Gettin’ Jiggy With It: Writing Sex in the Philomela’s Daughter Episode of the Satyrica

Trigger Warning: The following text contains explicit material regarding sexual assault and pedophilia that may be triggering to survivors.



1§1 A moment of particular interest in Petronius’ Satyrica is the story of Philomela’s daughter, in which the crafty pederast Eumolpus attempts to gain sexual access to Philomela’s children by posing as a very wealthy older man nearing death. This intrigues the avaricious Philomela, who holds a reputation for ‘comforting’ rich old men in their final days, with the intent of absconding with an inheritance once they have died. In other words, legacy-hunting. Attempting to acquire the supposed ‘fortune’ of Eumolpus, Philomela uses her children as a lure, hoping that they will take on the same role for Eumolpus that she herself had previously taken on for other men: “filium filiamque ingerebat orbis senibus, et per hanc successionem artem suam perseverabat extendere” or “She thrust her son and daughter onto deprived old men, and through this succession was able to thrust her own deceit” (Petronius 140). Of course, the verb used by Petronius for ‘thrust’ in this sentence, ‘ingerere,’ primarily means thrust in the physical (read: sexual) sense, not in the more figurative sense being used here (McGlathery 3). This, implicitly, signals to both Eumolpus and the readers that the scene is taking a turn towards the illicit. Eumolpus takes the bait, and the reader soon happens upon a scene of blatant and unabashed pedophilia that is off-putting even by the most open-minded of standards. After all, even within the sexually explicit context of the Satyrica, pederasty is limited to “beautiful favorites [that] are exploited and exploit their position and role as objects of sexualized beauty” (Laurence 80). Eventually, Eumolpus invites Philomela’s daughter to take a seat upon his lap (he asks her to be in this position to further his lie about having an infirm groin), and proceeds to engage in sexual relations with her, while his slave, Corax, who Eumolpus has ordered to lay under the bed and work as some sort of strange pleasure machine, moves the old man’s infirm groin.

1§2 Petronius makes clever use of euphemism, double speak, and role-reversal to blur the lines between fact and fiction leading up to the actual sex act between the daughter and Eumolpus, and then uses diction and spectacle-related imagery to bring up themes of spectacle, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and machine-like sex.

1§3 Leading up to the sex act, Petronius manages to present the plot of the scene as somewhat benign on the surface level, yet below that benign surface there is an extremely sexual and disturbing subtext between Philomela and Eumolpus that will eventually result in the liaison between Eumolpus and the daughter of Philomela. Petronius creates a thin veil that hides the true nature of the scene with language that rarely directly references sex except in its subtext. This linguistic deception blurs the already thin lines between fiction and reality, while at the same time creating a mutually understood sexual dialogue between Eumolpus and Philomela as their natures and intentions are discussed. While the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality exists strictly in the text and between the two characters, it is reasonable to speculate as to whether or not there is also blurring within the text as a work of fiction and the real world in which Petronius existed. For instance, could the unconventional sexual endeavors of the lusty Eumolpus be a parallel to the sexual endeavors of the emperor Nero?  After all, if Tacitus’ account of Petronius’ suicide holds true, before his death, Petronius sent a letter to Nero detailing the emperor’s sexual excesses and the names of both his male and female lovers. Additionally, it is worth noting that both the names Eumolpus and Philomela share the root of –mel, which comes from a Greek root relating to song, with Eumolpus meaning “good singer,” and Philomela meaning “lover of songs” (McGlathery 1). This indicates the fact that they are both adept at constructing artful, song-like frameworks that could hide their true intentions, much like they are doing now while having this rather transactional conversation. Furthermore, it is interesting to consider the full story behind the mythical Philomela which appears in Apollodorus’ Libraries (Apollodorus Bib. 3.14.8). Here we find that the Philomela of the Satyrica holds a similar role to the Philomela of legend. Much as the Philomela of legend was entrusted to the care of Tereus, but then taken advantage of and made mute (her tongue was cut out), the Philomela of the Satyrica entrusts her children to Eumolpus as a ‘tutor,’ which can be reasonably held to be a position similar to a protector, and they are taken advantage of (more on this anon).

