epic disaster of men’s impotence: Encolpius in the Satyricon

portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus manuscript

The retired gladiator Encolpius caught the eye of Circe. She was a wealthy woman with maids, and she was young and beautiful, too. She sent a maid to buy a tryst for her with Encolpius.

The maid spoke knowingly with Encolpius. When she implied that he was a prostitute and scum, he responded as learned seducers do, “So you’re the one who loves me {numquid illa, quae me amat, tu es}?” He was the sort of suave rogue that bored, lonely, upper-class women love.

Encolpius’s newly experienced impotence ruined his tryst with Circe. She had hungered for sex with him. She despairingly asked him:

What is it? Do you find some offense in my kiss? Is there something in my breath, which is growing faint from hunger? Have I been negligent about the perspiration of my armpits?

{ Quid est? Numquid te osculum meum offendit? Numquid spiritus ieiunio marcens? Numquid alarum sum negligens sudor puto? }

Encolpius felt as if his whole body had gone limp, as if he had just learned about laws suppressing men’s sexuality. He explained, “Witchcraft has affected me {Veneficio contactus sum}.”

Later that day, Encolpius received a letter from Circe. Encolpius’s failure to perform for her had deeply shaken her self-esteem. She expressed concern about Encolpius’s well-being:

I am writing to inquire about how you are, and whether your own two feet were able to carry you home from our love-making. Doctors say that men who lose their sexual power are unable to walk. I warn you, young man, be wary of paralysis. I have never seen a sick person in such grave danger. I swear you are already dead. If the same mortal chill gets to your hands and knees, you should send for the funeral trumpeters.

{ Quid tamen agas, quaero, et an tuis pedibus perveneris domum; negant enim medici sine nervis homines ambulare posse. Narrabo tibi, adulescens, paralysin cave. Nunquam ego aegrum tam magno periculo vidi; medius fidius iam peristi. Quod si idem frigus genua manusque temptaverit tuas, licet ad tubicines mittas. Quid ergo est? Etiam si gravem iniuriam accepi, homini tamen misero non invideo medicinam. }

Circe then suggested that Encolpius rest for three days without penetrating his boyfriend. To boost her wounded self-esteem, Circe declared to Encolpius that she is beautiful. She told him that, before him, she had had many men who performed well for her. She told him that she could surely find a more responsive lover than him.

Encolpius responded to Circe with the self-abasement of a courtly lover. All his seductive learning, all his charisma as a suave rogue, vanished. He wrote to Circe a letter of apology:

I admit, my lady, my many faults, for I am human and still young. But never before this day have I committed deadly wrongdoing. You have the one who confesses guilt: whatever you will order, I deserve. I have committed betrayal, I have killed a person, I have profaned her temple. Devise a penalty for these crimes. If execution would please you, I will come with my sword. If you are content with a whipping, I will run naked to my lady. Remember this one thing: not I but my tool is at fault. I was ready as a soldier, but I had no weapon. Who upset me, I don’t know. Perhaps my will outran my body’s behavior, perhaps I wasted all my pleasure in delay in desiring too much. I cannot account for what happened.

{ Fateor me, domina, saepe peccasse; nam et homo sum et adhuc iuvenis. Nunquam tamen ante hunc diem usque ad mortem deliqui. Habes confitentem reum: quicquid iusseris, merui. Proditionem feci, hominem occidi, templum violavi: in haec facinora quaere supplicium. Sive occidere placet, ferro meo venio, sive verberibus contenta es, curro nudus ad dominam. Illud unum memento, non me sed instrumenta peccasse. Paratus miles arma non habui. Quis hoc turbaverit, nescio. Forsitan animus antecessit corporis moram, forsitan dum omnia concupisco voluptatem tempore consumpsi. Non invenio, quod feci. }

Men blame themselves for their impotence. That’s blaming the victim. Compassionate women can and should help to empower men.

