban stage during the tumultuous and fear drenched times of the Emperor Nero. Petronius is very likely the author although it is not totally certain, but it’s hard to imagine who else than the chief ‘style guru’ for Nero himself would have had the varied experiences alluded to in the text and the high level of education and literacy as well as wit to exploit such ribald and outrageous subject matter.

We meet the ex-gladiator Encolpius, his less than reliable ‘mate’ and rival in love Ascyltus, and the golden locked teenage object of their affections, Giton as they rumble their way through the streets of a Greek town in Campania (possibly Puteoli) on various escapades. The novelesque action of the text is interrupted and interlaced with speeches or mock poetry declamations, deliberately bad parody orations and blasts of verbal hot air as everything and everyone becomes a target for Petronius’ wickedly incisive invective.

Very early on, in introductions to translations of the texts and essays about the Satyricon, the reader will come across the central debate about this text. Is it an example of Menippean satire or, as Quintilian famously described the alternatives to the Menippean style, ‘alterum genus’? It is first necessary to look at the term Menippean satire and to try to decide whether the satyricon easily fits into this category. Finally I will try to decide what if any genre it does fit into or if it is a one-off unique and impossible due to its fragmentary nature to pin down.

The term Menippean Satire is in fact not a description that would have been recognised by the ancients and is a relatively recent invention. It is first introduced as a descriptive term for a certain kind of satire by Justus Lipsius in 1581 in his work ‘Satyra Menippea Somnium Lusus in Nostri Aevi Criticos’. The term also appears in a French political pamphlet of 1594 edited by Jean Leroy and with Pierre Pithou as one of its contributors entitled Satire Menippée. The term gathered momentum amongst renaissance writers and continued on through the history of literary criticism of classical works until modern times where it discussed by two leading critics on the 20th Century., Northrop Frye in his book ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ 1957 and Mikhail Bakhtin in his work ‘Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. I shall come back to these two major exponents of current thinking on Menippean Satire. But first, why Menippean?

Menippus was a 3rd Century BCE Greek Cynic thinker and parodist whose works are lost apart from very tiny fragments but is known to have influenced Lucian of Samosata as well as Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE) who wrote Saturarum Menippearum libri CL or Menippean Satires in 150 books. This work is sadly lost but from it and other references we do know that he was an authority on Satire.

 It is through Lucian’s mention of and conscious imitation or parody of the Greek parodist that we can determine the Menippean style.

The form is long, usually in prose and uses indirect satire as opposed to satire in the first person to parody or otherwise send up various attitudes and behaviours of the times. This is in distinct contrast to the more ad hominem type of satire in which individual figures or groups are satirised.  Aristophanes would be a good example of this latter style in which actual persons are satirised (e.g. Socrates in The Clouds).

It is also useful to consider the comments of the 4th Century CE Grammarian Diomedes. In his work Ars Grammatica III he gives us the following definition of satire:

Satura dicitur carmen apud nos Romanos, nunc quidem maledicum et ad carpenda hominum vitia archaeae commoediae charactere compositum, quale scripserunt Lucilius et Horatius et Persius; sed olim quod ex variis poematibus constabat satura vocabatur, quale scripserunt Pacuvius et Ennius.


‘Satire was termed a verse form among the Romans which has become in recent

times abusive and written in order to censure the vices of men in the manner of

ancient comedy, as written by Lucilius, Horace and Persius  but in former times

satire was a name given to a verse form made up of a variety of shorter verses

such the types written by Pacuvius and Ennius’

Diomedes doesn’t really make our immediate task any easier for us: he omits Menippus from the above list of definitive authors and focusses on early Roman satire in particular. He goes on to give no less than four possible derivations of the term satire. They are:-

1.       From the creature satyr, since satires contain the kinds of things that such comical and lascivious beasts would utter.

2.       Derived from satura the term for abundance and from an early celebratory ritual dish full of first fruits offered to the Gods by primitive or rustic folk. A sort of harvest festival.

3.       Or a kind of sausage called Satura filled with many varied ingredients, implying a hotchpotch type of narrative.

4.       Finally from the term satura meaning a law or codicil containing many provisions on a single Bill with the implied sense of a compendium of ideas or themes.


So although Diomedes has perhaps given us too much information at the risk of Tantalus like, removing the definition of Menippean satire ever further away, he is nonetheless useful as the only serious example in antiquity where the term satire has been looked at in detail as part of an attempt at a clear definition. The fact that he doesn’t really succeed is beside the point! At least he has given us plenty of food for thought – a bit like Trimalchio with his dormice rolled in honey and poppy seed!

 Coming back to the moderns, Bakhtin (1970) in his study of Menippean Satire as a genre drew up a list of 14 characteristics by which the genre could be recognised. They are:

1.       A presence of the comic element far greater than that which occurs in the Socratic Dialogue.

2.       A freeing up of historical limitations, of the demands of verisimilitude, and a ‘liberté exceptionelle de l’invention philosophique et thématique.

3.       The recourse to the fantastic, with a purely ideal or philosophical intention, that is, in order to investigate, provoke and test the idea of the philosophical truth of the wandering sage.

4.       A mixture of philosophical and symbolic dialogue with a ‘naturalisme des basfonds outrancier et grossier’ , that probably goes back to the first Menippean authors (cf. Bion of Borysthenes)

5.       A notable philosophical universalism, a meditation on the world carried to the limit, and, after all, a reflection on the ‘ultimes questions’.

