13. Plato’s Symposium and the Traditions of Ancient Fiction

Richard Hunter
Among the most striking products of the literature of the Roman empire are large-scale fictional narratives in prose, or occasionally a mixture of prose and verse. Such “novels”—the validity of the term is much debated but its usefulness seems undeniable—appear in both Greek and Latin, and cover a remarkable range of tone, style and milieu. [1] At the heart of most of these narratives lies a pair of lovers, usually but not always (cf. Petronius Satyrica) heterosexual, who eventually find happiness and each other after the most extraordinary adventures. In different ways, through both allusion and direct reference, most of the extant novelists acknowledge Plato as one of their authorizing models, second in importance perhaps only to Homer. In this paper I wish to explore two particular instances of that acknowledgement in the Latin novel, in both of which Plato, and particularly, though not exclusively, the Symposium, is indeed combined with Homer in scenes in which, through the figure of Socrates, the novelists seem to reflect upon their literary heritage and upon the business of creating fiction.
Critical interest in the links between Plato’s Symposium and later traditions of fictional narrative has, broadly speaking, concentrated in two areas. The first is how Plato’s work itself foreshadows these later developments. Many critics, including Nietzsche and Bakhtin, have seen the dialogues as foreshadowing the later novel and/or providing a paradigm for it and/or (to simplify a complex argument) as themselves the first novels (cf. further {295|296} below). [2] Alongside (and in part stimulated by) this, the very obvious concern of the Symposium, as also of (say) the Phaedo, with its own status as a fiction, i.e. with the historicity of what is reported within it, [3] can with hindsight be seen to foreshadow a similar (and much discussed) feature of some of the novels of later antiquity, which display a partly playful and partly anxious concern with the “truth status” of their fictional narratives (is this logos or is this muthos?); [4] it is a small step from noting this similarity to seeing in these concerns a move by the later novelists to trace their literary genealogy back to Plato and/or to claim the philosopher as “one of them.” I will return presently to another way in which Apuleius seems to claim Plato as “the father of the logos.”
The second principal area of scholarly interest has been with the actual influence of the Symposium in the later novels, both in terms of intertextual echoes and, more broadly, with how later fiction reproduces and varies Platonic paradigms of erôs, particularly those of the Symposium. [5] Interest has centered on the apparent similarity between the mutual obsession with each other shown by Aristophanes’ “separated halves” in the Symposium and the devotion and constant searching of the central couples at the heart of the novels of later antiquity, though other patterns, such as the reversal of “Pausaniac” erôs in Petronius’ famous story of the sex-mad “Pergamene boy,” have not been neglected. In this paper I will to some extent be pursuing these same paths, although this essay should also be seen within the broader context of an investigation of the interest of the novelists, one they inherited from (inter alios) Plato himself, [6] in contemporary interpretative practices. In an earlier contribution to this theme, [7] I put the matter (not very elegantly) as follows:
When … novelists themselves—to put it very crudely—overtly write “interpretation” into their own works, they are not merely challenging the scholastic hierarchy, they are also challenging us to have the critical courage and/or naïveté to take them seriously. The history of the interpretation of—to use the strongest case—{296|297} Apuleius’ Metamorphoses shows that the interpretative community … is far from making up its mind on this matter. This critical uncertainty arises in large part precisely from the fact that, as the novelists (and, we may assume, at least many of their readers) knew only too well, the practice and modes of interpretation to which they direct us arose from and were designed for texts which occupied a very different cultural position.
This unsettling gap is in fact crucial to the literary effects of these techniques. All of our extant novels lay claim, with varying degrees of explicitness and persistence, to the Homeric mantle, and as Homer is the privileged font and subject of all interpretative practice, so an internal discourse of interpretation must be considered as a (ludic or otherwise) part of those generic and cultural claims.
Of rather more interest is a passage of Origen which all but certainly has Plato’s Symposium in mind, in which the Christian scholar finds pagan parallels for the Song of Songs—parallels for that work’s subject (love), for the fact that it can be (and has been) “misread,” and for its form (dialogue): [8]
Among the Greeks, indeed, many of the sages, desiring to pursue the search for truth in regard to the nature of love, produced a great variety of writings in this dialogue form, the object of which was to show that the power of love is none other than that which leads the soul from earth to the lofty heights of heaven, and that the highest beatitude can only be attained under the stimulus of love’s desire. Moreover, the disputations on this subject are represented as taking place at meals (conuiuia), between persons whose banquet, I think, consists of words and not of meats. [9] And others also have left us written accounts of certain arts, by which this love might be generated and augmented in the soul. But carnal men have perverted these arts to foster vicious longings and the secrets of sinful love.
