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The Satyricon - Petronius

Book Review by Ursus

One usually begins these writings on Roman literary works with an introduction to the author of the said work. In the case of The Satyricon, however, matters become complicated. Scholars have only a single name connected with the work: Petronius. While they cannot say with certainty who this Petronius is, they can assert a credible theory as to his identify. If the theory is correct, it makes the author as interesting as the work under consideration.

Tacitus in his histories mentions a certain Titus Petronius Niger who came to prominence under the reign of Nero. The man was denounced as amoral and an indolent hedonist. This did not however prevent him from becoming a senator of consular rank or performing competently as Proconsul of Bithynia. Having rid himself of Seneca and Lucan as advisors, Nero was in no further mood for Stoicism. Petronius was the perfect man to serve as the Arbiter of Elegance, or Nero's advisor on all things fashionable and luxurious. Indeed, Petronius would have been close to the emperor during the time of Nero's worst excesses and indulgences.

Imperial intrigue being what it was, Petronius fell from favor at the instigation of the praetorian prefect Tigellinus. He was forced to commit suicide. But his death was true to his life - in his last moments Petronius cited lyrics and light hearted verses. He also carefully documented Nero's scandalous sexual escapades for posterity.

Petronius was thus not a moralist. He was a competent official who treated the world with equal amounts of amoral hedonism and whimsical cynicism. The novel, as will be explained, fits this personality perfectly. References in the novel to politics and culture also place The Satyricon firmly within the reign of Nero. Thus while it cannot be proved with absolute certainly, it is a solid conclusion that the author of The Satyricon is the same Neronian advisor mentioned by Tacitus.

Apuleius' Golden Ass is the only Roman novel to survive completely intact; Petronius' The Satyricon unfortunately comes to us in fragments. It was not especially well-known in the ancient world, and its inherent "lewdness" did not dispose it well to the later Christian mentality. Exactly how much has been lost is of some debate. There are speculations it was comparable to Homer's Odyssey, while others assign it a considerably less probable length. What scholars do know is that what survives are only pieces of the last half of the novel.

"Satyricon" is indicative of both satire as well as satyrs (oversexed bucolic creatures of Greek mythology). The novel combines both strands admirably. It is the story of Encolpius, a man of some education, and the handsome slave boy Giton. The two are homosexual lovers who experience adventures and sexual misadventures in the formerly Greek areas of Southern Italy. The characters they meet (a third-rate orator, a nymphomaniac priestess, a boorish millionaire, a bad poet, a superstitious sea captain) are all heavily satirized stock characters of Roman mime shows.

The novel is told mostly in prose - indeed, the author placed in the mouths of some of the minor characters some vulgar and regional dialects of Latin (as opposed to classic literary Latin), which of course cannot be expressed through English translation. There are various passages in verse, most of which has been inserted into the mouth of Eumolpus, the aforementioned poet of dubious talent. The novel parodies everything from the literary emphasis of Roman higher education to the intellectual pretensions of the newly wealthy provincial elites.

Indeed, the novel may itself be a parody of two Greek literary conventions. The first is Homer's Odyssey. In The Odyssey, the hero's ten-year torturous quest to return to home is frustrated by the wrath of Poseidon, the sea god. In The Satyricon, the "hero" seems to be impotent as a result of offending the carnal god Priapus, resulting in various sexual misadventures. Encolpius, also like Odysseus, meets a magical temptress named Circe.

The second element is a certain corpus of literary endeavors, loosely called novels, from the Hellenistic world. These works, as a genre, depict the adventures of a young pair of heterosexual lovers who become separated from one another. Despite a variety of plot contrivances, the female remains chaste and faithful to her lover, until finally they are joyously reunited after the intercession of a benevolent deity. In The Satyricon, by contrast, the lovers are homosexuals (or, more properly, bisexuals) who are anything but faithful to each other, and become engaged in various love triangles.

Through the shady exploits of it characters, the novel depicts an unseemly underside of early imperial Rome, including a trip to a brothel. The centerpiece of the surviving work is the Cena Trimalchionis. The characters find themselves as guests at a dinner party thrown by Trimalchio. The character is an ex-slave from the Pontic region who in short order has become incredibly rich, and a priest of the imperial cult. During the dinner the guests are treated to an amazing array of exotic dishes and ostentatious entertainment. Trimalchio, while rich, is a boorish buffoon, whose mangling of intelligent conversation betrays his inability to adhere to the intellectual pretensions expected of the Roman social elite. Trimalchio even tries to invest himself with the air of a Roman emperor. No doubt the old order of aristocracy in Rome was wont to view the newly rich in the same light - no doubt Petronius witnessed the phenomenon first hand while serving as governor of his Asian province.

While a matter of taste, The Satyricon is perhaps not to be read for enjoyment. Its fragmented status makes it a disjointed and confusing work, and the satire may be beyond the general reader not conversant with some of the finer points of Greco-Roman civilization. Its chief value lies in other areas. First and foremost, it offers a window into a side of Roman culture not often depicted by other literary elites - the Feast of Trimalchio is especially enlightening. Second, disjointed as though it is, it offers a glimpse into the Roman novel, though one has to be extremely careful not to project modern understandings of the word "novel" onto the Roman genre. Finally, it is one of the few works in Western literature that takes homosexual love as a given, and may be of interest to students of sexuality.

Discuss and order this book online at Amazon

Petronius. The Satyricon. Translated and introduction by P.G. Walsh. Oxford World Classics.
Gian Biagio Conte. Latin Literature: A History.
Hornblower and Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd edition.

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