1§4 Much of the use of seemingly innocuous language to discuss the sexual depravity that will take place is achieved by double-speak. D.B. McGlathery, in his comprehensive work on the Philomela’s Daughter episode, describes double-speak as “the use of language that contains meanings other than those readily apparent” (McGlathery 1). It is important that we distinguish double-speak from euphemism. While euphemism usually means a single term used to obfuscate the meaning of something distasteful, double-speak is more elaborate, and relates to a shared implicit meaning of a distasteful subtext in a conversation that does not directly reference, or circumlocutes around, said distasteful subtext. The most apparent use of double-speak occurs when Petronius describes the respective roles of Eumolpus and Philomela in the scene. The first description of Philomela is “matrona inter primas honesta,” or “a matron first amongst the rest in honesty,” which is diametrically opposed to the next description of her character: “quae multas saepe hereditates officio aetatis extorserat,” or “a woman who often had extorted many inheritances by the offices of her age” (Petronius 141). This abrupt change in the characterization of Philomela shows the duality of Philomela’s role. At first, she is a matron who is “first among the rest in honesty,” showing her to be something of a model of womanly virtue expected in Rome, yet shortly after, her role becomes reversed and she becomes a legacy-hunter.

1§5 But to help us gain a fuller understanding of Philomela in context, Victoria Rimell reminds us that the full story of Philomela will inform our understanding of her within this excerpt, arguing that “For this is Philomela, we must remember, the dangerous victim-woman who was raped and mutilated by her brother-in-law but who fought back in silent, written poetry” (Rimell 171). Rimell further argues that, knowing the past of Philomela, we can assume that “Philomela’s abuse of her own son and daughter dramatically repeats both her own violation . . . casting the poet Eumolpus as the guilty rapist blind to what he is actually eating for his last meal” (Rimell 172). In light of both past and present knowledge of Philomela, this abrupt change in characterization, going from that of an honorable matron to essentially a pimp helps to further the illusion first fostered by the double-speak between Eumolpus and Philomela, that what is happening here could mistakenly be viewed as not unseemly by a casual reading. After all, Philomela herself is still to some degree something of an honorable matron, though the reader knows that she is now only functioning as a pimp for her own children.

1§6 There is also a duality of reversed roles in the character of Eumolpus. When he attempts to gain sexual access to Philomela’s children, he recommends that they are transferred into his “prudentiae bonitatique,” or “good judgement and goodness,” when he suggests that he might be their tutor (Petronius 141). However, later in the tale, as his role becomes not that of tutor but that of philanderer, his initial role is reversed. Though Philomela seems to be entrusting her children to Eumolpus solely for the purpose of instruction, saying that “illum esse solum in toto orbe terrarum qui praeceptis etiam salubribus instruere iuvenes cotidie posset,” or “that man to be the only one in the whole world who might be able to teach the young ones in wholesome things every day” (Petronius 141), this couldn’t be further from the truth, and she “entertains no illusions about Eumolpus’ self-control (sophrosyne from the Greek σωφροσυνη). She merely uses pedagogy as a pretext for pandering them to him” (McGlathery 3). Here we see the first threads of a pattern of lusty old men disguising their true pedophilic intentions as ‘tutelage’ through the use of double-speak.