Prologue 63.6–16 Baehrens, trans. Lawson (1957:23–4)
Plato’s Symposium is indeed a text which, in Origen’s terms, has a very great deal invested in the distinction between “carnal” and “higher” love, between bodies and souls, and in the various ways in which erotic texts can be read. {297|298}
Of the surviving ancient novels, it is the Metamorphoses of Apuleius which is perhaps most called to mind by Origen’s words. This novel, probably composed near the middle of the second century AD, tells the story of Lucius, who, through misplaced curiosity about magic, is transformed into an ass and thus witnesses and experiences terrible cruelty and “carnality” until he is finally saved by the grace of the great goddess Isis, whose priest he becomes. Apuleius was steeped in the works of Plato and the trends of second-century Platonism, and the debt of the Metamorphoses to Plato, and particularly to the Symposium, is very obvious; [10] it is particularly felt in the central books of the novel in which Lucius listens to the famous tale of “Cupid and Psyche,” in which the beautiful young Psyche (‘Soul’) is indeed finally led by Love “from earth to the lofty heights of heaven,” as Origen puts it. Moreover, the whole plot of the Metamorphoses seems structured around the opposition between two forms of pleasure, the slavish and carnal on one side and the higher pleasure of true knowledge on the other, and we are at least invited to ponder throughout the work how much seriousness (spoudaion) lies concealed beneath the humor (geloion), as Alcibiades famously describes the logoi of the silenic Socrates. [11] Behind the Metamorphoses lies a Greek novel which survives in a version ascribed to Lucian, the Onos (‘Ass’). [12] Apuleius is, then, not just, as is his own Isis-priest (Metamorphoses 11.15), a self-conscious reader and interpreter of his own gloriously metaliterary Metamorphoses, he is also the first reader and exegete, of whom we know, of the Greek Onos, and he revels in displaying the operations of, in his own words, a lector scrupulosus ‘busybody reader’ confronted with that remarkable tale; the shifting and multi-faceted relationship between translation and interpretation is one to which Apuleius himself draws attention in the prologue. The very addition of an introductory prologue to the Greek model suggests “intentionality” in the narrative, i.e. that it is being told for a particular purpose, while simultaneously teasing us with the story’s (alleged) lack of seriousness. [13]
The Greek Onos can be read—as Apuleius’ transformation of the tale above all proves—as a parody of the philosopher’s progress. Lucius feels a powerful ‘desire’ (ἐπιθυμεῖν, chaps. 4, 5, 11, 12) to see or ‘learn’ (μαθεῖν, chap. 11) paradoxical things; he in fact feels erôs for such knowledge (chaps. 4, 5). {298|299} Lucius wanders about aimlessly, “at a loss (ἀπορῶν) as to where to begin the search” (Onos 4, cf. Metamorphoses 2.1–2), like the aimless philosopher without a guide (Plato Symposium 173a1–2); [14] the Luciuses of both the Onos and the Metamorphoses are indeed afflicted with the obsessive “desire to know” (cf. Metamorphoses 1.2) of which Apollodorus is so conscious in the Symposium (172e5–6, cf. further below). The desire to see metamorphosis (Onos 4, 11) would seem, however, to be the parodic opposite of the philosopher’s ascent in the Symposium where, through the beneficent effects of erôs and a guide, the philosopher may catch sight of eternal, unchanging Beauty. Apuleius’ Lucius at any rate imagines the Thessalian town of Hypata as a kind of Platonic limit-case, a site of Heraclitean flux in which everything visible is both changeable and indeed changed (Metamorphoses 2.1). It is against this background that we must consider the name of the central character of the opening story in the Metamorphoses, Socrates, a name which has, of course, not gone unremarked. [15]
In the opening pages of the Metamorphoses, Lucius (not yet transformed) listens to his traveling companion, Aristomenes, telling how a friend of his called Socrates was killed by a vengeful witch, Meroe, with whom Socrates had lived and slept but whom he had then left. That Aristomenes’ story both foreshadows many of the themes of the work which it introduces and acts as something of a microcosmic taster of that work is well recognized, and it is made explicit in Lucius’ farewell to a more skeptical traveling companion, who has also listened to Aristomenes’ tale; Lucius’ words echo the prologue, and thus draw an analogy between the whole work and the tale of Socrates: sed ego huic credo hercule et gratas gratias memini quod lepidae fabulae festiuitate nos auocauit, “for my part I believe him and I am very grateful to him for having distracted us with a charming and pretty tale” (1.20). As the adventures of both Socrates, another pursuer (like Lucius) of ‘pleasure’ (uoluptas, 1.7), [16] and Aristomenes (cf. the curiositas of 1.8.1 and 1.12) to some extent parallel those of Lucius, so Meroe foreshadows “the witch” Pamphile, who fascinates Lucius in Hypata, and acts as a warning to the listening Lucius; Lucius even claims that his horse enjoyed the story of Socrates (1.20), as he himself is soon to have to listen to a great {299|300} many such stories in the shape of an ass. [17] The ambivalent relationship between the narrator “Lucius” and the author “Apuleius”—a relationship upon which so much Apuleian bibliography is founded—may even find a parallel in the unsurprising fact that the Platonic Socrates was one of the many classical models after whom “the real” Apuleius fashioned himself (cf. Apuleius Florida 2).
That the central character of Aristomenes’ story is called “Socrates” suggests philosophical parody at more than one level (the Phaedrus, for example, is very obviously prominent in Metamorphoses 1.19—the Apuleian Socrates dies beside a plane-tree); both Plato’s and Aristomenes’ Socrates end their life with a drink, though Plato’s stress on his Socrates’ unchanged complexion and demeanor in the face of death (Phaedo 117b) resonates curiously against the deathly pallor of the Apuleian Socrates as death approaches (Metamorphoses 1.19.1). Whatever intertextual echoes there may be, Apuleius chooses to begin his novel with a story about (the death of) Socrates, and in such a way as to make clear that this story is emblematic for the longer narrative we are about to read and for the possibilities of interpretative reading which it is to offer. The death of Socrates is in fact the beginning of fiction, as Plato’s Socrates himself is a figure of myth and fiction. [18] What is at issue is not how overtly fictional Plato’s own account of his Socrates’ death is, [19] but rather how “stories about Socrates” act as paradigms of fiction.
