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PETRONIUS. In the surviving manuscript, the authorship of the Latin picaresque novel Satyrica is credited to "Petronius Arbiter." Most scholars believe (although conclusive evidence is lacking) that this is Gaius (or Titus) Petronius, who served the Roman emperor Nero as Arbiter Elegantiae (judge of elegance, or director of entertainment). He fell from the emperor's favor and was ordered to commit suicide in A.D. 66. The historian Tacitus describes the courtier's death in his Annals (book 18, sections 1819).

The Satyrica is a novel of low life in Roman Italy, centering on the narrator Encolpius and his boyfriend Giton. The author may seem to celebratehe certainly does not condemnhis characters' amoral lifestyle: they are usually penniless and often involved in disreputable sexual adventures.

In medieval Europe the Satyrica was a secret classic. No complete copy survived to modern times; we have only fragments. The longest surviving episode (sections 2678), important for food history, is known as Cena Trimalchionis, or 'Trimalchio's dinner'. This immensely rich former slave regales his guests (including Encolpius) with food and conversation intended to display urbanity but more truly betraying empty pretentiousness. The main course is a roast pig, served as if still whole. In fact it had been gutted normally, and afterward stuffed with cooked sausages, which look like (and are made from) intestines: a clever, but tasteless, presentational trick. The wine is labeled "opimian, one hundred years old," but at the date of the fictional dinner any surviving Italian wines of the famous opimian vintage were 180 years old and almost undrinkable: such contradictions are meant to reveal the host's ignorance of gastronomy. Almost every item in the menu has some satirical undertone. Cleverly balancing between naive astonishment and cynical disdain, the narrator tells us a lot about gastronomy and dining customs under the early empire. Featured among the hors d'oeuvres at Trimalchio's dinner, dormice (roasted, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seeds) will forever remain typical of Roman cuisine.

See also Rome and the Roman Empire .


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

Petronius. The Satyricon. Translated by William Arrowsmith. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959.

Petronius. Satyrica. Translated by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney. London: Dent, 1996; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1956.

Andrew Dalby

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Petronius (d. 66) Roman writer, assumed writer of the Satyricon, a humorous tale giving vivid glimpses of contemporary society. He committed suicide when accused of plotting against Emperor Nero.