The next day Circe’s maid brought to Encolpius an old woman named Proselenus. With different-colored threads twisted together, saliva, and small stones, Proselenus ministered to Encolpius. Then, without first asking for his affirmative consent, she placed her hands on his groin. His penis responded with a prodigious uplifting. Joyfully exultant, Proselenus declared Encolpius potent.

Encolpius returned to Circe to redeem his promise. She was languidly lying on a couch and fanning herself. She greeted him:

“How’s it with you, paralytic?” she asked. “Have you come today with all working?”

{ “Quid est” inquit “paralytice? ecquid hodie totus venisti?” }

Regaining some of his former rogue charm, Encolpius responded, “Are you inquiring rather than testing {Rogas, potius quam temptas}?” Then they passionately embraced and kissed.

Encolpius was struck again with impotence. Circe was furious. She ordered him to be hoisted and flogged. Then she had her servants spit on him. Men are commonly disparaged as dogs. Yet even just performing in accordance with that dehumanizing characterization isn’t always possible for all men.

Falling into a pit of despondency and self-hate, Encolpius embraced castration culture. Sotadean meter is associated with cinaedus, a Latin term for a man who actively enjoys being penetrated by another man’s penis. So Encolpius sought to shape his future:

Three times I took in hand the fearsome, two-edged blade,
three times my arm in weakness failed, and so remade
with less strength than a cabbage-stalk, I feebly banned
the weapon cruelly serving my trembling hand.
No longer could I execute my earlier will.
My fearful penis, colder than the winter’s chill,
shrank on my belly, within a thousand wrinkles hidden.
Its head would not be raised for punishment, though bidden:
the rascal’s deadly fear made me a baffled plaything.
I fled for solace, finding words that hurt much more.

{ Ter corripui terribilem manu bipennem,
ter languidior coliculi repente thyrso
ferrum timui, quod trepido male dabat usum.
Nec iam poteram, quod modo conficere libebat;
namque illa metu frigidior rigente bruma
confugerat in viscera mille operta rugis.
Ita non potui supplicio caput aperire,
sed furciferae mortifero timore lusus
ad verba, magis quae poterant nocere, fugi. }

Encolpius then “erected himself on his elbow {erectus igitur in cubitum}” and castigated his penis:

What do you have to say for yourself, you shame of all gods and men? Even your name is a sacrilege to cite among worthy matters. Have I deserved this from you, that you should raise me to the heavens and then drag me to the fiery depths? That you should betray me in my prime age, in the flower of my vigor, and reduce me to the weakness of extreme senility? I request of you, give me the conventional show of your worth.

{ Quid dicis, inquam, omnium hominum deorumque pudor? Nam ne nominare quidem te inter res serias fas est. Hoc de te merui, ut me in caelo positum ad inferos traheres? ut traduceres annos primo florentes vigore, senectaeque ultimae mihi lassitudinem imponere? Rogo te, mihi apodixin defunctoriam redde. }

Virgil, who understood well men’s weakness in relation to women, formed the penis’s response:

It turned away and kept its eye fixed on the ground. My
harangue, only begun, aroused no more its look
than a pliant willow, or a poppy with a drooping head.

{ Illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat,
nec magis incepto vultum sermone movetur
quam lentae salices lassove papavera collo. }

The penis hears indifferently what’s said to it. Betrayed and scorned, men commit suicide nearly four times more frequently than women do. The penis living flaccidly in the underworld reflects men’s impotence. Impotent men can do no more than kiss women’s feet. That’s an epic disaster for all.

man adores Circe's feet

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The above story adapts the story of the encounter of Encolpius (Polyaenus) with Circe in Satyricon 125-132. Most classical scholars now think that Petronius Arbiter wrote the Satyricon about 65 GC.

In the Odyssey, the goddess Circe threatened to make Odysseus impotent. Hermes intervened to save Odysseus from that fate. Hermes gave him a magic herb to retain his potency. Odyssey 10.275-300.