1§7 This pattern first became apparent with another story that was told earlier by Eumolpus himself, about the young boy in Pergamum, who Eumolpus also seduced by acting as a ‘tutor’. In addition to this, Eumolpus tells the story of the Widow of Ephesus. The common thread between the two stories is that the protagonists start of as models of morality and are eventually ‘seduced’ by Eumolpus into disregarding their morals and giving into their passions (McGlathery 2). This, as Victoria Rimell notes in her work Petronius and the Anatomy of Fiction, begins a pattern where “both the pupil and the reader are always ‘fucked over’” (Rimell 171). Here, the pupil is ‘fucked over’ quite literally, while the reader is ‘fucked over’ by the unexpected reversal of Eumolpus’ role. In this same way, the reader is ‘fucked over’ by the quick reversal of Philomela’s role from being an ‘honest matron’ to being a pimp for her own children. As they both use double-speak in dialogue, with Eumolpus suggesting that he might be their ‘tutor’ and Philomela agreeing that they would be able to learn a good deal from him, they develop an implicit understanding. Rimell goes further, saying: “Eumolpus will not use their bodies, he will ‘teach’ them, just as he ‘taught’ the sexy boy of Pergamum” (Rimell 171). It is assumed that both parties are aware of what is really taking place here as they “maintain both a licit public transcript, which represents Eumolpus as the children’s morally upright tutor and Philomela as their devoted mother, and an illicit hidden transcript, in which Eumolpus is the debauched “preceptor of love” (praeceptor amoris) and the mother the “panderer” (lena) for her own children” (McGlathery 1). In summary, the use of role-reversal and double-speak allows for Philomela and Eumolpus to engage in a hidden transcript, where they use language and diction that would normally lack any kind of sexual connotation, yet their use of it forces a more sexual reading.

1§8 Just as the double-speak between Philomela and Eumolpus was shown to blur the lines between the fiction of what they are saying and the reality of the subtext, the use of euphemism serves as a device to further the more acceptable surface dialogue that Philomela and Eumolpus are having about Philomela placing her children in Eumolpus’ care for tutelage. This helps to hold up this now very blurry border between what is real and what is not. A notable example of this is Eumolpus’ use of the phrase “commendatam bonitatem” or “most commended goodness,” as a stand-in for “mentula,” or “penis,” when he says “ut sederet super commendatam bonitatem,” or “so that she might sit upon his most commended goodness” (Petronius 141). According to J.N. Adams in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, “the basic obscenity for the male organ was mentula  . . . it is implied that mentula was the original word for the penis and the direct term par excellence” (Adams 9). It is interesting that Petronius, a writer who utilizes an unusually vast sexual vocabulary and could have used any number of words more closely related to the literal meaning of ‘penis’ to call Eumolpus’ sexual organ what it is, chose to use “commendatam bonitatem.” Some have suggested that “Commendatam bonitatem represents his [Eumolpus’] manipulation of the words commendare bonitati (“she entrusted . . . to his goodness”) to convince the daughter to comply with his sexual entreaties” (McGlathery 4). This clever manipulation of Philomela’s words is consistent with the literary style of Petronius. However, it is also important to note that by using a euphemism rather than saying ‘mentula’ outright, the “polite fiction of Eumolpus’ pedagogical role,” is preserved (McGlathery 5). And so, by cleverly avoiding any direct mention of the male sexual organ, Eumolpus’ use of euphemistic speech to complement the previous double-speak-filled dialogue between Eumolpus and Philomela, preserves the blurring of fiction and reality, and keeps intact that thin veil that separates the presentation of the situation from the subtext that the situation actually contains.

