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by Petronius


A novel set in southern Italy during the midfirst century ce; written in Latin and published in the 60s ce..


Four companions—conceited, amoral, and impoverished—become enmeshed in a series of outlandish, often perverse adventures.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

The Satyricon is the sole surviving work of an author referred to as Petronius Arbiter. The title (in Latin, Satyrica or Libri Satyricon) may be referring to satura, a culinary term for “mixed dish” that gave rise to satire, the name of a literary form devoted to exposing hypocrites and the socially pretentious. Using ridicule to bring into focus human vice and folly, satire was developed by the Romans into a genre whose typical work contained diverse subjects and some-times diverse literary forms (i.e., was a “mixed dish”). Petronius’s title may also be referring to satyr, the Greek mythological figure given to sexual excess and dissolute behavior, phenomena that figure prominently in the novel. As with the meaning of the title, there is uncertainty about the length and overall storyline of the original Satyricon. Only fragments of the original survive, painstakingly ordered by generations of scholars. The longest and most famous sequence that remains intact is the account of a bizarre dinner party thrown by a fabulously wealthy and extravagant ex-slave named Trimalchio.

There is some debate over the author’s identity, but many suppose him to be the same Petronius described by the second-century ce historian Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). This Petronius was an aristocrat, a government official, and a man intimate with the emperor Nero’s social set. According to Tacitus, Petronius was the emperor’s authority on what was and was not fashionable in Roman society. Coincidentally or not, the Satyricon (especially its most famous section, the above-mentioned dinner of Trimalchio) is shot through with such sensibilities. In 65 ce a failed attempt on Nero’s life (the Pisonian conspiracy) resulted in the deaths of over 100 prominent Roman aristocrats. The Petronius described by Tacitus was among those ordered to commit suicide, which he did in 66. Composed in the politically tense years just prior to this suicide, the Satyricon is a sophisticated and lurid tale of amoral, opportunistic characters racing through the seamy underside of mid-first century Italian society.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Emperor Nero and his court

The emperor Nero, under whose reign (54-68 ce) Petronius wrote the Satyricon, was originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was the son of Agrippina and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (who, according to some, was the heir of a noble family known for its cruelty and violence as well as its military victories). There is a tale that Agrippina consulted an astrologer about her son’s future; when he informed her that the boy would become emperor but would also kill his mother, she responded, “Let him kill [me], so long as he rules” (Tacitus, Annals, book 14, chapter 9). When her husband died, Agrippina insured her and her son’s fortune by marrying the next emperor, her uncle Claudius. Although Claudius already had a son, Britannicus, the emperor adopted Lucius Domitius as a second son, then favored him over Britannicus. The favored stepson took a new name, Claudius Nero, becoming known simply as Nero. In 54 ce, Nero’s adoptive father was fatally poisoned, probably by Agrippina. Nero became emperor and, shortly thereafter, Britannicus, his potential rival, was also poisoned. In spite of these dark beginnings, Nero’s reign was well received for several years. He was beloved by the people and coexisted peacefully with the Senate. In the early 60s ce, however, for reasons that remain somewhat obscure, this governmental harmony began to deteriorate.

Nero was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, as indicated by the successes of writers of the era. It is unknown to what extent, if at all, he encouraged Petronius to write the Satyricon. But in any case Petronius is known to have been one of the brilliant literary talents that flourished under Nero’s reign. Three other major writers of the era are Persius, Seneca the Younger, and Lucan (Seneca’s nephew). Seneca, who served as Nero’s tutor and political advisor, produced philosophical and poetic writings that Petronius parodies in his novel. Lucan wrote an epic poem entitled The Civil War, which Petronius also parodies (Satyrica, chapters 119-124, pp. 118-128). It is possible that literature may have flourished under Nero partly as a way for ambitious aristocrats to attract the emperor’s attention. If so, Petronius’s allusions to the works of Seneca and Lucan may be part of the competition for court favor. Since both had fallen from favor by the early 60s ce, Petronius’s parodies of their works may have struck with particular force.

