Jack’s Naughty Bits: Petronius, The Satyricon

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Jack's Naughty Bits

and Fellini fans will already be familiar with Petronius’ first-century chronicle of the decadence
of Nero’s Roman Empire, the great Satyricon. I was never a big fan of Fellini’s film adaptation;
it’s dark and vulgar and lacks the mischief that a Pasolini would have given it. In fact, the
Satyricon would have been a perfect Pasolini springboard: bawdy, sardonic and class-conscious, recounting the adventures of Encolpius, a wayward thief, as he is passed from one set of
probing, poking aristocratic fingers (both male and female) to another. Along the way, our poor hero
(whose name means “embraced”) gets assaulted by a sex-crazed hag, continually loses his boy lover Giton
to a variety of competitors, manages to offend Priapus (the god of erections) who then punishes him with
chronic technical difficulties, and finally goes to be “cured” by another old hag who rams a leather dildo
“rubbed with oil, ground pepper and crushed nettle seed” up his anus. There’s a cure for impotence!


So as you can probably tell, the Satyricon makes a damn good read. The only problem is
that four fifths of the original text are lost, and often you’ll be set up for a really naughty bit only for the
narrative to break off and start again in a different place. Talk about a tease! But the parts that remain not
only chronicle the indulgence and excess that marked the declining phase of the Roman Empire, but create a
literary precedent for my favorite satyric and ribald tales of the Middle Ages. Without Petronius, there
might have been no Boccaccio, no Chaucer, no Rabelais. With this in mind, I chose a particularly
Boccaccian excerpt that details a trick for getting what you want from a reluctant lover.

* * *

From The Satyricon by Petronius

Translated by J. P. Sullivan

When I was taken out to Asia on the staff of a treasury official, I accepted some hospitality in Pergamum . . .
not only because of the smart house but also because my host had a very handsome son and I thought
up a way to prevent his father of becoming suspicious of me. Whenever any mention was made at the table
of taking advantage of pretty boys, I flared up so violently and was so stern about my ears being offended
by obscene talk that his mother regarded me as a real old world philosopher. From then on, I escorted the
young lad to the gymnasium, organized his studies, taught him and gave him good advice.


One holiday when the festivities had cut short his schoolwork, we were lounging in the dining
room, as the long day’s enjoyment had made us too lazy to go to bed. About midnight, I realized the boy
was awake. So in a very nervous whisper I breathed a prayer.


‘Dear Venus,’ I said, ‘if I can kiss this boy without his knowing it, I’ll give him a pair of doves


Hearing the price of my pleasure, the boy started snoring, and therefore I went to work on the
pretender and kissed him several times. Content with this beginning, I rose early the next morning and
brought him the choice pair of doves he was expecting and thus fulfilled my vow.


The next night, given the same opportunity, I altered my prayer.


‘If I can run my hands all over him,’ I said, ‘without his feeling anything, I’ll give him two really
savage fighting cocks for his patience.’


At this offer the boy moved over to me of his own accord. I think he was afraid I might fall asleep.
Naturally I dispelled his worries and his whole body became a whirlpool in which I lost myself, although I
stopped short of the ultimate pleasure. Then when day came, I brought the delighted boy what I’d promised.


The third night offered similar opportunities, and I got up, came close to his ear, as he tossed
restlessly, and said:


‘O eternal gods, if I can get the full satisfaction of my desires from his, for this happiness
tomorrow I shall give the boy the finest Macedonian thoroughbred — but only with this proviso: he must
notice nothing.’


The lad had never slept so soundly before. First I filled my hands with his milk-white breasts, then
I clung to his lips, and finally I reduced all my longing to one climax.


In the morning he sat in his room and waited for me to follow my usual practice. Of course, you
know how much easier it is to buy doves and cocks than a thoroughbred and, besides, I was nervous in case
such an extravagant gift might make my kindness seem suspect. So after walking around for a few hours, I
returned to my host’s house and gave the boy nothing more than a kiss. He looked around, as he threw his
arms around my neck, and said:


‘Please, sir, where’s my thoroughbred?’

© J. P. Sullivan (translation modified)