Gladiators were known for their sexual allure to women in ancient Rome. Circe’s maid Chrysis thought that Encolpius was a slave. She scorned him:

I have never given myself to a slave yet. God forbid that I should throw my arms around a man destined for the gallows. Married women go for those; they kiss the scars on flogged slaves. I may be just a lady’s maid, but as that I never sit in the lap of anyone lower than a knight.

{ Ego adhuc servo nunquam succubui, nec hoc dii sinant, ut amplexus meos in crucem mittam. Viderint matronae, quae flagellorum vestigia osculantur; ego etiam si ancilla sum, nunquam tamen nisi in equestribus sedeo. }

Satyricon 126. Chrysis, however, subsequently developed a burning sexual passion for the gladiator-slave Encolpius. Satyricon 138.

The quoted texts above are my English translations from Satyricon 125-132. My translations draw upon those of Heseltine & Rouse (1913), Allinson (1930), and Walsh (1996). The Latin text is from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), with some non-substantive adaptions. Here’s an online Latin text of the Satyricon. The Latin text has not been well-transmitted, hence lacunae and textual uncertainties exist.

The first poem quoted above is in the Sotadean meter. That meter is associated with the poet Sotades writing in the third-century BGC. Sotades wrote earthy, licentious verse such as “It’s an unholy hole he’s shoving his prick in {εἰς οὐχ ὁσίην τρυμαλιὴν τὸ κέντρον ὤθει }.” From Kwapisz (2009), quoting Alan Cameron’s English translation. While the meter of the first poem above is Sotadean, its tone is Virgilian epic.

Cinaedus is a Greek term transliterated into Latin. Too often cinaedus is misandristically described as “applied to men who fulfill the role of passively providing sexual pleasure to a man.” See, e.g. Connors (2006) p. 31, n. 37. The dichotomy of “active” and “passive” is narrow-minded gender ideology. Cf. Tiresias’s important insight.

The second poem quoted above is a Virgilian cento. Its first two verses are from Aeneid 6.469-70. The third verse’s first half is a modified version of Eclogues 5.16; the second half is Aeneid 9.436. Schmeling commented:

The result uses Virgil’s words but not in the order in which the poet wrote them. Had E. {Encolpius} continued with A. {Aeneid} 6. 471, instead of a comparison with soft plants, he would have got quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia cautes. E. is impotent and the words dura silex, instead of lentae salices, would have been ashes in his mouth. And P.’s {Petronius’s} literate audience, knowing their Virgil as South Carolina Baptists once knew their New Testament, recognizes that the three lines are not continuous, knows that v. 471 described flint and rocks, and enjoyed a twofold literary joke: (i) a misuse or parody of Virgil’s words about Dido’s eyes to describe E.’s penis and (ii) chopping up and reassembling lines from Virgil so that the text reads the opposite of what Virgil meant; the omission of the line about silex and cautes calls added attention to E.’s mentula languida.

Schmeling (2011) pp. 508-9. The fundamental sexual issues are more important than Schmeling’s comment indicates. Connors explained:

Petronius juxtaposes Encolpius’ erotic failures with the Aeneid’s representations of terrible grief and loss, evoking not just Dido but Nisus and Euryalus too: the valiant self-sacrifice of Virgilian heroes has been parodically debased into Encolpius’ histrionic outburst.

Connors (2006) p. 32. Debasement can serve a higher purpose. The penis’s response has epic significance today.

[images] (1) Portrait of Virgil from folio 14r of the fifth-century illustrated manuscript known as the Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Man adores Circe’s feet. Monochrome image of painting by Émile Lévy, displayed in Parisian salon in 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Connors, Catherine. 2006. Petronius the Poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kwapisz, Jan. 2009. “A lesson for the King: Sotades’ Invective against Ptolemy (fr. 1 and 16 Powell) and Callimachus’ Epigram 1 Pfeiffer.” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae Et Latinae. 19: 85-94.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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