The Satyricon

The (original) Story

a brief synopsis of Petronius’s text with none of his humour
quotes are from the play

“It’s only a story, a collection of stories. From long, long ago.

Encolpius is lecturing the crowd on the failures of modern education when he is pushed aside by Agamemnon, an orator. Agamemnon blames the parents for pushing their children too hard and recites a poem to make his point.

“If you would an artist be,
 or, Heaven help us, politician,
 accept advice I give for free
 to help reach your ambition.
 The word you need is discipline.
 No drink and no frivolity. 
 Avoid the stage and ev’ry sin, 
 and leaders of the polity.”

Encolpius finds Giton, who tearfully reveals that Ascyltos tried to rape him. Encolpius and Ascyltos quarrel and agree to split up the next day.  

*  *  *  *  * 

Together again in a market, the trio have lost a tunic with gold in it. On the other hand, they have a cloak to sell. With some trickery and a brawl, they escape with the tunic. 

Agamemnon (Trev Lord) mesmerises his audience

*  *  *  *  * 

Quartilla accuses Encolpius and Ascyltos of having profaned the chapel of Priapus and sentences the pair to a series of rituals, some pleasurable, some less so, of sexual humiliation.

Mario Romagnoli as Trimalchio in the film Fellini Satyricon 

Trimalchio’s Feast

The longest surviving section of Petronius’s work. 

The trio are invited to a feast hosted by Trimalchio, one of the richest men in the empire, as well as the most boastful and possibly the most ignorant. 

Other guests are or have been equally rich and all have tales and gossip to share. The feast is an orgy of ostentation, with the most expensive and rarest foods and wines presented in many imaginative ways. There are songs and dances and beautiful boys and Trimalchio’s wife Fortunata behaves less than decorously. And the party goes on and on …

The three arrive back in their lodgings and fall into bed. Encolpius becomes aware that Ascyltos is having his way with Giton who is not protesting. The pair agree to divide their possessions and separate again, with Ascyltos saying division includes cutting Giton in two. When Encolpius picks up a knife to defend the boy Giton intervenes.   

“What’s the point, friends suddenly enemies? What’s the point of anything if you can’t trust anybody?
One minute you’re brothers, best pals, the next you want to kill each other.
Or you want to kill me. Why wait? Kill me now! Get it over with. Saves time later.
Here’s my throat. Come on, both of you stick your knives in. Do it! Fucking do it! Now!”

Ascyltos backs down, saying Giton must choose between them – and Giton chooses Ascyltos. 

Deeply unhappy, Encolpius wanders the streets and in an art gallery meets Eumolpus, a poet of dubious morals and little talent. A tale is told of seduction of an at-first-unwilling youth, and then a long poem is recited about the fall of Troy – which is not received well by those listening. The two part with an agreement to dine together another day.  

In the public baths Encolpius comes across a tearful Giton, who complains that Ascyltos bullies him and begs to be taken back by his lover.

They are together again in Encolpius’s lodging when Eumolpus arrives and loses no time in trying to seduce Giton. A brawl ensues with the landlord and neighbours, Ascyltos and a constable arrive, and a farcical scene follows in which Giton tries to hide but is eventually discovered.

at this point in Petronius’s story Ascyltos disappears without explanation

Eumolpus (Robert Wylie), Encolpius (Joseph Cathal), a statue (Rhona O’Donnell)


Encolpius, Giton and Eumolpus are on a boat in hiding from captain Lichas and his wife Tryphaena. They decide to disguise themselves as slaves but are discovered by Lichas, who threatens to have Encolpius whipped, Tryphaena who is infatuated by Giton. Another brawl ensues and later Eumolpus tells another story, this time about a weeping widow and a lustful soldier. 

A storm breaks up the ship. The three companions are saved but Lichas is among the dead and they honour him with a funeral pyre. On the road to Croton Eumolpus proposes that he appear to be rich and Encolpius and Giton his slaves and then recites a long poem about Caesar’s Civil War.  


In Croton legacy hunters are convinced that Eumolpus are indeed rich, while Circe, a rich woman, cannot contain her desire for Encolpius (pic: Rhona O’Donnell and Joseph Cathal). Unfortunately, Encolpius has become impotent.   

“What’s the problem? My kissing? No-one has complained before. My breath? I chewed mint all morning. My underarms? Do you think I didn’t wash?” 

Circe convinces Encolpius to and agrees to undergo many unpleasant rituals ordained by a priestess to regain his manhood. All fail until he spies on Eumolpus having sex with a girl with the aid of a servant. Finally, Encolpius gives thanks to the gods for the restoration of his virility.

By this point the text, already fragmentary, comes to an end. In the scene accepted as the last to survive, Eumolpus’s legacy hunters are told they will only inherit his millions of sesterces if on his death they cut up his corpse and eat it in public. 

Whatever else Petronius wrote has been lost; our imaginations must fill in the gap – as we do in our play.