Nero himself indulged in public display, an endeavor that every emperor had to master. He be-came particularly in famous for his activities in the theater and amphitheater alike. Turning himself into the spectacle, Nero performed tragic roles on-stage and drove chariots through the amphitheater. His antics endeared him to the masses but horrified Rome’s aristocratic elite. What must have been at least partly a public relations stunt to win the affections of common citizens was taken by the elite as evidence of a decadent emperor’s bottomless capacity for vice. Whether they were scandalized by this capacity or frightened by his popularity with the public is open to question.

Nero’s unpopularity with the Senate finally led to a conspiracy to take his life in 65 ce. As noted, the conspiracy failed, and the emperor retaliated, blaming Petronius for treachery, or perhaps some other offense, and forcing him, among others, to commit suicide. Two years later Rome finally turned on Nero. Revolts in the western provinces in 68 ce encouraged the Senate to avenge itself both in respect to those who died by Nero’s order and in outrage at his disregard for traditional mores in the conduct of his office. The Senate declared Nero a public enemy and he fled into hiding, then committed suicide himself. After Nero’s rule came the Year of the Four Emperors, a period that saw the return of bloody civil war to the Roman world as three would-be emperors attempted to rule Rome, assuming power in quick succession until a fourth contestant, Vespasian, seized and successfully retained control. The death of Nero had brought to an end the Julio-Claudian dynasty that began with Augustus.

From slave to freedman in Nero’s Rome

The main surviving episode in Satyricon centers on an ex-slave, Trimalchio. Ex-slaves were commonly known as “freedmen” or “freedwomen” (in contrast to Roman citizens who had always been free and were known as “free men” or “free women”). How possible was it for slaves to win their freedom? In ancient Rome, a slaveowner could free a slave whenever the owner wished. Some slaves bought their freedom by paying the owner the price for which they had been purchased, though amassing enough money was prohibitive for most. Often a male slaveowner would free his slaves to display his wealth, power, or generosity. Many slaves were freed in the will of their owner (who thus kept possession of them until his death). Upon manumission, a freedman shaved his head, according to one ancient source, after the practice of sea travelers who survived storms and then, after returning home, shaved their heads and dedicated their hair to the gods. Similar to these travelers, the freedmen had escaped the “storm of slavery.” With freedom came legal rights and privileges—citizenship and the right to contract a marriage and produce legitimate offspring, children who were “fully” free citizens. “Halfway” citizens themselves, the freedmen could not run for public office.

While there is insufficient information to ascertain the number of freedmen and freed-women in ancient Rome, historical evidence suggests that by this era their population had grown quite large. The former status of a dead person was noted on his or her tombstone. A survey of 1,000 tombstones in the city of Rome revealed that three times as many belonged to freedmen as to the freeborn. Publius Cornelius Sulla, a general of the early first century bce, is reported to himself have freed 10,000 slaves; the fire brigade in the city of Rome, numbering 7,000 at its creation in 6 ce, consisted entirely of freedmen; in the same period, under the emperor Augustus, a law was introduced that forbade a master from freeing more than 100 slaves in his will—perhaps indicating a concern that too many freedmen were entering the population or too many heirs were being deprived of their human “property.”

Owners who freed their slaves did not lose all rights to their services; in fact, it was not uncommon for a former master to retain his ex-slaves in his employ. Insofar as freedom was considered a show of kindness on the part of the master, freedmen were bound to their former master by “obligations of gratitude.” It was legally their duty to be at his and his family’s service for as long as he lived. The type of service a freedman was obligated to supply to his former master would be negotiated before manumission, then confirmed by taking an oath. An ex-master could punish an “ungrateful” freedman by having him “lightly” whipped or fined, or even by revoking his freedom (a rarely exercised option). The Roman jurist Ulpian wrote that a judge “should not endure the slave of yesterday, who today is free,


In C. Petronius’ case some brief background must be given…. He was considered … a man of educated luxuriousness. Nevertheless, as proconsul of Bithynia and later as consul, he showed himself vigorous and equal to business. Then, recoiling into vice, or by imitations of vice, he was enlisted by Nero among a few of his establishment as the arbiter of elegance, inasmuch as he thought that nothing was attractive or had the soft feeling of affluence except what Petronius had approved for him.