Most obviously, perhaps, we may wish to compare the paraded concern with historicity at the opening of the Phaedo and, even more so, the Symposium with the obtrusive concern with truth, fiction, and gullibility with which Aristomenes’ tale is framed. That the introduction to the Symposium makes it very clear that we are not to be overly concerned with its documentary historicity is very familiar critical territory and it is also to be remarked that both Apollodorus’ story in Plato and Aristomenes’ in Apuleius are “repeats”: Apollodorus had told his tale to Glaukon a couple of days earlier and Aristomenes had told (all or some of) his tale to his skeptical companion before Lucius intervenes and asks him to begin again. [20] The repeated telling of oral tales inevitably foregrounds—as both Plato and Apuleius make explicit—the role of the audience, and this too carries its own familiar implications for fictionality; Plato’s Aristodemus (himself hardly an impartial narrator) found as receptive an audience in Apollodorus as Apollodorus then found in {300|301} Glaukon, and as Aristomenes found in Lucius. At the heart of ancient notions about fiction lies precisely the attitude of the teller to his tale (the prologue of Lucian’s True Histories makes this very clear), the attitude with which the audience receive it, and the effect of the tale upon them; whether what is told is, in a historical sense, strictly true or not is—as often as not—of secondary importance. A “true” tale can in this sense be fictional. [21]
The telling of the story of Agathon’s symposium beguiled a “journey to town (εἰς ἄστυ)” for Apollodorus and Glaukon (173b7–8), just as Aristomenes’ tale brought Lucius very pleasantly “to the very gates of the city” (Metamorphoses 1.2, 20). Pleasure, of course, is crucial here—it is what the Metamorphoses promises, what “Cupid and Psyche” quite literally delivers (the last phrase of the tale tells of the birth of their child Voluptas, Metamorphoses 6.24), and the state in which Lucius finishes his narrative (Metamorphoses 11.30); it, along with benefit (τὸ ὠφελεῖσθαι), is what Apollodorus derives from telling or listening to “logoi about philosophy” (Symposium 173c2–5). This last passage of the Symposium seems a remarkable foreshadowing of the Hellenistic concern with the utile and the dulce in literature; we may wonder to what extent Apollodorus’ remarkable enthusiasm (ὑπερφυῶς ὡς χαίρω) marks him as someone who is never going to get very far in philosophy, but it certainly makes him of a piece with Apuleius’ Lucius. Apollodorus should perhaps have been doing and listening to “philosophy” rather than “logoi about philosophy,” if he wishes to make progress, but this phrase, together with the idea of benefit mixed with pleasure, strongly suggests a form of literature (a term here used, I hope, neutrally) such as we enjoy every time we read the Symposium. So too does Alcibiades’ account of the effect of the logoi of Socrates/Marsyas: “when we hear you speaking, or listen to even a second-rate report of one of your arguments, then it doesn’t matter who we are—woman, man or child—we’re all overwhelmed and spellbound” (215d2–6, trans. Waterfield). This description of the effect of Socrates’ logoi, which are in non-musically accompanied prose (215c7), ἐκπεπληγμένοι ἐσμὲν καὶ κατεχόμεσθα “we are overwhelmed and spellbound,” is of course dictated by the context of ecstatic music (cf. 215c5), but it also looks both forwards and backwards in “literary theory”: if the former word makes us think of ekplêxis, that quality of high poetry, particularly epic and tragedy, which “knocks out” the audience with its powerful clarity, [22] the latter recalls the whole idea of poetry as thelxis, ‘echantment’, an idea which has a powerful hold in the Greek tradition from the Odyssey {301|302} onwards. [23] Neither critical notion, of course, suggests the literal truth of what is being represented, and often indeed the very opposite. Again, then, we may wonder whether the terms in which Alcibiades describes the effect of Socrates’ logoi reveal the lack of depth of his own philosophical nature (and cf. 215e1–4), [24] but the idea that Socrates’ logoi could be related by someone else—as indeed Apollodorus and Plato relate the Symposium—shows again how these logoi now have a life and circulation of their own, quite independent of Socrates himself. Yet another testimony to this idea is Phaedo’s willingness to tell the story of the great man’s death: “for remembering Socrates, whether by speaking myself or listening to another, brings me the greatest pleasure in the world (πάντων ἥδιστον)” (Phaedo 58d5–6). Here then is the blueprint for Aristomenes’ tale.
In the Poetics Aristotle famously makes a distinction between poetry and history:
… the historian speaks of events which have occurred, the poet of the sort of events which could occur. It is for this reason that poetry is both more philosophical and more serious than history, since poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars. A “universal” comprises the kind of speech or action which belongs by probability or necessity to a certain kind of character—something which poetry aims at while adding particular names. A “particular,” by contrast, is what Alcibiades did or experienced.
Aristotle Poetics 1451b4–11, trans. Halliwell, adapted
Although Aristotle’s focus is utterly different, this passage can with hindsight be seen as (directly or indirectly) a significant step along the path of the justification of higher interpretation. Poetry can be seen as “more philosophical” because it is not tied to the historicity of what it relates, a claim which—if taken in ways which Aristotle did not apparently intend—also frees the interpreter to consider the “value” and real “meaning” of what is written, rather than just the surface literal meaning. The language of “doing and suffering,” together with the idea of detailed completeness which Aristotle identifies as the hallmark of historiography, find (perhaps paradoxically) a striking parallel in the language used in epic poetry and then in the later novel (cf. Xenophon of Ephesus 5.15.2) to describe such extended (fictional) narratives them{302|303}selves. [25] Against this background, Apollodorus’ claim that he now takes care “every day to know what [Socrates] says or what he does” (Symposium 172e5–6) points in more than one direction. Apollodorus, of course, is interested in the “historical record,” as his concern to check his source (Symposium 173b4–6) shows; for him the tale he tells, his “Symposium,” is not just “logoi about philosophy,” it is also historia. [26] We, on the other hand, will wonder whether these things are compatible. Once, however, we have been alerted to the problems with using “historicity” as a criterion, we will be looking for alternative interpretative strategies to help us with the fact that, in Aristotle’s terms (and one imagines he would have agreed with the sentiment), Plato’s Symposium, as opposed to Apollodorus’, is “more philosophical and more serious” than historiography.
Here, then, is another way in which the death of Socrates is the beginning of fiction, particularly for a writer such as Apuleius. The large body of Socratic dialogues to which Socrates’ death gave birth can be seen as the first major prose genre (and one very largely in the first person) which deliberately re-creates a past and asks us to read it with “philosophical” strategies. If we concern ourselves with whether or not the Phaedo is a literally “historical” account of Socrates’ last hours, we will probably have missed much of the point; similarly, if we concern ourselves with the “historicity” of Aristomenes’ tale we will have also missed the point, as surely as we would do so if we read “Cupid and Psyche” with such an attitude.
