Petronius Arbiter, the Satyricon, and The Matron of Ephesus



Presento qui un saggio in inglese sulla “Matrona di Efeso”, storia contenuta nel “Satyricon” di Petronio Arbitro. L’articolo si divide in tre parti: nella prima si presenta la trama della novella; nella seconda si tracciano i rapporti della novella con la tradizione latina e in particolare con Virgilio, nonché la sua fortuna attraverso i secoli, mentre nella terza si dà il testo della novella secondo l’edizione approntata nel 1603 da Paul Frellon (“Petronii Arbitri Satyricon”) con la traduzione da me approntata per l’occasione.


The Matron of Ephesus


The plot of  The Matron of Ephesus


After  her husband’s death,  a virtuous Ephesian  matron, accompanied by her faithful  maid,  follows him to the sepulcher  and she does not want to live anymore, and want to starve herself  to death. Meantime, two thieves, who are guarded by a soldier, are crucified next to the sepulcher  of her husband.  At one point the soldier hears the cries of the young  widow and her sigh moved him, and at the same time he  falls in love with  her. At first he tries to convince her to eat, while the maid helps him to find a way of  convincing her matron.

So the matron of Ephesus is persuaded  to eat and then she also relents to  soldier’s will. The soldier  stays  with the widow for a very long time, but he  forgets his mission. Meanwhile, the body of one of the two thieves crucified is taken away by his parents and relatives. According to the Roman law,  the  soldier was to be crucified replacing him on the cross.  The young widow shows  remarkable presence of mind, saying that,  she cannot bear to attend the funerals of the two men who  had been her lovers , and that she prefers to see a dead man rather than a living man on the cross.  Then she orders  that her  husband  is nailed to the cross, and so saving the life of the soldier.


The Matron of Ephesus and the Aeneid


The fortune  of The Matron of Ephesus was linked to the fact that the short story had independent circulation and was detached from the Satyricon. The  story of  The Matron of Ephesus is not original to  Petronius Arbiter, but  it seems to be a parody of a famous episode  of the Aeneid (Aeneas’s love affair with  Queen Dido), as evidenced by the quotations  from the  Virgilian poem:


“ Id cinerem aut manis credis curare sepultos?” [Aeneid, IV, 34].  (“Do you believe that the ashes or the buried dead care ?”).


“Id cinerem aut manes credis sentire sepultos?” [The Ephesian Matron]. On one point, really,  Petronius differs from the Aeneid: he replaced the Vergilian “curare” by “sentire”.


The Matron of Ephesus would like to have  a close relationship with Queen Dido, who at first is determined to remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband Sychaeus. Then  Dido is convinced by her sister Anna to surrender to love for Aeneas, which was in all appearance the cause of her tragic end. In fact, when Aeneas leaves her, Dido commits suicide : “ The Matron of Ephesus  is just such a comic double of  Virgil Aeneid IV, P.I. Barta said with great self-confidence (1).


It is, however, necessary to point out that not all critics see  The Matron of Ephesus strictly in terms of Virgilian parody. For Ettore Paratore, the influence of classic poets would still have felt as far as learning and the study of  Virgil  would had been concerned. The same Virgilian  quotations are  not  proof of a conscious  parody, whereas, indeed,  they are only   involuntary reminiscences, demonstrating  the long study and the great love that even the skeptical courtier of  Nero had dedicated to the works of one of the greatest Latin poets. For Ettore Paratore, this can be important for the formation of literary taste of Petronius, but it  has no significance for the literary traditions to which  his work may be linked.” (2). This was a very intelligent remark , because Petronius Arbiter’s  real  sources  seem  to be  referred  to Milesiae  fabulae, and it has been amply demonstrated by critics. However, the idea of a creative  relationship between Queen Dido and  The Matron of Ephesus is still very impressive, although perhaps it is not easily demonstrated,  as is often claimed.


Admirers and imitators of The Matron of Ephesus


The Matron of Ephesus was variously imitated in Italy and abroad. We can find a fusion of  motifs drawn from  The Ephesian Matron in the Novellino  by Giovanni Sercambi (1348-1424).    Eustachio Manfredi  provided a suitable model of imitation  in 1709 (3). George Chapman, an English poet and playwright, made  a perfect imitation of  The Matron of Ephesus , published under  the title of The Widow’s Tears (about  1605)  (4). Another imitation was published by George Chapman under the title of  The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron, Marshal of France (1608) (5).   An imitation (albeit in a  attenuated form)  of  The Matron of Ephesus has been found in the works by  G. D’Annunzio  (6).