(Tacitus, Annals, book 16, chapter 18)

to complain that his master has spoken abusively to him, or struck him lightly, or criticized him” (Joshel, p. 34). During Nero’s reign, the Senate even entertained a law to revoke the manumission of ungrateful freedmen; perhaps realizing that the sheer number of freedmen in all levels of society would make such a law both unpopular and disruptive, Nero returned the proposal to the Senate with the recommendation (which, of course, could not be ignored) that the Senate in-stead handle the issue on a case-by-case basis.

Emperors often placed their own freedmen in important posts in the empire. An emperor’s ex-slaves might supervise the collection of taxes or oversee provincial governors. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, used his ex-slaves to staff his administration, as other Roman officials had before him. Rome’s fourth emperor, Claudius, Nero’s adoptive father, went much further, making an ex-slave, Narcissus, his private secretary and then giving the freedman a prominent voice in government, much to the disgruntlement of the Roman aristocracy. After Claudius died, Narcissus retained power, and the next emperor, Nero, could not roll back this power, at least not immediately. Narcissus remained a potent force for several years, while his brother Felix served as a particularly brutal governor of Palestine. As these examples suggest, freedmen were a diverse group:

Freedmen … were not a class, all poorer or wealthier than the freeborn. Moreover, the freedman of an ordinary tailor must be distinguished from the emperor’s freedman, who held a high post in the imperial bureaucracy. Freedmen’s relations with patrons, too, varied: some were working in their shops; others had no living patron, no obligations to the patron’s heir, or were themselves their master’s heir.

(Joshel, pp. 34-35)

Dining and other forms of decadence

The surviving fragments of the Satyricon treat diverse aspects of Roman social life in Petronius’s day. Feasting was a topic of both contemporary relevance and traditional concern. According to a common view of Roman history, all the wealth flowing from imperial conquests eroded the stern discipline and virtue of early Rome, nurturing greed and a taste for decadence. Greater wealth led to more opportunities for showy display. The ancient historian Livy (59 bce-17 ce) complains that the cook, the least important slave of the earlier Roman household, was in his day the most important slave. At great expense, cooks prepared rare, exotic dishes, extending not just to their taste but also to their visual appeal. And more than food was on display.

Elite dining included a vast array of entertainment, including dancers, jugglers, acrobats, poets, musicians, and/or entire acting companies. The entertainments reflected a host’s wealth, social status, and degree of cultural refinement, as well as his estimation of the guests in attendance. A host would not, for example, offer a feast accompanied by jugglers and acrobats to guests accustomed to refined music and poetry readings. The whole experience of hosting a dinner—the preparation and display of food and wine, the entertainers, and so forth—became critical to the competition for social approval. The elite (and would-be elite) dined in a spirit of rivalry.

In the low status that it accorded to the entertainers themselves, the elite (however unconsciously hypocritical it might have been) adhered to a double standard: to engage in providing pleasure to others was considered dishonorable, but to employ the entertainers was acceptable. These “entertainers” ranged from food vendors on the street, to cooks, and especially to prostitutes, actors, and gladiators (people who used their bodies to provide pleasure to others). While society thought it fine to avail oneself of their services, excessive reliance on them was frowned upon. Indulgence of appetite was an area about which the elite showed particular anxiety. The man who was immoderate at the table, it was thought, might easily be sexually immoderate as well. The belief was that raw appetites were linked to one another; to indulge in any of them was to betray an effeminate lack of self-control that could extend to them all.

Emperors were not spared this scrutiny. If the ancient historical accounts can be believed, Nero exceeded all norms of indulgence—in sex, in feasting, and in other pursuits. A hostile bias in the ancient sources may be partly responsible for the portrait of Nero’s monstrous excesses. But in any case, a balance had to be struck in such activities, and as emperor, Nero did not strike it.