Socrates is not, of course, the only, nor indeed the most famous, originary hero of fiction. Plato’s Alcibiades makes Socrates himself a latter-day Odysseus in the Symposium (220c), [27] and the paradigmatic role of the polutropos hero and of the Odyssey as a whole in the ancient novel (and particularly in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses) requires no demonstration. In Aristomenes’ tale, his Socrates is compared by Meroe to the cunning Odysseus who deserted Calypso (Metamorphoses 1.12), and it is clear that much about this Socrates recalls the Homeric hero. [28] When we first meet Socrates in Aristomenes’ tale (1.6) he is shabbily dressed and very obviously down on his luck: “he was sitting on {303|304} the ground, half-covered in a torn cloak, almost unrecognizable in his pallor and wretched emaciation, like those who beg at the public crossroads” (humi sedebat scissili palliastro semiamictus, paene alius lurore, ad miseram maciem deformatus, qualia solent fortunae deterrima† stipes in triuiis erogare). This description has been referred to particular features of “the” Socrates and the Socratic tradition, [29] but we may here rather recall the beggarly state to which Athena reduces Odysseus for the purposes of disguise (Odyssey xiii 429–38); [30] moreover, both Odysseus and the Apuleian Socrates are hard to recognize, both are believed dead in their homelands, their wives given to extremes of weeping and the pressure to re-marry, [31] both cover their heads for shame (αἴδετο, prae pudore) at crucial moments of recollection (cf. Odyssey viii 83–86), [32] and a bath does both of them a lot of good. More generally, Socrates is a victim of the twists and turns of fortune no less than Homer’s polutropos hero (cf. Metamorphoses 1.6 “the dangerous twists, unsteady assaults and winding changes of our fortunes,” fortunarum lubricas ambages et instabiles incursiones et reciprocas uicissitudines), [33] and no less than Lucius himself, who endured “the winding twists of most terrible journeys,” asperrimorum itinerum ambages reciprocae (11.15), and whose debt to the figure of Odysseus requires no demonstration; Socrates’ lament in 1.6. is echoed and varied in the Isis-priest’s famous words of consolation to Lucius in 11.15, as for example at the beginning of his speech: “having endured many and varied tribulations and driven by the great storms and terrible blasts of Fortune, you have at last come, Lucius, to the altar of pity,” multis et uariis exanclatis laboribus magnisque Fortunae tempestatibus et maximis actus procellis ad portum quietis et aram misericordiae tandem, Luci, uenisti. Here too, we can hardly fail to think of the hero who “endured in his heart many sufferings upon the sea” (Odyssey i 4). [34] Finally we may note {304|305} that the Apuleian Socrates tells his story over food and drink, preceding it, as does Odysseus (cf. Odyssey viii 535, 540, ix 13), with the noise of sadness, “drawing up a tortured sigh from the depths of his chest,” imo de pectore cruciabilem suspiritum ducens.
It is of course no surprise that the long-suffering Apuleian Socrates is an Odysseus figure, particularly as his “Calypso” is very obviously a “Circe,” [35] but the fusion of these two originary figures of fiction at the head of Apuleius’ novel deserves more attention than it has received. [36] Such self-conscious concern with the history of the form in which Apuleius is writing is very much of a piece with the concerns and self-positioning of the prologue of the Metamorphoses, but—like the prologue itself—the appeal to the models of Odysseus and Socrates is also an appeal to an interpretative tradition and a nudge to us as to how we should read this text; how misleading that nudge is may, of course, be another question.


Petronius’ Satyrica wears its “culturedness” very openly; it strokes our self-importance as knowledgeable readers/interpreters, but the “low realism” of the text works to close down its educational value, by leaving very little (no?) room for interpretability of a moralizing or even quasi-allegorical kind, such as flourished in ancient school-rooms and with which the poet Eumolpus introduces his “Capture of Troy” (Satyrica 88) and which is written into his own epic “The Civil War” (Satyrica 119–124). There is apparently nothing you can do with this text, which it has not already done to itself; this has not, of course, stopped modern scholarship. This aspect of the text is, for example, made very obvious by a comparison between the Satyrica and the most ambitious and complex of all surviving Greek novels, Heliodorus’ Aithiopika; both works are laden with cultural knowledge of all kinds, but whereas the Satyrica dares us to “interpret,” to “know” things (if you like) at our peril, the Aithiopika rather {305|306} invites us to wallow in interpretative excess. [37] With this preliminary warning, I want to look at the episode of the Satyrica in which Encolpius, pretending to be a slave called Polyaenus (‘much praised’, an epithet of Odysseus), [38] becomes involved at Croton with a rich woman called “Circe”; one reason for choosing this episode in the current context is that it forms part of an elaborate fiction of role-playing staged by Encolpius and his companions, and part of that fiction is explicitly a rewriting of the Odyssey. Here perhaps we are being nudged as Apuleius was later to do. [39]
At Croton Encolpius’ persistent impotence disappoints not merely Circe, but also his boyfriend Giton, whose sarcastic response is preserved: “I am grateful to you for loving me in the manner of Socrates: Alcibiades was not so untouched when he lay in his teacher’s bed,” itaque hoc nomine gratias ago, quod me Socratica fide diligis. non tam intactus Alcibiades in praeceptoris sui lecto iacuit (Satyrica 128.7). The barb reminds us of how little of the ideal “Pausaniac” relationship there is between Encolpius and Giton, his ‘brother’ (frater), in the terminology of the Satyrica; [40] Petronius may here be pointing (by the familiar technique of “window reference”) to the (real or constructed) model of verses from the Ovidian poem which is so important to these Petronian scenes, namely Amores 3.7, in which Ovid relates how he too proved impotent at a crucial moment: {306|307}
sic flammas aditura pias aeterna sacerdos
surgit et a caro fratre uerenda soror

Thus does a virgin priest rise to approach the holy flames, or a modest sister from
beside her dear brother.