The Matron of Ephesus had  found many admirers and imitators in France in writers like  La Fontaine (La Matrone d ‘ Éphèse ) and  Voltaire (Zadig). And yet, throughout  the eighteenth century there were many theatrical performances of  The Matron of Ephesus, such as that by  Haudard de la Motte (La Matrone d ‘ Éphèse , 1702), Fuselier (1714), Radet (1792), M. Verconsin (1869), and Alphonse  Daudet, who  was inspired to write L’Immortel  by  The Ephesian Matron (7).


The fortune  of The Matron of Ephesus was also linked to the fact that the short story had independent circulation and was detached from the Satyricon  (8). The matron of Ephesus had gained a good reputation  in England, particularly among leading  contemporary writers such as Christopher Fry.  The first play by Christopher Fry, A Phoenix Too Frequent (1947) was based on The Matron of Ephesus (9). But many  imitators of  The Matron of Ephesus were found  in the German musical theatre: “A preliminary survey , related to the reception of the novella, shows that all the operatic transpositions  of this story (with only a few exception [Charles Dibdin’s The Ephesia Matron, 1769, libretto by Isaac Bickerstaff]) are produced from the 1930s onwards; furthermore, many of these  are geographically concentrated  in Germany” (10).


The Matron of Ephesus: Latin text and English translation


My  translation of  The Matron of Ephesus is based on the old critical edition by Paul Frellon: Petronii Arbitri Satyricon, Multis Virorum Illustrium Notis & Observationibus Illustratum. Editio Postrema. Omnium Fere Hactenus Prodierunt, Tersissima. Lugduni. Sumptibus Pauli Frellon, MDCVIII [1608], pp. 70-73.


Matrona quaedam Ephesi tam notae erat pudicitiae, ut vicinarum quoque gentium feminas ad spectaculum sui evocaret. Haec ergo cum virum extulisset, non contenta vulgari more funus passis prosequi crinibus aut nudatum pectus in conspectu  frequentiae plangere, in conditorium etiam prosequuta [prosecuta] est defunctum, positumque in hypogaeo, Graeco more, corpus custodire ac flere totis noctibus diebusque coepit.  Sic afflictantem se, ac mortem inedia persequentem non parentes potuerunt  abducere, non propinqui: magistratus ultimo repulsi abierunt: complorataque singularis exempli femina ab omnibus, quintum  iam diem sine alimento trahebat.  Adsidebat aegrae fidissima ancilla, simulque & [et] lacrimas commodabat lugenti, &  quotiens defecerat positum in monumento lumen renovabat. Una igitur in tota civitate fabula erat; & solum illud adfulsisse  verum pudicitiae amorisque exemplum omnis ordinis homines confitebantur: cum interim imperator provinciae latrones iussit  crucibus affigi secundum illam casulam, in qua recens cadaver  matrona deflebat.

Proxima ergo nocte cum miles, qui cruces asservabat, ne quis ad sepulturam corpus detraheret, notasset sibi & lumen inter monumenta clarius fulgens, &  gemitum lugentis audisset, vitio gentis humanae concupiit scire, quis aut quid faceret. Descendit igitur in conditorium: visaque pulcherrima muliere, primo quasi quodam monstro, infernisque imaginibus turbatus substitit : deinde ut &  corpus iacentis conspexit &  lacrymas consideravit, faciemque unguibus sectam ; ratus (scilicet id quod erat, desiderium extincti non posse foeminam pati : attulit in monumentum coenulam suam, coepitque hortari lugentem, ne perseveraret in dolore supervacuo, & nihil profuturo gemitu pectus diduceret: omnium eundem esse exitum esse : sed & domicilium” &  caetera, quibus exulceratae mentes ad sanitatem revocantur.  At illa ignota consolatione percussa, laceravit vehementius pectus, ruptosque crines super corpus iacentis imposuit. Non recessit tamen miles, sed eadem exhortatione tentavit [temptavit] dare mulierculae cibum, donec ancilla vini odore corrupta, primum ipsa porrexit ad humanitatem invitantis victam manum : deinde refecta potione, & cibo, expugnare dominae pertinaciam coepit &, Quid proderit, inquit, “hoc tibi, si soluta inedia fueris ? si  te vivam sepelieris ? si, antequam fata poscant, indemnatum spiritum effuderis? Id cinerem aut manes credis sentire sepultos? Vis tu reviviscere reluctantibus fatis extinctum ? vis, discusso muliebri errore, quam diu licuerit, lucis commodis frui, Ipsum te iacentis corpus admonere debet ut vivas.

