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  • Language, Satire, and Heteroglossia in the Cena Trimalchionis
  • Max L. Goldman (bio)

I. Introduction

In the Cena Trimalchionis, the protagonist of the Satyrica, a poor but welleducated nebbish of uncertain social status, descends into the house of the fabulously wealthy and fabulously gauche Trimalchio for a theatrical dinner party. The nouveau riche at table was a favorite topic of the Roman satirists: Lucillius treated it at least twice and Horace followed with the dinner party of Nasidienus (Shero 1923). Although the Cena Trimalchionis recalls Sermones 2.8 in both structure and content, Petronius has done more than reproduce Horace’s treatment: aside from spectacular food and entertainments, the protagonist encounters a group of freedmen who, in contrast to his own urbane Latin, speak in a language characterized by solecisms, graecisms, clichés, and proverbs.

The language of the Cena Trimalchionis has long been an area of research and controversy.1 Directly following the rediscovery of the Traguriensis, two scholars attacked its authenticity on the grounds of its poor Latinity. The specter of forgery was put to rest by Giovanni Lucio, who in 1670 explained that Petronius’s purpose was satiric: Petronius was ridiculing the freedmen’s Latinity, having his laugh with the learned and elegant guests.2 This view, which assimilates the educated guests to the author and reader, remained the default position on Petronius’s purpose in portraying the language of the freedmen.

More recently, several critics have suggested that the educated characters at Trimalchio’s table, rather than standing in for the author and his audience, might in fact be a subject of his ridicule. Gottskálk Jensson (2004, 63), for example, states that Lucio’s view “obscures the fact that the jokes of the Cena Trimalchionis are told no less at the expense of the parasitic and clownish scholastici,” although he himself does not explain how these jokes work. Paul Veyne (1964, 301–12), who also sees the educated guests as targets of ridicule, suggests that when the narrator Encolpius expresses hostility towards the educated guests, he serves as [End Page 49] Petronius’s spokesman. In Veyne’s view, the author speaks through the voice of Encolpius, criticizing the educated characters and revealing their failure. Veyne, however, does not explain why Encolpius should channel the author’s voice only here. Petronius does, in fact, reveal the failure of the educated guests, but subtly and implicitly, while simultaneously hinting at the success of the uneducated.

In the Cena, Petronius produces a complex, subtle, and entertaining exposé of contemporary society by placing two languages in conflict: the language of the uneducated freedmen and the language of rhetorically trained scholastici. In order to explain how this exposé works, I argue here that all the characters have roughly the same social status. Then, using Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia, I shall show how Petronius used the intertext of satire and created a narrator without a unified point of view. These techniques allowed him to bring into contact two socially specific language types in a way that illuminates both.

II. Freedmen and Scholastici

To appreciate Petronius’s exposé, it is necessary first to examine the social status of the educated characters and their relationship to the schola. Readers, such as Giovanni Lucio (Burman 1974 [1743]), have often approached the pretensions of the freedmen from the point of view of the author, that is, from the point of view of the Roman social elite. The educated characters are not part of this elite and should not be assimilated to them. Agamemnon, for instance, is a teacher of rhetoric but he should not be taken as a member of this elite. It is true that Suetonius’s biographical study of famous grammarians and rhetoric teachers shows that rhetoric teachers had more prestige than the grammarians: Suetonius’s grammatici are freedmen to a man; his rhetores tend to be freeborn and socially mobile.3 Nevertheless, these rhetores are famous teachers at Rome; Agamemnon teaches in Campagnia and his name suggests that he too is a freedman.

As the umbrae of Agamemnon, that is, his uninvited, tagalong guests, Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltos have even less prestige. Their legal status is more difficult to fix. The evidence...


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