The Mysterious Meaning of the Verse “Fericulus …†ta †mel”



Presento qui in lingua inglese un saggio che va ad integrazione di uno che scrissi molti anni fa (Postilla petroniana. “La questione petroniana e qualche crux testuale”) , e i cui risultati mi sembrano più pregnanti di quelli conseguiti a quel tempo. La versione italiana si può leggere nel presente sito sotto il titolo di “Petronio Arbitro e il dolce miele”.


Questions that I rise here go back to a my old essay on Petronius Arbiter and on my  conjecture about a famous passage in the Trimalchio’s Dinner (1). I really have to confirm several results that find correspondence in my new analysis,  but the actual textual interpretation seems, in my opinion, to be decisive.


No one could ever fully understand the meaning of the following verse from the Satyricon (39, 22-23, ed. Bϋcherer) (2),


“Nam mihi nihil novi potest afferri, sicut ille fericulus…†ta †mel habuit praxim”.


The problem of the interpreter is to surmise the meaning of the two given fragmented words  following the term fericulus, that is,  †ta and †mel, which, in their turn,  are immediately followed by the word praxim, usually accepted by critics.


Many editors of Petronius Arbiter tried every effort but in vain  to understand the meaning of the verse, while others gave up altogether.  For example, Professor Maiuri (basing himself on Ernout), in his edition of the Cena Trimalchionis,  restored the text in this way,

 fericulus ia‹m se›mel,

“Nam mihi nihil novi potest afferri, sicut ille fericulus ia‹m se›mel, habuit praxim”.


Where ia‹m se›mel  means once for all.


The meaning therefore would be:


“Nothing new under the sun, as this dish proves once for all  (ia‹m se›mel).


The hypothesis proposed by Maiuri-Ernout seems to have a good explanatory power, but its sense is not satisfactory to my own mind. Professor M. S. Smith renounced any hypothesis, proposing the text between two cruces desperationis,


Fer[i]culus †ta  mel† habuit praxim


Also Professor C. Pellegrino  agreed with M. S. Smith  with very slight variations, that is, † fericulus(ta) mel † (3).


Many years ago,  I made an attempt to restore the meaning of the verse, reasoning that ferculus or fericulus is a dish or serving plate (4).  I Know that honey (Latin mel mellis)  was frequently used in the Roman kitchen, so I had chosen  a relatively simple solution, and I  interpreted †ta †mel as  ta<ntum> mel<lis. So, I had read the verse of the Satyricon in this way:


“ Nam mihi novi potest afferri, sicut ille fericulus ta‹ntum›  mel‹lis› habuit praxim.”




“There is  nothing new  under the sun, therefore, for example, I know for a fact that this dish can only hold a certain amount of honey [ta<ntum> mellis), and no more” [Coena Trimalchionis, XXXVIII, 1 ff.].


As regards the interpretation of mel†, for me the matter is closed forever; but I have doubts regarding the second crux desperationis [†ta], which I interpreted as indicating  †ta[ntum (only).  Recently, however, I happened to read a  Boethian moral poem:


“Habet hoc voluptas omnis,/ stimulis agit fruentes/ apiumque par volantum,/ ubi grata mella  fudit/ fugit et nimis tenaci/ ferit icta corda morsu”  (5).




“The pleasure is like bees, which  after sucking the sweet honey from the flowers, they fly away, leaving incurable wounds in the heart (of flowers).”


As we can easily see, in Boethius’ verse, the word mella (honey) is placed near  the adjective grata (sweet). Therefore, it is easy that the truncated word  † ta ( which at that time I had chosen to interpret as †ta[ntum), is probably the final syllable of the word  gra-†ta (sweet), and so we can obtain a meaningful  solution of the verse of Petronius Arbiter.


The verse of Petronius may be interpreted as follows:


“ Nam mihi novi potest afferri, sicut ille fericulus gra-‹†ta›  †mel‹la› habuit praxim”.




“There is nothing new under the sun, as I know for a fact that this dish contains sweet honey.”


Moreover,  other indirect indications  in the Satyricon  (Chapter 56) confirm this hypothesis:


“Apes enim ego divinas bestias puto quae mel vomunt etiamsi dicuntur illud a Jove adferre ideo autem pungunt quia ubicumque dulce est ibi et acidum invenies”.




“I think bees are small and divine creatures; and we are told the honey was a special  gift from Jupiter. However, the bees sting, because, where there is a sweet,  there is always  a bitter.”


As we can see, this passage of the Satyricon on bees and honey is exactly the same issue we encountered  in  the poem of Boethius. Furthermore, in the 17th century, Kaspar von Barth (6), (whose Latin name was Caspar Barthius), commenting on Boethius’ verses, stressed that this verse was identical to the one found in the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, and he quoted the abovementioned verse of the Satyricon,


Apes ideo pungunt quia ubicunque dulce est, ibi et acidum inverties’”.




Bees sting that it is sweet, which immediately turns into a bitter taste.”


So, I think that this is a non-generic interpretation.





1) E. Sardellaro, “La questione petroniana e qualche crux testuale”, in Tre saggi di filologia testuale: Alceo, Orazio e Petronio Arbitro, Dec. 23, 2008, in Internet Archive. Link:


2) Petronii Arbitri satirarum reliquiae ex recensione Francisci Buecheleri, Berolini, Apud Weidmannos. MDCCCXLII [1842].


3) A. Maiuri , Cena Trimalcionis,  Napoli, 1945, p. 45 and footnotes 431-432.


4) Diz. Calonghi-Georges, Turin, 1964.


5) Anicii Manlii Severini Boetii Consolationis philosophicae libros quinque. Metrum VII,Lutetiae Parisorum, MDCXCV [1695],  p. 211.


6) Cl. Claudiani, Principum, heroumque poetae praegloriosissimi, quae exstant, Caspar Barthius ope septemdecim manuscriptorum exemplarium restituit: commentario multo locupletiore, grammatico, critico, philologo, historico, philosophico, politicoque, ita illustravit: ut auctor pretiosissimus omni aetati, scholasticae, academicae, aulicae, politicaeque, esse debeat ex commendato commendatissimus, Francofurti, apud Joannem Naumannum bibliop. Hamburgensem, 1650, p. 788.



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