Socially acceptable sexual conduct might include, for a man, sex with a woman outside marriage, provided she was a slave or prostitute (so as not to violate the household of the man to whom a free woman belonged, either as wife or daughter). A man could have sex with another man, provided he was the “active” participant, the one who penetrates the body of the other party and thus displays his virility. To become the passive party, or worse yet to enjoy and habitually seek it out, was a disgrace, an adaptation of the male body to female behavior. Since eating is a passive pleasure, to indulge in feasting excessively could be taken to imply an interest in other passive pleasures.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The main characters of the Satyricon are a trio of young men. Two, Encolpius and Ascyltos, are perhaps in their twenties; the third, Giton, is about 16. He is at first the teenage lover of Encolpius but switches to having an affair with their companion Ascyltos. These three are eventually joined by an aged and lascivious self-styled poet.

The Satyricon opens as the narrator Encolpius expresses his contempt for the state of rhetoric. In his eyes, it has grown stale and silly on an unhealthy diet of unrealistic themes prescribed by the schoolmasters. Encolpius addresses this opinion to just such a teacher of rhetoric, who sadly agrees with the bleak assessment. The teacher blames parents. If schoolmasters refuse to teach what parents misguidedly wish their children to learn, their schools will be empty. To underscore this truth, he launches into a poem on the theme of rhetoric’s decline, from its glorious Greek origins and Roman apex to its present decay. Encolpius departs, then reunites with his teenage lover, Giton, and with Ascyltos, his partner in misadventures. Ascyltos, it so happens, has de-signs on Giton himself. In the following fragment, the three barely escape a series of close calls.

There appears a priestess of the god Priapus (the guardian spirit of sheep and goats, known for his lust). The priestess, whose name is Quartilla, has encountered Encolpius in the past; he interrupted some sacred rites being conducted in honor of Priapus. She dispatches a slave to announce her arrival to the surprised young men, who are assured she comes not to blame or punish. When Quartilla herself arrives, she weeps profusely and informs the youths that after Encolpius disrupted the rites being conducted in honor of Priapus, she fell ill. A cure was revealed to her in her dreams, along with the instruction that she seek out those responsible and carry out the cure in their company. She further begs them to keep to themselves the secret goings-on they witnessed in Priapus’s shrine. They readily assure her of their full cooperation as well as their pious silence. Quartilla cheers up and informs them that it is good they agreed, because other-wise a lynch mob would have shown up at their door to avenge her dishonor. As it happens, the cure takes the form of a raucous, free-for-all sexual orgy.

The next episode features a grand dinner party thrown by the well-known freedman Trimalchio, who is a businessman and a gourmet. Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton have all been invited. While mingling with the other guests, Encolpius spots an old man with a shaven head, the badge of the freedman. The man in question is none other than their host, Trimalchio. Dressed in a red tunic, he seems to be playing a game of catch with a circle of long-haired slave boys. It is a strange version of catch. He makes no effort to retrieve the balls that he fails to catch. Instead a slave stands by with a steady supply of new ones at the ready. Also strange is the method of keeping score. Instead of counting successful catches and returned throws, the scorekeeping slave counts the number of balls dropped.

Our narrator passes a mural decorated with scenes from Trimalchio’s own life:

It depicted a slave market complete with price tags. Trimalchio himself was in the picture; his hair is long and in his hand he grips the wand of [the god] Mercury. [The goddess] Minerva leads the way as our hero enters Rome. A painstaking artist had carefully portrayed the whole course of his career, complete with captions: how he first learned to keep the books and then was put in charge of the cash. In the last scene … Fortuna is at his side carrying her burgeoning cornucopia, as the three Fates spin the golden threads.