Ovid Amores 3.7.21–22
Petronius has in mind, of course, Alcibiades’ famous words: “I rose up after having slept with Socrates no differently than if I had slept with my father or an older brother” (Symposium 219c7–d2); it is indeed with “an older brother (frater)” that Giton has slept (just as ‘sister’ (soror) Circe also is disappointed with her “brother’s” performance in bed (cf. Satyrica 127.1–2)). At the heart of these scenes lies a very obvious Homeric parody: Odysseus must fear that Circe will make him ‘unmanned’ (ἀνήνωρ, Odyssey x 341), but in Petronius Encolpius is already in that state and thus no good to Circe at all. Giton’s remark, however, suggests that Socrates too, that other paradigmatic hero of fiction with which we are concerned, may have left Alcibiades intactus , not because of some high philosophical attitude, but simply because he was impotent; as so often, the alluding text makes us read the model with new eyes—allusion is interpretation. The final mystery (Plato Symposium 218b5–8) revealed by Alcibiades, the new Dionysus, which corresponds to Diotima’s “epoptic” vision, turns out to have been of an impotent teacher; if some Dionysiac mysteries revealed an erect phallus to initiates, [41] here the revelation, the “what Alcibiades saw” and the “what phantasia allows us to see,” is somewhat less exciting.
Socrates is also important elsewhere in these scenes. Circe warns Encolpius in a letter of the mortal danger in which he finds himself: “if that same chill attacks your knees and hands, you might as well send for the funeral trumpeters,” quod si idem frigus genua manusque temptauerit tuas, licet ad tubicines mittas (Satyrica 129.7). Here again we seem to have both Ovid and Plato. In Amores 3.7 the poet blames his tools for missing a golden opportunity:
tacta tamen ueluti gelida mea membra cicuta
segnia propositum destituere meum.
My lifeless limbs, as though I had drunk chill hemlock, could not perform as I wished
Ovid Amores 3.7.13–14 {307|308}
The reference to the coldness induced by hemlock can hardly fail to recall Plato’s account of the final hours of Socrates, as the cold numbness moves up from the feet to the legs and lower abdomen (Phaedo 117e–118a8). The prison-warder’s observation that “when the coldness reached Socrates’ heart, he would die” (Phaedo 118a4) is all but translated in Circe’s warning to Encolpius (Satyrica 129.7 above).
If Apuleius’ Socrates resembles Odysseus, Petronius’ Odysseus resembles (the Platonic) Socrates. This ought to make us look again at how we are encouraged to read the Circe-scenes of the Satyrica. The most common ancient interpretation of the Homeric Circe-episode, as of course also (inter alia) of the land of the Lotus-eaters and of the Sirens (with whom Encolpius compares his “Circe,” Satyrica 127.5), was that it was a story about the dangers of the pursuit of irrational pleasure; [42] in such interpretations Circe is often portrayed as a hetaira (cf. Horace Epistles 1.2.25) who controlled men “because of the desires which irrationally inclined them towards pleasure” (“Heraclitus” De incredibilibus 16), whereas Odysseus overcomes her by reason, education, and through the aid of Hermes and/or his môly, i.e. rational logos (cf. e.g. “Heraclitus” Homeric Problems 72). Such a reading, which has roots as early as Plato’s Cratylus (407e–408a) [43] and which was apparently promoted by Cleanthes (SVF I 526), in fact makes an explicit appearance at the close of Apuleius’ “On the god of Socrates” (chap. 178), in a passage which associates Socrates and Odysseus and suggests that there was a great deal more such material available which has been lost to us. Be that as it may, this reading was by no means universal: thus, for example, the Homeric scholia preserve remnants of a moralizing interpretation in which Circe invites Odysseus into her bed “not for pleasure, but as a pledge of good faith” (Σ on Odyssey x 334) or “not out of wantonness, but because, on the basis of what Hermes had told her, Odysseus was dear to the gods” (Σ on Odyssey x 296). Nevertheless, it is usually of the dangers of Circe of which the interpreters warn. Of particular interest is the set of interpretations preserved in the Homeric commentary of the twelfth-century bishop of Thessaloniki, Eustathius, which certainly draw on much earlier material. Here Circe is, as usual, pleasure (1656.6 on Odyssey x 231, 1656.41–55 on Odyssey x 241), and particularly the irrational pleasures of appetite and of the flesh, by {308|309} which men become beasts; these are, however, short-lived pleasures which “flatter us with the appearance (φαντασία) of good” (1656.30–31 on Odyssey x 241). [44] According to Eustathius, Circe’s own character (if read outside the allegory) is base: she likes sex far too much and she shows the cowardice of a woman (1659.62–1660.2 on Odyssey x 323). As for Hermes, he is logos and the môly is education: its root is black because for those who set out on the path of education the end is obscure, hard to grasp, and not pleasant (ἡδύ) to reach, but its flower is white, because the end of education is of a brilliant purity, both pleasant and nourishing; armed with these weapons Odysseus “the philosopher” conquers the pleasures of the flesh (1658.25–40 on Odyssey x 277, 1660.26 on Odyssey x 337). Odysseus extracts from Circe an oath that she will do him no harm, thus guaranteeing “like a philosopher” that he can sleep with her “with sôphrosynê and with out suffering harm” (1660.32–36 on Odyssey x 343).
