Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Petronius' Satyrica 24.7: Quartilla's Asellus

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Petronius' Satyrica 24.7: Quartilla's Asellus

Article excerpt

In chapters 16-26 of Petronius' Satyrica, the trio of Encolpius, Ascyltus, and Giton receive a visit from Quartilla, a priestess of Priapus, because they, uninitiated into the cult of Priapus, had recently witnessed illicitly rites conducted by Quartilla. Because of this "crime" she visits them for two purposes: to warn them that they must maintain silence about what they witnessed (17.7), and to cure herself of Tertian Fever (17.7), which some commentators interpret as "frigidity", (2) brought on by the crime committed by the trio. Although she does not state that she is there to punish them for their inexpiabile scelus ("inexpiable crime" 17.6), she conducts a Priapi genio pervigilium ("vigil to the guiding spirit of Priapus" 21.7), many of whose activities (including the application and drinking of aphrodisiacs, rape, and a wedding) are obviously meant to cure herself and perhaps even to expiate their crime.

On (presumably) day two of the vigil, Quartilla kisses and fondles the young Giton, saying,

   "haec" inquit "belle cras in promulside
   libidinis nostrae militabit; hodie
   enim post asellum diaria non sumo."

   (She said) "This will serve well tomorrow
   in the antipasto of our lust. To
   be sure, today I am taking no daily
   rations after a little donkey" 24.7 (literally
   translated). (3)

While the first part of the metaphor, focused on promulside, is easy to interpret, the second half, centered on asellum, raises a number of questions. Most scholars agree that the metaphor is clearly sexual in meaning. Quartilla seems to indicate that she has been recently satisfied sexually and does not wish to partake of sex in small portions or mundane sex (diaria). The difference in mundane and super sex could be owing to quality, i.e., performance, or simply quantity, i.e., the size of the penis. (4) The Romans, and indubitably the lusty Quartilla, generally preferred larger penises to smaller ones. (5) It is unclear from the extant fragments, however, with whom or even whether Quartilla has had sex.

This being said, what could Quartilla mean by post asellum? (6)

Asellum as a delicacy

Post asellum might simply mean "after the extravagant meal of an ass or a fish." We are told that Maecenas instituted the practice of serving donkeys' foals to his guests (Pliny NH 8.170). Asellus might also refer to a rare fish (see Pliny NH 32.145; Varro L 5.77). Quartilla seems to extend the metaphor of food to indicate sexual practices, saying that after an extravagant meal of a donkey or an exquisite fish, i.e., super sex, she will not partake of ordinary sex. This interpretation leaves open the question, however, of Quartilla's sexual partner during the vigil.

Post asellum as "after sex with Encolpius"

Several scholars take it for granted that Quartilla's post asellum refers to sex with Encolpius. (7) In the extant work, no mention is made of the size of Giton's genitals, and therefore, we may assume that they are not extraordinary but are diaria. (8) On the other hand, Lichas recognizes the disguised Encolpius by his genitals (105.9), which presumably resemble in size those of an asellus. Encolpius certainly cannot be the asellus in the word's sense of having the sexual vigor of a donkey, however, because we know that he is impotent at this party and might have been earlier in the novel because of another offense against Priapus. (9) On day one of the vigil, he, the presumed speaker, mentions: Sollicitavit inguina mea mille iam mortibus frigida ("She rubbed my groin, cold now from a thousand deaths" 20.2). In addition, we know that he drank all of the aphrodisiac intended for two or more people, which probably had the opposite effect in large quantities (20.7). (10) On (presumably) day two, he says that he is attacked by a catamite who super inguina mea diu multumque frustra moluit ("over my groin he ground a lot and for a long time in vain" 23. …

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