(Previously – Satyricon 12 – Scene VIIb: Dinner with Trimalchio – Second Course)

We’ve jumped ahead to a later point in the dinner from Trimalchio and Fortunata’s wild dance.  Fellini really loves allowing a scene to reach a noisy crescendo and then immediately jump cutting to a quiet, calmer scene.  It underscores the fragmentary nature of the narrative.

“On July 26th…” – This scene comes directly from the novel (section 53).  Trimalchio’s accountant reads out the current tally of his business acquisitions (so his guests can hear).  The text is almost the same (although in the novel the name of the crucified slave is Mithridates).  Petronius lists Trimalchio’s fortune as ten million sesterces.

The men in the pit are the musicians who are now given a moment to eat.

“Orchards in Pompei” – This is a little satirical joke from Petronius.  A nodding Trimalchio leaps into action when he hears about a property he didn’t know he owned.  In the movie, the verb is active (“When did I buy…”).  In the novel it is passive (“When was it bought for me…”).  In the film, the joke is simple (Trimalchio has so much he doesn’t know what he has).  In the novel, the accountant responds by saying it was bought last year, to which Trimalchio proclaims that if he hasn’t been informed of a land purchase within six months it shouldn’t go on the books.  The joke is, of course, that Trimalchio’s outrage is ridiculous and expressive of his disproportionate wealth.

Habinnas – In the film, the late arrival of Trimalchio’s friend and architect Habinnas is rather sedate.  In the novel (section 65) he arrives drunk with a great fanfare and a huge entourage that initially frightens Encolpius.

“Wake at Scissa’s house” – In the novel, the drunk Habinnas relates how he was at another party that was held to celebrate the liberation of a wealthy person’s slave.  However, the freedom was given to the slave on his deathbed so the irony (to Petronius) was that the festive guests had to pour half of the good wine over the slave’s corpse as an offering.  In the film, the suggestion is that the wake was a more sedate affair, and Habinnas is glad to be at a real party now.

Scintilla – Habbinas’ wife arrives with him, wearing a weird, insect like ridged hairpiece.  She is in shadows at first, but makes a strange gesture- she pulls out her large dangly earrings and exposes her ears.  The camera cuts to an excited Fortunata who immediately echoes this gesture and adds a few more.  We are back to odd gestures as a kind of language we are not privy to, as in Giton’s hand-speak from the Subura episode.  Here, two characters are communicating although we do not know what is being said.  Their connection seems private, as Habinnas (as a shadow on the wall behind Fortunata) and Trimalchio, the men, converse normally.

When Scintilla joins Fortunata on her couch, they begin to kiss (albeit in a strange, un-naturalistic way.  Note how Fellini is using the lower corner of the shot to pull our attention away from the center again.  This focus upon a same-sex attraction between the two women was only partly invented by Fellini.  In the novel (section 69), Scintilla and Fortunata admire each other’s jewelry and Trimalchio even weighs some of the pieces in front of the guests.  It is part of the focus of the party at that point.  The two drunkenly kiss each other (which was probably more shocking to a Roman audience that the women were drunk rather than the kiss).  While they are doing this, Habinnas sneaks up and tips Fortunata’s chair over, since women always sat in chairs, not couches, at dinner parties.  Habinnas’ joke was seen as good-natured, since the women were complaining about their husbands at that moment, and a slightly embarrassed Fortunata sat in Scintilla’s lap (also probably funny to Petronius’ audience since in the novel, Fortunata is a large woman).  An aspect of this is kept in the film, although Habbinas seemingly objects to the kissing whereas in the novel he is being mischievous.  The threat to cut off the ears is Fellini’s re-purposing of a comment made by Habinnas in the novel.  There, he bemoans how much his wife spends on earrings, joking that if he had a daughter he’d cut her ears off.

In the Imperial Roman world, female same-sex desire was generally ignored.  The culture, which was oriented around accommodating male desire, did not seem to know what to do with female sexuality generally, except control it when it came to procreation and issues of legitimacy.  We can count the references to explicit female/female activity in all of Roman literature on two hands, and it is not clear whether we can actually include Petronius’ version of Scintilla and Fortunata on that list.  It should not be surprising that whenever Roman male authors did mention female/female activity or desire, it was always derogatory.  None of this should also surprise us when we remember women’s voices from antiquity are almost entirely absent from the record.

To the Roman male mind, all sexual activity was defined by an active and passive dichotomy.[1] The only way Roman culture could understand female/female sexual activity was to “masculinize” one of the participants.  Female/female desire undoubtedly existed (as it has as long as we’ve been homo sapiens), but we are at a great disadvantage due to the lack of and corruption of the evidence to fully understand how it was manifested at Rome.  It is exactly the sort of gap in our knowledge that Fellini’s entire film is highlighting.

That said, Fellini’s expansion of this relationship seems more in line with modern, late 20th and 21st century attitudes toward the eroticization of female/female sexuality for the titillation of heterosexual males.  For the entire party, Scintilla and Fortunata’s activity mostly flies under the radar.  In one shot, the two women kiss in the lower right while three other women are grouped frame left, looking away and out toward the camera.