(Petronius, Satyrica, chapter 29, p. 25)

The mural follows Trimalchio from his sale at the slave market to his entry into Rome. Pictured is his climb up the social ladder—guided by Mercury (god of profit and commerce) and Minerva (goddess of wisdom)—to the present peak of his career, which finds him at the side of the goddess Fortune while the Fates spin out the allotments of his prosperous life in golden thread. As our threesome proceeds, Encolpius notices that on the doorposts of the entrance to the dining room there are rods and axes affixed to the bronze prow of a ship (traditional symbol of a naval victory). The fixture bears an inscription citing Trimalchio’s membership in a public religious order open to freedmen: “Presented to C. Pompeius Trimalchio, Priest of the College of Augustus, by Cinnamus the Steward” (Satyrica, chapter 30, p. 26). The rods and axes are the official emblem of public executive authority; they symbolize the powers of corporal and capital punishment (the rods stand for beating; the axes, for execution). It was not out of bounds for a priest of the College of Augustus to display these symbols, but since he normally would not have either of these powers, it is a rather melodramatic gesture. Exaggerating the showiness of the fixture to a ridiculous extent is the grandiose addition of a ship’s prow, which likely refers to the for-tune Trimalchio made in the import-export business. Later, during the dinner, a slave brings out statuettes of Trimalchio’s household gods—Gain, Luck, and Profit. While it is appropriate for each household to have its own particular gods to watch over it, Trimalchio’s set of domestic deities is comically absurd, and therefore entirely appropriate to him. Every sort of extravagance is in evidence at the feast. Trimalchio’s entrance into the dining room and all other events at the feast, including the arrival of each course, is announced by music. Guests are treated to pedi-cures while they wait (whether they want them or not), and with musical accompaniment.

Trimalchio is carried into the dining room on a litter. He wears on his fingers one gold-plated ring and another of a solid gold decorated with iron studs; gold rings were the mark of the equestrians or businessmen (Rome’s second wealthiest class, after the senators). Tucked about his neck is a napkin with a purple stripe, a badge of distinction usually found on a senator’s toga. Trimalchio is a mass of conflicting pretensions to any and all status symbols in Roman society.

When 100-year-old wine is brought into the room, Trimalchio makes the melancholy observation that a bottle of wine outlives a human being. This grim note is followed by a slave who produces a silver skeleton with hinged joints that he throws about on the floor as the guests watch its limbs fall in different patterns. As usual, Trimalchio sums up the moment with some bad impromptu verse:

Alas! Poor us! We all add up to squat; once Hades gets his hooks in, that’s the lot; so live while it’s your turn, ‘cause then it’s not.

(Satyrica, chapter 34, p. 31)

Encolpius turns to one of his table companions and inquires after the identity of a very conspicuous woman moving about the dining room. Her name is Fortunata. She is Trimalchio’s wife, and she thoroughly dominates him. Aside from being hot-tempered, she is as frugal as he is extravagant and knows far better than her husband what he owns and how much. As Encolpius is listening to this news, Trimalchio offers his guests a personal interpretation of a course of food that has just been brought in, 12 separate dishes arranged according to the signs of the zodiac. Taurus (bull) is represented by a rump roast; Libra (balance), by a set of scales with a cheese tart on one side; and so forth. Next Trimalchio gives a crass and cynical account of different psychological types born under the astrological signs, their major characteristics and preferred professions: “Whoever is born under the Ram has many flocks, lots of wool, a shameless mug, a hard head, and a horny noggin. Under this sign are born many scholars and other boneheads” (Satyrica, chapter 39, p. 34). The audience applauds wildly for their host’s impromptu performance, as for all his speeches.

Soon after, Trimalchio departs for the bath-room and the focus shifts to the conversation of the freedmen guests, his social milieu. The language takes on a more rural, earthy tone as the freedmen gossip about who is making a profit, who is losing money, and who is dishonest. Trimalchio returns, announcing to everyone that lately he has been constipated, but for the moment a mixture of pomegranate rind and pinesap boiled in vinegar has done the trick. He then encourages his guests to fart right in the dining room, for comfort and good health are more important than restrictive social conventions. If not expelled from the body, he warns his guests, gas vapors will go straight to the brain and could even kill a person. The guests once again applaud, this time saluting his advanced ideas about health versus social custom.

