Friday, January 13, 2017

Trimalchio Ascendant

We all know Trimalchio.   He is an unforgettable character in a surviving portion of the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, friend, for a time, of the Emperor Nero.  A former slave, now a freeman, of enormous wealth who is holding a great banquet his friends and those beholden to him attend.  These lavish dinners were serious business to the Romans.  You were, almost literally, nobody unless you were invited to one hosted by the high and mighty, the notorious, the famous. 

Trimalchio's dinner is described in detail, as is Trimalchio himself.  The dinner is many-coursed and remarkable in its excess.  It may be that Petronius' detailing of the dinner and the conduct of Trimalchio, his slaves and friends, served to inspire the belief in Roman decadence which many of us hold so dear, and which has been depicted in various films.

Trimalchio is described as self-important, boorish, arrogant, ignorant, loud, verbose, without breeding or taste.  His ego is astounding.  He even treats his guests to an enactment of what he has decreed will take place at his own funeral; naturally a very grandiose affair, solemnly acting his part as his revered corpse. 

He's referred to with some frequency by authors who lived after Petronius, who died by his own hand when condemned by Nero, spending his last moments, it's said, elegantly and savagely relating the Emperors various faults to those in attendance.  The parties held by Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby are compared to Trimalchio's feast, for example.  It seems he comes to mind whenever the defects of the very rich and wasteful are in evidence, particularly the newly rich who haven't yet learned to display their wealth with a degree of taste and class.

Alas, he also comes to mind, to my mind in any case, whenever our president-elect is mentioned or appears before me on my TV, PC or smart phone.  He is ubiquitous of course; our technology makes him so, certainly, but he is responsible himself for his omnipresence because of his various invariably silly or smug or angry or sophomoric tweets when not in the public eye, his blatant self-promotion, his stunts, his propensity for overstatement, the enthusiasm with which he extols his many virtues and denigrates those he feels fail to do the same or oppose him in some fashion.  He seems incapable of ignoring any slight, real or imagined.

He won't be a dignified president, I think.  He'll likely be what he's shown himself to be in the past:  a showman, a salesman, a kind of carnival barker and insult comic.  Not what one wants as a president, but as we like to say these days, it is what it is.  He'll schmooze when it serves his purpose, and sulk when things don't go his way.  If he's wise, or if his handlers are, he'll be content to be a kind of figurehead, wheeled out to condemn or praise or make prepared announcements while his people do the hard work of government.  This seems to have been how he's handled his businesses, in fact.  If this is how it will be, he may be safely ignored or become a kind of character in a TV series whose statements are always suspect and whose missteps are mitigated by those surrounding him.  He wouldn't be a serious figure.

We can hope for that, in any case.  We already see a rather extensive about-face on his part.  He blithely ignores the promises and claims he made before the election; his nominees are avidly taking positions contrary to those he's taken.  He will say, it seems, most anything that appears to be advantageous at the moment and then do the contrary if it appears to be advantageous later. 

So perhaps we'll be fortunate, and can watch Trimalchio do what he does now as we watched him as a character in a story told by an ancient author well-acquainted with those like him who were rich and powerful in his time, and having watched will be sadder, but will survive to be wiser.

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