Nemo invitus audit, cum cogitur aut cibum sumere, aut vivere. Itaque mulier aliquot dierum abstinentia sicca, passa est frangi pertinaciam suam : nec minus avide replevit se cibo, quam ancilla, quae prior victa est. Ceterum scitis quid plerumque soleat temptare humanam satietatem. Quibus blanditiis impetraverat miles ut matrona vivere vellet, iisdem etiam pudicitiam eius aggressus est. Nec deformis aut infacundus iuvenis castae videbatur, conciliante gratiam ancilla, ac subinde dicente: Placitone etiam pugnabis amori? Nec venit in mentem, quorum censederis arvis ? Quid diutius moror? Ne hanc quidem mulier partem corporis abstinuit, victorque miles utrumque persuasit. Iacuerunt ergo una, non tantum illa nocte, qua nuptias fecerunt, sed postero etiam ac tertio die, praeclusis videlicet conditorii foribus : ut quisquis ex notis ignotisque ad monumentum venisset, putasset expirasse super corpus visi  pudicissimam uxorem. Ceterum delectatus miles & forma mulieris &  secreto, quicquid boni per facultates poterat, coemebat ; & prima statim nocte in monumentum ferebat. Itaque  cruciarij unius parentes, ut viderunt laxatam custodiam, detraxere  nocte pendentem, supremoque mandaverunt officio. At miles circumscriptus, dum desidet, ut postero die vidit unam sine cadavere crucem: veritus supplicium, mulieri quid accidisset exponit: nec se expectaturum iudicis sententiam, sed gladioius dicturum ignaviae suae : commodaret modo illa perituro locum, &  fatale conditorium familiari ac viro faceret. Mulier non minus misericors quam pudica : Nec istud, inquit, dij sinant, ut eodem tempore duorum mihi charissimorum hominum duo funera spectem : malo mortuum impendere quam vivum occidere. Secundum hanc orationem, iubet ex arca corpus mariti sui tolli ex arca, atque illi quae vacabat, cruci adfigi. Usus est miles ingenio prudentissimae feminae : posteroque die populus miratus est, qua ratione mortuus isset in crucem.


A matron of Ephesus was famous  for her fidelity to her partner  that  many women had come from far away to meet her. When her husband was buried, she was not satisfied  to follow the body of her husband with her hair down and slapping her breasts  under the years of all, according  to the customs of a past age. She accompanied her husband in the tomb, which, according to the typical Greek style,   was underground.  She remained there,  crying day and night. Parents and relatives were unable to stop  her from torturing herself this way, and  to prevent her from dying of hunger.  Even public servants tried to intervene, but they   were powerless , leaving her alone and  in a desperate situation.


The Ephesian matron lived fifth day without food and served  as a shining example for all women. This poor unhappy woman was  accompanied by a  faithful maid, shedding tears under the light of the lamp.  Everyone in her town said that she was an admirable  example of fidelity and  conjugal love. Meanwhile, the provincial governor had sentenced   two thieves to crucifixion   near the tomb, where the matron was crying over the dead body .  A soldier was ordered to stand guard over the crosses  to prevent that the bodies were taken away and buried. The following night, the soldier saw a bright light  through the trees and heard a woman’s sight. Like all human beings, he was curious to see if he could see anything more. Then he entered the tomb and saw a beautiful woman. He stopped and was very impressed, as if he had seen a ghost.