Trimalchio Burps – This is a play on the Roman haruspex, a special kind of priest who interpreted the flight patterns of birds and animal livers to divine the future.  The name of the “belch interpreter”, Aruspicius, evokes this.  It also stokes Trimalchio’s massive ego in a ridiculous way.  This scene is not in the original screenplay, so it may have been improvised.

Note how the slaves are foregrounded (but still in shadow) in these shots, and we don’t really get a clear view of Aruspicius.

Croesus – In the novel, before Habinnas arrives, Trimalchio calls for one of his favorite sex slaves (section 64).  It is an adolescent called Croesus.  Petronius describes him as a disgusting beast with rotten teeth.  He is playing roughly with a fat puppy until a loud and calamitous dog fight breaks out between the puppy and a guard dog.  Afterwards, he joins Trimalchio on his couch and playfully climbs on his master’s back, singing a lascivious song.

In the film, we get a composed shot of a powdered and pampered Croesus with flowers in his hair.  This cuts to an off-balance shot of sweaty Trimalchio, with massive bags under bloodshot eyes, quivering in lust while looking at the boy.  This cuts to a close-up of Croesus, contrasting age and youth, ugliness and beauty, obscenity and purity.  Although the goal of the film was to remove modern sensibilities, Fellini seems to revert back to modern constructs, particularly with regard to “transgressive” sexuality.

Pederasty in the Roman world was a common phenomenon, particularly among the Imperial upper classes who saw it as a fashionable expression, particularly between a master and his favorite “boy”.  It was the lens through which we understand Encolpius and Giton’s relationship, as well as Trimalchio and Croesus here.  It fit well into the active/passive dichotomy of male sexuality in the Roman world, since there was no question who did what in the bedroom.

“Carrying on like this…” – In the film, Fortunata sees Trimalchio and Croesus and berates him.  Croesus is seen as a threat to her, as the wife.  Trimalchio then explodes at her with a litany of harsh insults, culminating with throwing food at her as she collapses into Scintilla’s lap in tears.  In the novel, Fortunata and Scintilla complain about their husband’s “boy friends” when they compare jewelry (section 67).  Much later, when Trimalchio begins to make out with another boy (not Croesus), Fortunata yells at him for not being able to control his desires (section 74).  Trimalchio throws a drink in her face and begins to yell at her using more than the insults that Fellini uses (including the order to take her statue out of his mausoleum).  Near the end of his speech (abridged from the much longer Petronius version), he mentions how his master violated him when he was a slave, so he is just continuing the process.  “The master gives the orders!”

During the filming, Trimalchio’s long speech was too much for Genius to remember, so he is mostly just reciting numbers and food from the menu of his restaurant, leaving the monologue for the dubbing actor.  There is a story that for part of it he insisted on doing a monologue from Pirandello’s Henry IV.[2]

“Life passes like a shadow…” – This line and the little silver skeleton that is brought in, comes from much earlier in the original feast (section 35).  In the novel, the guests are fresh and joking about drinking some hundred-year-old wine, given the fact that none of them will live to be a hundred.  Skeletons actually were a  common motif on elite Roman vessels and dining room décor, reminding the guests to eat, drink and be merry in the moment since they were mortal.  In the film, the episode comes in at the end of Trimalchio’s berating of Fortunata to help explain his attitude toward life, and possibly to make him more sympathetic.  It also allows the transition to the next episode, when the host and his guest travel to his mausoleum.

A Poem – Trimalchio tries his hand at poetry again, although Eumolpus is drunker and, after his earlier humiliation, in no mood to stroke the host’s ego.  He accuses Trimalchio of plagiarizing lines from Lucretius.  Trimalchio erupts again when challenged, and orders his slaves to drag Eumolpus away and throw him in the oven.  Encolpius has mostly passed out by this time (and is being molested by the woman in blue seated next to him), but does not come to his friend’s rescue.

The Kitchen – In the hellish kitchen, the slaves terrorize Eumolpus.  They drip hot wax or suet on him while a massive (and unrealistic) oven blazes.  The slaves laugh demonically.  Dead things are cooked are the spinning spit.  The fire crackles.  It is probably meant to evoke the Catholic hell, which Eumolpus has descended into, and is the culmination of the hellish dinner of Trimalchio.

This is mostly an invention by Fellini (since in the novel Eumolpus is not even a guest at the dinner).  It may, however, echo another part of Petronius’ Satyricon where Encolpius and Eumolpus get into an argument over Giton and an inn keeper attempts to throw them out (section 95).  Eumolpus and the inn keeper come to blows which eventually involves the entire establishment.  Encolpius leaves Eumolpus behind in the inn’s kitchen fending off attackers with a candlestick.

(Up Next:  Satyricon 14 – Scene VII: Trimalchio’s Tomb and the Widow of Ephesus)


[1] The bibliography on Roman sexuality is indeed large (see http://www.stoa.org/dio-bin/diobib?romansex). Of particular use are: Clarke, John R (1998), Looking at Lovemaking in Roman Art: Constructions of Sexuality 100 B.C. to A.D. 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press); Hallett, Judith P. (1997), “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature,” in Roman Sexualities edited by Hallett, Judith P. and Skinner, Marilyn B. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 255-273; A. Richlin (1983), The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[2] Kezich, Tullio (2006), Federico Fellini: His Life and Work (New York: Faber and Faber), p.291.