Lawrence Eric Adrian Mitchell

In Memoriam : "Eric"

It was sometime in the fall of l983. I was sitting at a table in the Middlebury college cafeteria with a copy of Arrowsmith's Petronius in my hand, when my student Eric Mitchell came up, with a characteristic flurry of greeting he sat down and fell into talk with me. Now all these years later I recall three things which I want to tell you about this remarkable young man.

I asked somewhat quizzically if he had noticed any sections of the Satyricon which were parallel to another ancient text. Right off he brought up the tale of the Ephesian Matron and said it somehow looked suspiciously like the Crucifixion, not just the three crosses but the whole situation. I had been thinking that for some years, we compared notes, and I saw with surprise that everything that I had been thinking, he had also figured out.

Later that year he burst into my office with a telescope in his hand, remarking that looking through it backward gave him exactly the mental image he had of the world of the Odyssey, something I had heard John Finley say decades earlier and often mentioned to my Homer classes years before --- but never to Eric.

In his last weeks on campus before graduation, we were talking as usual, and I asked him what he was aiming to do with Classics as a graduate student at Columbia. I was puzzled by the answer, that he wanted to study "the Classics and Genetics", thinking that perhaps he was intending to do two graduate fields seriatim, something he was certainly capable of doing. A few years later, as I was delving into A.O. Wilson's radical theories of genetically based social shaping, I saw what Eric had meant. If we searched in the thin film which constitutes what we call (post pre-history) history, we might well watch for significant difference in group traits, which we could monitor for at least these few thousand years, posing the question whether some of them could have been genetically coded. In l985 that could just be considered, fifteen years later we begin to have the intellectual and gene-analytical equipment necessary to approach such problems.

But as with all lists, there is one more thing I must add:
Only a very few, very bright people make certain kinds of new associations, Eric had this ability and was one of few such I have known over my many years as a teacher. I would liked to have gone back and told Eric that at last I saw what he meant by his Classics/genetics proposal, that I too was much interested in it. But that was impossible, because he died in a motorcycle accident in his second year of graduate study, just as people were beginning to see him as the remarkable person he really was. So you will forgive me for this discursive introduction to the essay on the Ephesian Matron (as much the thought of Eric Mitchell as my own), and accept this article as a minor memorial to the un-fulfillable promise of a very promising young man.


The story of the Ephesian Matron in Petronius is so well known as a clever tale about human nature and the will to live, that we may miss the possibility of another societal connection with the world of the 1 st c.A.D. Briefly, the story tells about a widow so devoted to her husband's memory that she cannot bring herself to leave the mausoleum where his body lies, fasting and weeping incessantly. A soldier on duty guarding the bodies of three crucified criminals nearby hears her cries, solaces her gently bringing a sip of wine, then more and some food, until she transfers her affections to him and they finally fall in love there in the tomb. Meanwhile the family of one of the crucified criminals sees the soldier otherwise occupied and removes the body. The soldier is distraught since deliction of duty would mean death, but the lady decides not to lose two lover at the same time. She believes more in the value of life and living, so they put the husband's body back on the crucifix, to the great surprise of the townspeople the following day.

Now this has certain similarities to the NT account of Christ's crucifixion. First, there are three persons crucified at the same place, second Christ's body is bewept in a tomb by a woman, thirdly the body is removed or somehow disappears, which could be the pious and respectful work of his disciples, leaving aside for the moment the matter of Resurrection. If we add Resurrection, then we have a twist which revolves about the matter of life continuing, as against death.

Returning to Petronius, first we have the woman bewailing a body in a tomb, second one of the bodies on the cross is removed presumably by family or friends for proper interment, third the body in the tomb is replaced back on the cross. The direction of the body is here to the cross, in the NT it is down from the cross. The center of the story turns on the human quality of the valuation of life, even under strained circumstances. In other words, the four segments of the situation are all present, but in a different order.

I believe we have a story which was floating around the world of the first century A.D. in indeterminate form, originating from the crucifixion of Christ in his close-knit neo-Jewish society, but spreading westward where it lost its religious overtones and became a part of the secular story-telling of the Greco-Roman world. The story is by no means a comment or reference to Christ, it has floated so far afield that only the skeleton of the tale remains in disjointed segments. But the elements are all there, and since they are documented in the same century, it seems possible that they represent two facets of the same original situation. For us it is difficult to connect a clever literary conte, with the tradition which is at the base of the living Christian religion. A folklorist however would have little trouble tracing two divergent patterns of storytelling, deriving in entirely different paths from a single historical source, and surfacing in entirely different cultural associations.

We should look at this from the perspective of historical evidence. If the Petronius storyline may be considered even as indirect evidence that there was an awareness, howsoever vague and transposed, of Christ's final state, it does establish the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was becoming known in secular circles throughout the West. And it further helps document a date for Petronius (who has never been properly dated) as near the end of the first century A.D.

I find this matter so strange and unparalleled by anything else we havefrom the early years of the first millennium, that I hesitate to propose the matter in documentable academic terms, and offer this view primarily as a suggestion for consideration. On the other hand the segments of the argument as I have outlined them seem to fit together ineluctably. It is essentially the interpretation of their meaning in a social and historical sense which gives me pause.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College