6.       Development of action on three levels, or in three spaces, earth, Olympus and the underworld, and the presence of the ‘dialogue sur le seuil’.

7.       Experimental fantasticality, that is, observation from an unusual standpoint, for example from the heights, of phenomena that, from this perspective, acquire other dimensions.

8.       Moral and psychological experimentation, which translates into the epic and tragic monism, through the representation of uncommon and abnormal psychic states: manic-depressive dementia, double personality, extravagant fantasies, bizarre dreams, passions that border on madness, suicides, etc.

9.       A taste for scandalous scenes, for eccentric behaviour, for altered intentions and manifestations, for everything that is an affront to decency and the etiquette of a given occasion.

10.   A preference for violent contrasts, for oxymorons, for abrupt transformations, for unexpected reversals, for the majestic and for the base, for the elevation and the fall, for unexpected approaches to distant and varying objects and every kind of combination.

11.   The occurrence of the elements of social utopia, namely in dreams and on journeys to inexistent countries.

12.   The abundant recourse to genres which could be called ‘intercalaires’, like novellas, letters, the discourses of orators and, among others, the symposia, and mixtures of prose and verse, which are generally employed with a certain humour.

13.   ‘le plurystylisme et la pluritonalité, stemming from a new vision of the word as literary material, a vision that had been perpetuated through a dialogic current in literary prose.

14.   Opting for socio-political actuality, which, in treating ideas of the moment, confers a dimension of the ‘journalistique’ on the genre.


One is tempted to note that with such an extensive shopping list available to the would-be genre technician, could anything not be described as Menippean Satire? Jesting aside there are some flaws to this approach to the creation of a set of criteria by which one can make such genre judgements.

 The key problem is that  Bakhtin is not a classicist per se and such a list and what it implies could be accused of taking quite disparate Greek and Roman texts to justify a modern theory potentially unrelated to the ancient world setting or thought system. The texts are very often separated in time and decontextualizing those texts and using them in such a decontextualized state to build a unified genre is too fast and loose to provide any accuracy in our quest to decipher the meaning and import of Petronius work for the readership of its own time. There is a danger of making a false unity where there could be none, at least in the context of the original reception of each work. Perhaps Bakhtin and Northrop are less concerned with the ancient context and are looking for a definition which is more relevant for critics of modern texts in a satiric vein.  Whatever the case may be, caution is advised with such methods.

It’s already clear to me from reading the first seventy or so pages of the Satyricon that many of Bakhtin’s criteria are present, but I get the strong impression that Petronius is quite radically subverting the Menippean tradition. Not only are some elements missing (I mention this because it is not clear from Bakhtin how many of the points on the list need to be present for a definition of Menippean satire) but the use of such elements seems to idiosyncratic rather than representative of more easily identifiable Menippean works. For example the use of realism in the satyricon, the low class accents and authentic dialects seem to clash with point 2 of Bakhtins list. There is no constructive message of a social utopia (point 11) of the sort that we can find in other satirical texts such as Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis.

What we have then with the fragmented text of the satyricon is a fully fleshed out high definition balls-to-the-wall lurid representation of the whole spectrum of romans at play, the carnival of life with its sexual antics, crazy drunken revels, laughing fits, crying jags, high times, low times, often seen through the lens of intoxication or hangover. And on top of that the pseudo-moralizing bellyaching.  But even as the narrator is sending up the ridiculous ostentation of Trimalchio’s dinner party, guffawing into the sleeve of his toga at his expense, I can’t help feeling that the narrator at the same time is enjoying being a part of the events as well as sending it and himself up at the same time for being there.  There is no Menippean message or utopian salvation, life is just one long crazy party, with unpleasant interruptions of Fortuna’s unfairness and the baseness of man (but hardly from amoral point of view as if to say. Humans are pretty dire creatures and I am one too!). There is also at times a sort of ‘brotherhood of the cups’ where all present lose themselves in the sheer exuberance of the moments and obey the eternal injunction of ‘carpe diem’ as Trimalchio’s silver articulated skeleton sprawled out on the dining table glitters ominously.

As you read the Satyricon it will be interesting to see if you can discover any strong tendency to classic Menippean satire a la Bakhtin, or as I suspect it’s a sui generis one-off – due to its highly eloquent and skilled subversion and inversion, even of any set of criteria which would seek to pin this fragmentary yet highly compelling work down.



  1. Goodness, lots to chew on here. My copy of the Satyricon hasn't yet but will give some considered thought to a response when I've started reading it. On Apuleius I came across an interesting article on the connections between the Golden Ass and Plato's Phaedrus: Jeffrey Winkle, '"Necessary Roughness”: Plato’s Phaedrus and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses'. Its on a website called Ancient Narrative, scroll down to AN Volume 11 Articles. Looks like an interesting website generally.

  2. Thanks for the link to the Winkle article. I just picked it up and read it and on the whole its a very compelling argument and certainly leads one to a more spiritually transformative interpretation of the work, particularly along Platonic or Socratic lines. The Satyricon post does upon another reading seem to be quite packed! Hopefully plenty to talk about. I have noted in some articles a likening of Petronius to Proust in the sense that he was night creature and also that the Satyricon intact must have been at least the same length as A la Recherche... There are so many directions in which our investigations could go!