Next Trimalchio demonstrates his knowledge of art to the assembled, recounting the origin of Corinthian bronze. He wildly misinforms everyone, saying that after sacking Troy, the leader Hannibal (who was not a Greek at Troy c. 1200 bce but Rome’s enemy at Carthage a thousand years later) melted down all the different metals in the city to produce a unique bronze alloy, called Corinthian. Trimalchio blithely confuses Carthage, Rome’s most famous enemy, with Troy, site of the most famous war in Greco-Roman literature. The blunder demonstrates his ignorance, of classical culture, and, by implication, that of the class he represents. Trimalchio happily makes it all up as he goes along, mixing things together the way he mixes senatorial stripes and equestrian rings on his own body.

After more bizarre food, poor poetry, and as-sorted mishaps, the host once again turns his attention to the temporary existence of man, and of himself in particular. He asks a freedman acquaintance whom he has hired to build his tomb how the work is coming, listing all sorts of de-tails he wants included on it. Next Trimalchio recites his epitaph, breaking into tears at the thought of it. As if on cue, his wife, the freedman responsible for his tomb, and all of his slaves break into tears too. Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton try to make their escape but are foiled and so must watch as Trimalchio stages his own funeral to see how everyone will mourn him when he dies. He orders trumpets to be sounded. The local fire brigade mistakes the trumpet blast for an alarm signal and, bursting in on the proceedings, throws water over everything. Amid the mayhem, Encolpius and his companions seize their chance and escape.

In the next episode, Encolpius and his friends fall in with a hypocritical, immoral old hack, a poet named Eumolpus, who joins the group. From him we hear two extended poems and some short verse, along with reports of sexually indecent incidents the poet has heard of or experienced. Prominent among these is the story of “The Widow of Ephesus,” a tale Eumolpus alleges to be true. The widow in question was a singularly virtuous matron whose husband had just died. So devoted was she that she locked herself in the mausoleum in which her husband’s body was entombed, intending to die there. A soldier nearby guarding the crosses on which several criminals had been crucified noticed that the tomb was occupied. Investigating, he discovered the young widow and her maid. He encourages first the maid to refrain from grief and then, with her assistance, exhorts the widow to accept food and drink. Eventually the widow relents and allows the soldier to visit her in the tomb. Acceptance of food and drink is followed by acceptance of sex with the soldier in the tomb, next to the corpse of her husband. The maid speaks on the soldier’s behalf, quoting to the widow the advice that Dido’s sister Anna gives to Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid (also in Classical Literature and Its Times)—to accept the stranger Aeneas into her embrace. Dido, a tragic figure, abandons her oath of devotion to her dead husband, only to be abandoned by her new love. Not so for the widow. While sexually engaged with the widow in the tomb, the soldier, of course, cannot do his duty of guarding the bodies of the crucified criminals. The parents of one of them grabs the chance to take down his body. The missing corpse will reveal the soldier’s dereliction of duty, the penalty for which is death. As the soldier prepares for this fate, the widow encourages him not to throw away his life needlessly. She has a plan. Since her husband is already dead, she proposes they hang him on the cross in place of the criminal’s stolen corpse. The soldier agrees, avoids death, and there the story ends.

After many twists, turns, and near-disasters, the foursome approaches the southern Italian city of Croton, where they hatch a plan: Eumolpus will pose as a wealthy landholder from Africa, in poor health and grief-stricken at the premature death of his son. The conspirators expect the greedy people of the area to shower a wealthy but sick old man with gifts so that he will include them in his will. The ruse proves too tempting for local legacy hunters to resist. The con men are showered with gifts and illicit sexual favors. The plot closes on a gruesome note. Eumolpus’s will, which he reads to the legacy hunters, stipulates that inheriting his money is contingent upon eating his dead flesh. Cannibalism, he explains, is revered in many cultures and should not give them cause for hesitation. At this point our copy of the original text breaks off abruptly.

Roman widows and the “Widow of Ephesus.”