In the fiction which he creates, Encolpius is indeed a “slave to pleasure”: the fact that he plays the role of a slave (Satyrica 126.5) makes the point forcefully. Nevertheless, it is perhaps his very control of logos, his “culture” and education, his knowledge of how narratives such as the Homeric Circe are to be read, which keeps him impotent in the face of Circe’s charms; he lives out the Odyssean nightmare, a fate with which Ovid’s disappointed mistress also charges her useless lover (“either the witch of Aia has pierced woolen dolls to put a spell on you or you come tired after lovemaking with another,” aut te traiectis Aeaea uenefica lanis / deuouet, aut alio lassus amore uenis’, Amores 3.7.79–80). If “the ancients depicted the older bearded Hermes with an erect penis … because in men of advanced years logos is productive and complete (γόνιμος καὶ τέλειος)” (Cornutus Theologiae Graecae Compendium 16, p.23.16–21 Lang), in the case of Encolpius logos has produced the very opposite effect; education here is truly disempowering. Fortunately for Encolpius, however, the god who takes away can also restore (Satyrica 140.12). [45] Be that as it may, the {309|310} Eustathian account of Circe may again recall the Platonic Socrates to us. After his night of chastity, Alcibiades immediately expresses his wonderment at Socrates’ “physis [46] and sôphrosynê and andreia,” for he had never imagined that he would meet a man so distinguished for phronêsis and karteria, “intelligence and endurance” (Symposium 219d3–7). Socrates’ sôphrosynê, that quality which, in the Eustathian reading, allowed Odysseus to enter Circe’s bed, has become in Petronius impotence, andreia (‘the quality of a man’) has become anandria, and we will not, I think, accuse Encolpius of sharing in phronêsis and karteria, which are again the hallmarks of the Eustathian Odysseus. In the interpretation of [Plutarch] De Homero, the wise Odysseus was not metamorphosed by Circe because “he had received impassivity (τὸ ἄπαθες) from Hermes, that is from logos” (2.128); impotence is not what a Skeptic or a Stoic normally meant by apatheia, but that is certainly what this Odysseus enjoyed (or, rather, did not). [47]
If Odysseus and Socrates are the “beginning” of fiction, what is its end (τέλος)? The answer is sex, both in the Alexandrian “end” of the Odyssey (Odyssey xxiii 296) and in a prominent part of the ancient novel tradition (note the end of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe and the reversal of the idea at the end of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses which celebrates chastity); the famous elegiacs of Satyrica 132.15 adduce the authority of Epicurus for sex as the telos of all life. [48] More broadly, perhaps, texts such as “Cupid and Psyche” suggest that the end of fiction, as of life, is pleasure, ἡδονή, and this is not without interest in the context of the interpretative tradition of the Circe-episode which we have been tracing and of the parodic mise-en-abîme of the “novel within a novel” which the charade at Croton represents. [49] Moreover, this idea seems to be thematized in what survives of the text: Circe and Encolpius sport on the grass “seeking more robust pleasure” (quaerentes uoluptatem robustam, Satyrica 127.10), and when Circe flounces off, Encolpius is left to ponder “whether I had been {310|311} cheated of genuine pleasure” (an uera uoluptate fraudatus essem, Satyrica 128.5). It looks as though Petronius’ comedy overturns not just Homeric models, but also models of Homeric interpretation: the end of life (as of fiction) really is sexual pleasure, that very lesson which the Homeric Circe-episode was read as disproving. On his side of the argument, Petronius/Encolpius musters some powerful allies: Homer himself, for one. The foreplay of Circe and Encolpius (Satyrica 127.9) rewrites the very end of the Iliadic “Deception of Zeus,” in which Hera tricks her husband into making love so that he will be distracted from the battle at Troy, to “set the reader up for the failure of Encolpius to perform with Circe”; [50] the parody allows us to see Circe’s words at 127.7 “there is no need to fear any busybody [seeing us],” neque est quod curiosum aliquem extimescas, as a rewriting of Iliad XIV 342–3, “have no fear that a god or any man will see this” (with a typical move from simple “sight” to the voyeuristic curiositas of the Roman novel tradition). Zeus and Hera lend powerful authority to any argument. [51]
There was of course one great philosophical school devoted to ἡδονή and uoluptas, namely the Epicureans. The Epicurean resonances which surface in many places in the Satyrica have long been catalogued, and it is familiar that ‘genuine pleasure’ (uera uoluptas) in 128.5 takes us immediately to Lucretius and his master. [52] The poem which follows, on how we take pleasure in what we possess only in dreams and regret its loss when we awake, may fairly be described as sub-Lucretian, and it is, as Marina Di Simone noted, [53] precisely the famous passage of Lucretius 4 on the frustrating pursuit of sexual uoluptas to which we are directed: [54] {311|312}
nocte sporifera ueluti cum somnia ludunt
errantes oculos effossaque protulit aurum
in lucem tellus: uersat manus improba furtum
thesaurosque rapit, sudor quoque perluit ora
et mentem timor altus habet, ne forte grauatum
excutiat gremium secreti conscius auri:
mox ubi fugerunt elusam gaudia mentem
ueraque forma redit, animus quod perdidit optat
atque in praeterita se totus imagine uersat.

As when in the deep sleep of night dreams deceive our wandering eyes and the earth
is exposed to reveal gold; a wicked hand turns over what it has stolen and grabs the
treasure; sweat bathes the face and a deep fear grips the mind, lest someone who
knows about our secret gold robs our bursting pocket. When such joys have
abandoned our minds which have been tricked and true appearances have been
restored, our hearts long for what they have lost and are completely absorbed in the
image which has gone.
Petronius Satyrica 128.6
The pleasure and excitement of sudden riches is as short-lived as the pleasure and relief which sex with a desired partner brings. Even without the Lucretian resonances, it is clear that Petronius’ poem paints the illicit pleasure of unexpected wealth in sexual terms: dreams in the night, the wicked hand (manus improba), sweat, the fear which attends adultery as much as secret riches (cf. Horace Satires 1.2.127–131), fleeting joys. Thus, whereas “philosophy,” as embodied in the wisdom of Odysseus, is normally opposed to the life of pleasure which Circe represents, here philosophy, as represented by the self-defensive Encolpius, fights on Circe’s side; so would Socrates have done, if his manhood had been up to it. {312|313}


[ back ] 1. The Greek material is most accessible in translation in Reardon 1989, and in Stephens and Winkler 1995. The Latin novels of Petronius and Apuleius have been translated many times, but Walsh 1994, and Branham and Kinney 1996 are good places to start. There is now a huge bibliography on the ancient novel, but Schmeling 2003 offers a helpful way into the whole subject.
[ back ] 2. See Nietzsche 1956:87–88; Bakhtin 1981:21–26; and the discussions of e.g. Gold 1980, Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan 2005. For Bakhtin and the ancient novel more generally cf. Branham 2002b, Branham 2005; in one sense, at least, the Symposium is a limit case of “polyglossia.”
[ back ] 3. Cf. e.g. Hunter 2004:20–29; Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan 2005.
[ back ] 4. For this distinction in the novels and further bibliography cf. Hunter 1994 and 1997.
[ back ] 5. For bibliography and discussion cf. Hunter 1996 and (more briefly) Hunter 2004:125–9; cf. further Branham 2002b:173–174.
