Sunday, November 6, 2011

On the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter

Well, it was written by someone, in any case, and it seems it could have been the man known to us as Petronius Arbiter.  Most of us may know that man as a result of his portrayal in the novel Quo Vadis if not through Tacitus.  The sophisticated, cynical (in the modern usage) "arbiter of elegance" in the court of Nero, a voluptuary who nonetheless was a very able governor and consul, a kind of later Sulla who did not exercise significant military or political authority but seemingly had the ability and gravitas to do so when needed.

The Satyricon is a fascinating work, and I think may be said to be a work of genius, the first of its kind, a predecessor perhaps of the work of Rabelais and Cervantes, the first picaresque novel or work of fiction.  I remember trying to read it years ago.  I write "trying" because it was not an easy book to find, and because its many naughty bits (as they would say on Monty Python) were rendered in Latin interruptions to the English of the translations that I found.  I thought this most annoying.  Now, of course, the work is available in translation with all those bits on display.  I cannot say with certainty how I would have reacted to them had they been available in the halcyon days of my adolescence, but they are by today's standards at least relatively tame.  One might only find the rampant bisexuality evident in the characters to be surprising in these times. 

Sex certainly is a preoccupation of those characters portrayed in the book, as is food.  The feast of Trimalchio may be deemed a digression, but if so it is fantastic one.  I have to wonder whether the author's description of the incredible dishes served up at the feast was based on actual dinners he had attended simply exaggerated for effect or his own imaginative creations.  Some say Trimalchio is intended to be Nero, some say he is a satirical rendering of the vulgar, wealthy freedman patricians came to loathe in those times.

From what we read in Martial and Juvenal, a great deal of importance was ascribed to appearing at the dinners of the wealthy and powerful in ancient Rome.  I'm not certain whether this was due to the culinary delights available or the significance of being seen at such events.  I suppose both were factors.  Perhaps Trimalchio's feast mocks those events and those who attended them and thought them important.

The characters of the work are, of course, irredeemably shallow and materialistic, which may be expected in a work of satire (and we certainly find such characters in Juvenal).  The Satyricon has among other things been looked upon by the Christian successors of the Empire as evidence of its decadence, and the unholiness of all things Pagan as a consequence.  It is debatable whether such satires are more a testament to the morals of their creators than the prevalence of what they hold up for contempt.

Admirer and emulator of the Stoics that I am or try to be, though, I have a sneaking fondness and regard for the work and for its reputed author, Petronius.  I feel as though there is a kind of resemblance between Petronius and another of Nero's mentors, Seneca.  Both men may have seen Nero for what he was, and felt contempt for the times in which they lived and the morals of those they lived among.  But they played along, for a time, for one reason or another.  Perhaps Seneca felt that he could exercise a degree of benign control over Nero and events; perhaps Petronius felt there was nothing to be done but make the best of things while deploring them.  Perhaps both felt themselves superior to those about them, but caught up in a kind of play in which they were compelled to play their parts.  Seneca consoled himself by writing wise counsel on how to live in the Stoic manner; Petronius mocked those who lived as they did at the time. 

Both died nobly, though, I think, when Nero felt they could no longer be tolerated.  Some might say they should have departed from life earlier, finding it to be intolerable.  It's hard to condemn a man for wanting to live, however.  Living as best one can in terrible times is admirable in its own way.


  1. Well done for all your hard work in providing this high quality blog.

  2. Italy may never have succumbed to the Romantic madness of Hegel and Wagner (Croce and Verdi nothwithstanding), but Petronius and Bandello?