The story of the “Widow of Ephesus” is told as evidence of female inconstancy. No background information is given for the widow of the story. Ephesus was a predominantly Greek city in Asia Minor, which in Petronius’s day was a province of the Roman Empire. But whatever her ethnic and cultural background, the writer’s Roman audience would have judged the widow’s character by their standards. Her initial impulse, to re-main with her dead husband inside his tomb, though extreme, exemplifies a decision that was entirely commendable from the Roman stand-point. The univira (“one-husband woman”) was a stereotype in Roman society, who, through devotion to the memory of her deceased husband, did not seek remarriage after his death and was revered in aristocratic circles. To some degree, this may have been because the univira was by no means the norm. Although not entirely approved of, divorce and remarriage were common among upper-class Romans of the mid-first century ce; earlier legislation, under Augustus, had furthermore demanded remarriage after the death of a spouse. The true sting in this tale is less the tremendous disrespect the widow heaps upon her husband’s corpse than the mockery she makes of the univira, by beginning as a paragon of virtue and then behaving in a way that ridicules the very notion of such a wife. When Dido, the tragic heroine of Virgil’s Aeneid, to whom Petronius irreverently connects the widow, abandons her commitment to the memory of her first husband, she pays for it by failing to find happiness. Her new lover, the hero Aeneas, abandons her, and Dido takes her own life. When she briefly reappears in the Under-world, she is walking with her husband; in death, she reclaims her former virtue.

At length she flung away from [Aeneas] and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove
Where he whose bride she once had been, Sychaeus,
Joined in her sorrows and returned her love.
Aeneas still gazed after her in tears,
Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her.
            (Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, p. 176)

In contrast, Petronius’s widow simply tosses off her virtue along with the memory of her husband and ends up thoroughly content.

Sources and literary context

The Satyricon is so unlike any other surviving Greek or Roman literature that scholars have often felt that it must


Written shortly after 385 bce by Plato, the pupil of Socrates Judged even in antiquity as the most literarily accomplished interpreter of Socratic wisdom, the Symposium is the account of a dinner party attended by Socrates in the year 416 bce. The occasion is the celebration of the recent victory of the tragic playwright Agathon at the competition among playwrights in the festival of Dionysus, god of wine and tragic poetry. It is decided that each of the five celebrants, including the comic playwright Aristophanes, will deliver a speech on philia which may be translated as “love,” either carnal or otherwise, but also means friendship. The dialogue’s examples of interpersonal, sexual love are between men. Important to an appreciation of the Symposium is an understanding of the positive social role a sexual and emotional liaison between an adult male and an adolescent male was understood to play. The adult would gain erotic satisfaction, white the youth would gain a mentor and ally, as well as a positive role model When the youth reached full maturity, identified by the growth of his beard, the relationship as such would end. Erotic philia would give way to the philla of friendship. Socrates argued that the actual object of a person’s love is whatever motivates it. If one’s love is motivated by erotic concerns, as Agathon’s speech reveals him to be, then it is the erotic that one truly loves, not the body or its owner. In keeping with this idea, Socrates advocates not the sexual love of young men’s bodies for one’s own pleasure, but rather the love of ideas which will make young men beautiful in soul.

be a continuation of or a response to some earlier literary genre or trend that has not survived. It has been argued in this vein that Petronius is parodying earlier Greek novelists. The surviving examples of that genre, however, appear to post-date Petronius, with one possible exception, Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton. And there is a strong case for dating his work after Petronius’s as well.