The soldier looked at her again, and  he saw that tears ran down her scratched  face. He realized that she was desperate  for the man who had died. Then the soldier  brought his food into the tomb  and said to comfort her that she must not indulge in this useless despair , crying  as  if her heart would break . “ All men,” he said, “have the same fate and the same last resting place.”  She was unsatisfied however  with him because that was scant consolation to her  and she  beat  her breast more violently than ever, tearing their hair and throwing herself on the body of her dead husband. But the young soldier did not give up trying in every way possible to give food to the matron. And if she resisted, her maid  was attracted by the smell of the wine and stretched out her hand toward the food offered to her.  After that she revived herself   with a good meal, strove to convince  her mistress.   “In your opinion,  will you be benefited,” she said, “if you are on the edge  of  starvation, burying yourself alive and dying before the time that the fate has assigned to you? Do you think that your death may have some effect on the body or the soul of a man that is dead and buried? Why don’t you start to live? Why don’t you stop this misguided fidelity, respected only by women, and don’t come to enjoy the light of day until the gods allow you? This cold body should teach you to enjoy life to the fullest.”


The common people usually  pay attention to whom asks them  to eat and live, and the matron was actually hungry and thirsty after five days of fasting. Then the matron  decided to break her oath. She ate greedily like her  maid. Those who are well-fed may be  easily tempted, and the soldier employed his talents in attempting to seduce  the virtuous  matron, and he was capable of speaking  as he had done before. The chaste matron  realized that he was an attractive young man and far from a fool. The maid too was complicit in the  soldier and she said, “It is not this, that your passion is at war within you?  Do you remember where  are you from?”  To make a long story short, after overcoming some scruples of the matron  (who offered him all parts of her body), the soldier was able to overcome the other obstacles. They remained together not only after the  first night, but also on  the second and third night. The gates of the tomb were closed, so that if a friend or  someone  had come to the gates , they would have imagined that,  the virtuous widow was already dead together  with her husband. The soldier was greatly  taken with the widow’s charm  and started a passionate love affair with her.  He bought for her  the most delicate food though  his salary afforded him, meeting her secretly   at night.


Having seen that the soldier was not always on guard, the parents of one of the thieves who had been crucified took down the body  of their son from the cross and they  buried him. The next morning, the soldier noticed that one body had  disappeared from the cross. He knew what the punishment would be,  and told  the widow what had happened. He said he preferred to kill himself rather than face the Roman  Military Law  and he prayed   her to make room for him  beside of  her dead husband. But the matron showed compassion to him. And she said: “The gods cannot allow me to see the bodies of the two men who are most dear to me at the same time! It is best to put a dead body on the cross rather than a living man.”  She ordered the soldier to take her husband’s body and put it on the empty cross.  The soldier immediately followed the suggestion of the matron, and the next  day, many people wondered how it was possible that  a dead man had been  able to crucify himself.




1) Barta, P. I. 2001. Carnivalizing Difference: Bakhtin and the Other. London: Routledge,  129.


2) Paratore, E. 1933. Il ‘Satyricon’ di  Petronio. Firenze: Le Monnier.   I,  66.


3) Hernández,  J.L.A. – Gosmap M. 1993. La Nouvelle romane (Italy, France, Spain). Amsterdam, Atlanta, GA.  78.


4) Macgregor, F. 2011. The Word on Stage: Theatrical Communication in the Age of Shakespeare. Milano: EDUcatt. 158.


5) Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo. 1962. Masks Publishing House. 538.


6) Bisanti, A. 1992. “Notarelle braccioliniane”. Maia. 44/2. 181.


7) Collignon, A. 1905. Pétron en France. Paris.  92, 140.


8) Castagna, L. 2007.“La Matrona Efesina dal Lombardo-Veneto duecentesco alla Grecia medievale: due redazioni poco note”. Studi su Petronio e sulla sua fortuna, edited by Luigi Castagna-Eckard Lefèvre-Chiara Riboldi, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter. 288 and footnote 2.


9) Ryôzô, Y. 1968. “Some Allusions to Petronius in Contemporary English Literature”. The geibun-kenkyu: Journal of arts and letters. 25.3. 43-44 and footnote 31.


10) Ragno,T. 2011. “The ‘Ephesian Matron’ as a dramatic character in Twenty-Century German Musical Theatre (esp. 1928-1952)”. Fictional Traces: Receptions of the Ancient Novel,  edited by Marilia Futre Pinheiro-S. J. Harriso, Groningen University Library. 2. 169.






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