[ back ] 6. For the Symposium as a key text for the history of “interpretation” cf. Hunter 2004:11–12, 128–130.
[ back ] 7. Hunter 2005b:125.
[ back ] 8. For Origen’s debt to the Symposium here and elsewhere cf. Rist 1964:195–212, Osborne 1994:164–184.
[ back ] 9. For this topos cf. e.g. Lucian, Symposium 2.
[ back ] 10. Cf. (briefly) Hunter 2004:128–129; further bibliography and discussion in Münstermann 1995:16–23 and Dowden 2006.
[ back ] 11. Cf. e.g. Schlam 1970:486–487, who compares Alcibiades’ words to Lucius’ plea at Metamorphoses 1.3 for “close examination” of what at first seems absurd.
[ back ] 12. Translation by J. P. Sullivan in Reardon 1989:589–618.
[ back ] 13. For the prologue of the Metamorphoses cf. Kahane and Laird 2001.
[ back ] 14. Cf. Hunter 2004:24–25.
[ back ] 15. Cf. e.g. O’Brien 2002:27–31, Smith and Woods 2002:185–91, Keulen 2003, 2004. Most scholars limit themselves to observing that the name is ironical, though the reasons for that irony may differ, cf. e.g. Walsh 1994:242, Harrison 1990:194. Münstermann 1995:22 sees the Apuleian Socrates as a Zerrbild of the Platonic character. The most elaborate “Platonic” reading of the episode is that of Thibau 1965:104–117, but the direction of that reading is at least problematic.
[ back ] 16. For Aristomenes’ Socrates foreshadowing Lucius, cf. e.g. Tatum 1969:493–501, Smith and Woods 2002:185–187, Keulen 2003:108–109, citing further bibliography.
[ back ] 17. Cf. Winkler 1985:36–37.
[ back ] 18. For some brief remarks and bibliography cf. Hunter 2004:28, 110–112.
[ back ] 19. Cf. e.g. Gill 1973, Bloch 2002.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Van Der Paardt 1978:82, who directly links Apollodorus’ telling of Socrates chez Agathon with Aristomenes’ tale of his friend Socrates.
[ back ] 21. Cf. further, though with very different concerns, Gill 1993, esp. 66–69.
[ back ] 22. Cf. Heinze 1915:466–467 [i.e. 1993:384–385], Russell on “Longinus” 15.2.
[ back ] 23. [Plutarch] De Homero 2.5 sees a combination of ψυχαγωγία and ἔκπληξις in Homer’s use of the gods conversing with men.
[ back ] 24. Cf. e.g. Hunter 2004:101.
[ back ] 25. Cf. Hunter 2005a:157–162.
[ back ] 26. The influence of Plato’s depiction of Apollodorus is also visible in the characterization of Damis, Philostratus’ alleged principal source in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius is of course another “Socrates” (e.g. 1.2.2, 4.25.1 etc.), as also another Pythagoras, and Damis was a follower who is said to have written a complete account of all of Apollonius’ doings and sayings so that “nothing about Apollonius would not be known” (1.19.3, cf. 1.3.1, 7.28.1).
[ back ] 27. Cf. Hunter 2004:109. There is much relevant material in Montiglio 2000, and see also Lévystone 2005.
[ back ] 28. A useful discussion in Münstermann 1995:8–26, who does not, however, catch everything.
[ back ] 29. Cf. e.g. Keulen 2003:111–112.
[ back ] 30. Cf. James 1987:48.
[ back ] 31. Cf. James 1987:48, Münstermann 1995:9–11.
[ back ] 32. In doing so, Socrates reveals the lower part of his body, including the genitals (discussed by Keulen 2003:114–16); cf. perhaps Odyssey xviii 66–9, a famous passage in antiquity, and one which Apuleius may recall at 7.5.2, cf. Harrison 1990:199–200. The Apuleian Socrates’ covering of his head is usually taken as recalling familiar gestures of his Platonic namesake (cf. e.g. Thibau 1965:106, Van Der Paardt 1978:82, Keulen 2003:112–113), but the gesture is, at the very least, both Odyssean and Socratic.
[ back ] 33. Cf. e.g. Keulen 2003:121.
[ back ] 34. Apuleius’ verb, exanclare, should be allowed its full weight here; cf. also Horace’s translation of the opening verses of the Odyssey at Epistle 1.2.21–22. Book 10 ends with Lucius “oppressed by sweet sleep” (dulcis somnus oppresserat) at Cenchreae: he has found a harbor which is, literally, a “very safe anchorage for ships” (tutissimum nauium receptaculum, 10.35), but which—in a paradigmatic example of “interpretation”—he will learn is, at a higher level of reality, a “harbor of quiet” in which he has been “received into the protection of the Fortune which has sight” (in tutelam … receptus Fortunae … uidentis , 11.15). Very obviously, the sleeping Lucius embodies (once more, cf. esp. 9.13) the figure of Odysseus, ‘overcome’ (δεδμημένον Odyssey xiii 119) by sweet sleep (cf. Odyssey xiii 79–80), first on the Phaeacian ship and then subsequently at the harbor of Phorkys on the shore of Ithaca, itself a safe haven for ships (Odyssey xiii 100–101); Odysseus has, like Lucius, safely arrived “home,” did he but know it. Cf. further Dowden 1998:13–14.
[ back ] 35. Cf. e.g. Harrison 1990:194–195.
[ back ] 36. It is tempting to suggest that in Meroe’s sister, Panthia, we have another acknowledgment of generic affiliation: this is the name of the “heroine” of Xenophon’s romantic novella in the Cyropaideia (and of Leucippe’s mother in the novel of Achilles Tatius). Griffiths 1975:140 associates the name “Panthia” with the worship of the cosmic Isis.
[ back ] 37. Bibliography and discussion in Hunter 1998b. A third path is followed in the novel of Achilles Tatius: many of his moralizing and generalizing disquisitions form a kind of commentary upon the narrative, which explains why, in their particular cultural context, the characters behave as they do (weep, fear, fall in love etc.), cf. Morales 2004:106–130. This is very different from the mode of both Heliodorus and the Roman novels; Achilles in fact is very resistant to any form of “higher interpretation” beyond moralising disapproval (cf. e.g. Photius Bibliotheca 87 i.e. 2.11 Henry, 94 i.e. 2.34 Henry), and it is the very superstructure of explanation which shuts out our “desire to know.”