1§9 While double-speak, euphemism, and role-reversal all play into the presentation of the text leading up to the sexual act as being something rather benign, Petronius uses vivid spectacle-imagery and diction to evoke themes of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and machine-like sex. Voyeurism, D.B. McGlathery argues, is already present as part of the text when “Eumolpus and the panderer Philomela conspire to put the best euphemistic face on his “tutelage” of her daughter and effect a sexual spectacle which blurs the distinction between actors and spectators . . . Thus, the readers of the text are implicated in the voyeurism of the characters” (McGlathery 1). Yet as we enter the text regarding the actual liaison between Eumolpus and the daughter, language is used in which the “stress is laid (as it is in other scenes) on the element of detached calculation” (Gill 181). This element of detachedness from the scenario at hand brings both the reader and the actual participants into a more pronounced sort of involuntary voyeurism by dissociating them from the action and putting them into a more passive, viewing mode. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is also deliberate voyeurism by one of the characters in the text, as the brother watches his sister engage in sexual relations with Eumolpus. This somewhat incestuous voyeurism on the part of the brother, according to Christopher Gill, “can now be seen as only one of the units out of which Petronius forms his elaborately perverse construction” (Gill 182). Yet by forcing the daughter to be watched by both the readers and characters of the scene, Petronius puts her in the position of being an unwitting and involuntary exhibitionist. Much of this voyeurism and exhibitionism is both framed and forced upon the reader by the effect of sexual spectacle within the excerpt concerning Philomela’s daughter. At the same time, the theme of the machine-like nature of sex also relies heavily on spectacle to carry throughout the excerpt. To gain a full appreciation for the absolute absurdity of the scene, it is critical to revisit what is actually occurring. As Eumolpus has taken the daughter into his bedchamber, to preserve the illusion of being elderly, he has his slave, Corax, climb under the bed and move his (Eumolpus’) legs in a thrusting motion in rhythm with the daughter once she has mounted herself upon his “commendatam bonitatem” (Petronius 140). This “mechanism for sexual intercourse is depicted as an aesthetic spectacle, a source of admiration and amusement both to Philomela’s admiring son and to the participants themselves” (Gill 181). Note the voyeuristic nature of the fact that “Philomela’s admiring son,” as well as “the participants themselves,” are all watching this spectacle unfold before their very own eyes. Gill further notes that “the whole scene is essentially a game, played by the fictional characters with their bodies, and by the author with his language” (Gill 182). All the while, the same detachedness that puts the reader at a distance as a spectator works to further build a machine-like visualization of the liaison, as the scene becomes dispassionate and descriptive, and “the official, euphemistic language of the episode in general continues even during the sexual act” (McGlathery 7). With the use of official, almost militaristic diction, such as ‘imperio’ and ‘officium’ for ‘command’ and ‘task,’ respectively, and Corax being called a ‘mercennarius,’ which is the word for either hired slave or mercenary, the scene “could equally characterize the mounting of a military siege engine” (McGlathery 7). McGlathery also notes that the name ‘Corax’ itself is a Latin word for ‘siege engine’ and so “Corax the human being becomes a tool in Eumolpus’ erotic siege of the girl” (McGlathery 7). At this point, the machine imagery and the sexual spectacle have combined to force either voyeurism or exhibitionism upon all of the characters that are a part of this scene, as well as the audience of readers. All of this together turns a machine-like sexual act into a huge spectacle, in which the readers and participants are voyeurs, and the participants themselves, watched by everyone else complicit in the scene, including the audience, are unwitting exhibitionists. Gill even goes so far as to suggest that Petronius purposefully situates himself as a voyeur of the scene, arguing that “either as creative artist or satirist, he retains a detachment from his work which we might (repeating the Freudian term in a different context) call ‘voyeuristic’” (Gill 183).

1§10 Both the use of double-speak, euphemism, and role-reversal as a tool to hide the true depravity of the dealings taking place, and the use of spectacle-imagery, machine-imagery, and their effects on themes of voyeurism and exhibitionism during the actual sex act have a prodigious effect on the presentation of this scene within the Satyrica. The former acts to add a sense of decency to the early stages of the scene, while the latter works to force the reader into a close interaction with the scene as a voyeur viewing the spectacle. In essence, both of these devices act to manipulate the reader’s response to the content. This excerpt is a moment where we see the true genius of Petronius, as he takes what is, in essence, a bawdy sex scene, and turns it into a complex moment with rich layers of meaning.


Adams, J.N. 1982 The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore.

Beck, Roger. 1979. Eumolpus “Poeta,” Eumolpus “Fabulator”: A Study of Characterization in the “Satyricon.” Phoenix 33: 239-253.

Gill, Christopher.  1973. “The Sexual Episodes in the Satyricon.” Classical Philology 68: 172-185.

Golden, Mark and Toohey, Peter, Eds. 2011. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Classical World. Oxford.

Laurence, Ray. 2010. Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome. London.

McGlathery, Daniel B. 1998. “’Commendatam Bonitatem’: Sexual Spectacle and Linguistic Deception in the Philomela’s Daughter Episode of Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’.” Pacific Coast Philology 33: 1-14.

Richlin, Amy. 1983. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. New Haven.

Rimell,Victoria. 2002. Petronius and the Anatomy of Fiction. Cambridge.

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