I'd just like to underline
the fact that the epigraph is not in English, right. It's written partly in
Latin and partly in Greek (the Sybil's answer).
Whereas most learned readers
will be able to read the Latin sentence, I don't think that everybody
will understand the Greek ones straight away. And that is also the most
important part of the epigraph.
So, how is the reader to
I don't think Eliot believed
that everybody would understand the whole epigraph right on the spot. And I
don't think he wanted us to think of the whole Satiricon story when reading it.
Think of Tolstoj's epigraph
at the beginning of "Anna Karenina" -- if I remember correctly, it was taken
from the Bible, and it's about divine nemesis. You don't have to
understand it before you read the novel. You will afterwards, though. Epigraphs
are just sententiae, summarizing the primary
feeling which the work is based on.
Usually, epigraphs in
Western literature come from well-acknowledged literary 'authorities',
such as the classics or the Bible. So, I think that is mainly the case here, as
Carrol Cox has pointed out already, that it was put there mainly to convey
that sense of 'this has all happened before'. An epigraph in English, taken from
Conrad, would not have been that weighty and authoritative. The languages
themselves are weighty -- Latin and Greek.