The story of the Widow of Ephesus is related by the poet Eumolpos in the course of Petronius' lengthy and complex novel, The Satyricon. Eumolpos' purpose in telling the tale is to entertain a group of characters during a sea voyage and, in particular, to ease tensions among the group.
The situation is tense due to the peculiar relationship of the novel's hero (and narrator), Encolpius [FN 1], to the other characters. Encolpius is traveling through Italy accompanied by his extremely handsome but extremely fickle young male slave/lover, Giton [FN 2]. Encolpius is an Odysseus figure of sorts, not by virtue of his courage or his wits, but because he too is a wanderer, forced to travel about and endure a series of hardships due to the wrath of a particular god. (He seems to have offended the fertility divinity Priapus and, as a result, to have been cursed with impotence.)
Encolpius has met up with Eumolpos [FN 3] — a decadent poet/tutor who is not above seducing his handsome young pupils or, for that matter, Giton — and the trio have embarked aboard a ship bound, it seems, for southern Italy. Unfortunately for them, the ship belongs to the crusty sea-captain Lichas [FN 4], whose wife (Hedyle) Encolpius seems to have seduced in an earlier episode [FN 5]. Moreover, Lichas has on board the aristocratic lady Tryphaena [FN 6], from whose retinue Encolpius may have stolen the handsome young Giton in another lost episode.
Trapped on board ship with two of his most dangerous enemies, Encolpius adopts a plan suggested by Eumolpos and attempts to escape detection by disguising himself and his young companion as slaves: to this end he has both his own and Giton's heads and eyebrows shaved and false brand-marks drawn on their foreheads. They are discovered all the same and a shipboard battle ensues between the two factions, until Giton, in the manner of the Sabine Women, interposes himself between the two warring groups and threatens to cut off his offending member — the source of the hostility between Tryphaena and Encolpius. Horrified at this possibility, the two sides arrive at a truce through the agency of Eumolpos and general good humor is quickly restored.
At this point our story begins.
[FN 1] The name means something like "in the lap/bosom" (with romantic/erotic overtones: more earthy translators gloss the name with the term "crotch"). [N.B. All of the names discussed here are Greek.] [Return to text]
[FN 2] The name means "neighbor" (with sexual connotations). [Return to text]
[FN 3] "Noble/harmonious singer/poet." [Return to text]
[FN 4] A common Greek name. [Return to text]
[FN 5] Cf. 106.2 (Lichas memor adhuc uxoris corruptae contumeliarumque, quas in Herculis porticu acceperat). There is some evidence that Encolpius perhaps added insult to injury by robbing Lichas as well: see on 113.3. [Return to text]
[FN 6] The name implies a luxurious and libidinous nature. [Return to text]