[ back ] 38. It is relevant that the epithet is only used in the Odyssey by the Sirens, as they offer Odysseus knowledge, cf. Satyrica 127.5. In view of the Epicurean material reflected in this episode (cf. further below), it is at least curious that one of Epicurus’ closest followers was Polyainos of Lampsacus, the town which also gave Priapus to the world, cf. Usener 1887:415–416, K. Ziegler, RE 21.1431; a connection of that philosopher with Petronius was suggested by Knaack 1883:33. The anecdotal tradition presented Polyainos as, like Epicurus himself, the teacher and/or erastês of Pythocles, Epicurus’ “star pupil,” cf. Usener 1887:402, Alciphron Letters of Courtesans 2.2.3 (i.e. 4.17.3 Benner-Fobes), “Epicurus … wants to be a Socrates … and he considers Pythocles to be an Epicurean.”
[ back ] 39. I pass over on this occasion the familiar echoes of the Symposium in our best preserved part of the Satyrica, the “dinner party of Trimalchio” (cf. Hunter 2004:126, with bibliography), and cf. above for other well-known links. It is worth noting that Judith Perkins has recently tried to draw (perhaps surprising) structural and other parallels between Diotima and Trimalchio (Perkins 2005:148).
[ back ] 40. Cf. Hunter 1996:200.
[ back ] 41. Cf. Burkert 1987:95–96.
[ back ] 42. There is much relevant material in Buffière 1956:289–296 and Kaiser 1964:201–203; cf. Schlam 1992:15, 68–69 on the “Circe model” in Apuleius. A more philosophical version of the “reason v. pleasure” reading is to be found at Porphyry fr. 382 Smith and [Plutarch] De Homero 2.126, cf. Buffière 1956:506–516; cf. further below.
[ back ] 43. Cf. also Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.3.7–8, Cornutus, Theologiae Graecae Compendium 16, p.20.18–20 Lang.
[ back ] 44. It is worth noting in regard to the Apuleian Lucius’ dalliance with the sexy slave-girl Fotis that the Homeric Circe’s drugs were designed to make men forget their homeland (Odyssey x 236), a fate which Eustathius ascribes to the hold of pleasure: “for pleasure makes the pleasure-seeker entirely her own possession and leads him away from more serious matters” (1656.22 on Odyssey x 236), cf. Onos 11, Metamorphoses 3.19 (Lucius to Fotis) “I am bound and given to you like a willing slave; I no longer seek my home or want to depart, and spending the night with you is the most important thing in the world,” in seruilem modum addictum atque mancipatum teneas uolentem: iam denique nec Larem requiro nec domuitionem paro et nocte ista nihil antepono.
[ back ] 45. The importance of an ithyphallic Hermes is seen by, e.g. Conte 1996:98–102, though he does not connect this with Homeric interpretation. My discussion is not, of course, intended to deny the role of Priapus, but rather to see how the “novel within the novel” carries its own interpretative logic: it is always ahead of its readers.
[ back ] 46. I forebear from suggesting that readers of Petronius may be tempted to take this in the sense ‘genitals’; Circe was certainly amazed, though not pleased, at this part of Encolpius’ nature.
[ back ] 47. Eustathius notes that when Odysseus expresses his fear to Circe that she will make him “wretched and unmanned” κακὸν καὶ ἀνήνορα (Odyssey x 341), he means that he will become a coward, because cowards are “without weapons at critical times” οἱ ἐν δεινοῖς ἄοπλοι (1660.42 on Odyssey x 341); “I was ready to serve but had no weapons” (paratus miles arma non habui) pleads Encolpius (Satyrica 130.4), and even here there may be an Odyssean tinge.
[ back ] 48. The reference is to Epicurus περὶ τέλους; cf. fr. 67 Usener i.e. 21L L-S. It is perhaps worth remarking that Epicurus fr. 2 Usener (i.e. 21R L-S), ἡ δὲ χαρὰ καὶ ἡ εὐφροσύνη κατὰ κίνησιν ἐνεργεία [or ἐνέργειαι] βλέπονται would very readily lend itself to double entendre; ἐνεργεῖν is one thing which Encolpius cannot do.
[ back ] 49. For Circe as a “novel heroine” cf. e.g. Hunter 1994:1074–1075, Conte 1996:91.
[ back ] 50. Slater 1990:174.
[ back ] 51. Connors 1998:42 makes the attractive suggestion that rosae in the poem at 127.9 reflects ancient discussion of the Iliadic passage (cf. Σ on XIV 347). We might add that concesso … amori, which seems certain for the transmitted confesso … amori, may also reflect the ancient observation (Σ on XIV 342–343) that “any place is a proper chamber for lawful (i.e. married) sex.” I suspect that the very close of the Dios apatê, ‘the glistening dew came down’ (Iliad XIV 351), had been parodically read as a reference to ejaculation; perhaps as early as the “Cologne Epode” of Archilochus?
[ back ] 52. Cf. e.g. Di Simone 1993:98–99.
[ back ] 53. It is not clear to me, pace Di Simone, that uera uoluptas (128.5) need refer to the Epicurean distinction between kinetic and catastematic pleasure. Encolpius’ point is that Circe’s sudden disappearance suggests to him that the whole love-making might have been a figment of his imagination, cf. Lucretius 4.1057 uoluptatem praesagit muta cupido; it is, however, correct that his language lets us see how philosophical issues and ideas are here being abused. On the philosophical flavor of 128.6 cf. also Kragelund 1989:444.
[ back ] 54. Note especially verse 4.1101 Venus simulacris ludit amantis, 4.1103–1104 manibus … errantes, 4.1128 Veneris sudorem, 4.1135 conscius ipse animus. The same passage of Lucretius 4 lies behind Petronius fr. 30 Müller on the relation between our dreams and our daytime activities.