While the literary tradition that produced Petronius’s Satyricon, if such ever existed, remains very much an open question, it can certainly be said that he draws on well-known literature, weaving in humorous references to both Greek and Roman literature from across the full spectrum of genres. “The Dinner of Trimalchio” draws in particular on the eighth poem in Horace’s second book of satires, “The Dinner of Nasidienus,” and on Plato’s dialogue on the subjects of love and beauty, the Symposium. When Trimalchio excuses himself during dinner to answer a call of nature, five freedmen guests each deliver a speech, recalling the five speakers of Plato’s Symposium. In addition to highly specific verbal echoes of the Symposium, Petronius’s freedmen recall and, of course, ridicule the positions of Plato’s speakers: “Each group has its nostalgic defender of religious tradition … each has its cynical advocate of moral indifference … and each has its pedantic purveyor of pseudo-scientific medical wisdom” (Bodel, p. 40). Such intricate use of the literary tradition is only part of the novel’s allusive repertoire. Petronius also uses literary classics in a more explicitly comic vein by having his characters liken their petty and ignoble shenanigans to the momentous circumstances and lofty events of tragedy and epic. When, for instance, Encolpius is trying to hide Giton from his sometime companion Ascyltos by having him cling to the underside of his bed, he compares the situation to the episode in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus eludes the Cyclops by clinging to the underbelly of the monster’s giant sheep (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Petronius, like his second-century successor Apuleius, draws on the Greek “Milesian Tale” (see The Golden Ass, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). This was a notoriously lurid, highly popular form of reading entertainment. Petronius adapts the form most famously in “The Widow of Ephesus,” the tale told by Encolpius, Petronius’s poet of dubious merit. The lurid nature of this tale, culminating in sex between a soldier and a widow in her husband’s tomb and the substitution of the dead husband’s corpse for the body of a crucified criminal, is refined by a subtle literary sensibility shown in the allusions made to the lofty epic the Aeneid. It is a mark of Petronius’s style that the text interweaves the lowest scurrility and crudeness with the keenest literary sophistication.

Publication and impact

Classical antiquity barely acknowledges Petronius’s Satyricon. The exception to this silence is the fourth-century scholar Macrobius, who dismisses the novel as mere entertainment devoid of educational value. This near-total silence may mean that the novel was not widely circulated. In fact, while some clerical scholars of the later middle ages seem to have had access to as much of the text as we have today, Petronius’s work did not become broadly accessible to literate society until the appearance of a succession of published editions beginning in the late fifteenth century.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the Satyricon dates from the ninth century ce and consists of short excerpts largely free of obscene material. Over time these fragments were filled out with material found in other manuscripts of the work. Apparently the earliest manuscript was censored to make Petronius’s subject matter as morally praiseworthy as his literary style was. Medieval anthologies, compiled for the moral improvement of their readers, included a number of excerpts from Petronius’s Satyricon, which were then used to create this cleaned-up version of the novel. While the first printed edition of the Satyricon, produced in Milan in the early 1480s, relied entirely on the purified edition, the suppressed fragments resurfaced with the discovery of another manuscript tradition in the 1500s. A manuscript of just the Trimalchio episode was discovered in 1650 and printed in 1664. A scholarly edition of the complete and uncensored surviving text of the novel was com-piled and published in 1709.

Petronius’s presence has been felt in the fiction of the twentieth century. The American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which features a dinner party, is in many ways a Jazz Age adaptation of the Trimalchio episode. (In fact, Trimalchio was the title of an earlier version of Fitzgerald’s novel.) James Joyce refers directly to an episode from the Satyricon (“The Widow of Ephesus”) in his novel Ulysses. “The Widow of Ephesus” was also adapted for the London stage in 1959 by British playwright Christopher Fry in an acclaimed production entitled A Phoenix Too Frequent. Finally, the Italian director Federico Fellini has adapted the Satyricon into film, though he uses it more as a point of departure and inspiration for his own complex and fascinating tale than an end in itself. An intense and challenging spectacle, Fellini’s cinematic Satyricon is at first glance quite different from the novel in respect to storyline; its fidelity is to be found rather in its kaleidoscopic recreation of the bewildering, labyrinthine world through which Petronius’s characters roam.

—Seán Easton

For More Information

Bodel, John. “The Cena Trimalchionis.” In Latin Fiction. Ed. Heinz Hoffman. London: Routledge, 1999.

Courtney, Edward. A Companion to Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Hopkins, Keith. Conquerors and Slaves: Sociological Studies in Roman History. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Joshel, Sandra R. Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome: A Study of the Occupational Inscriptions. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Petronius. Satyrica. Trans. R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1989.

Rosati, Gianpiero. “Trimalchio on Stage.” In Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel. Ed. S. J. Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68. London: Methuen, 1959.

Sullivan, J. P. Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Tacitus. Annals. Trans. A. J. Woodman. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2004.

Virgil. Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1990.