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Gaius Petronius Arbiter (d. AD 66?)


Reputed author of the Satyricon, a fragmentary manuscript of fiction in prose and verse, which is considered one of the early examples of the novel form. Petronius is traditionally identified with Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the "judge of elegance" (arbiter elegantiae) at the court of Nero. In earlier centuries, the book was considered scandalous. Petronius also composed poems.

Then, his poetry exhausted, he spat a most stinking kiss in my face; before long he mounted on the couch where I lay and exposed me by force in spite of my resistance. He laboured hard and long to bring up my member, but in vain. Streams of gummy paint and sweat poured from his heated brow, and such a lot of chalk filled the wrinkles of his cheeks, you might have thought his face was an old delapidated wall with the plaster crumbling away in the rain. (The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, Translation Ascribed to Oscar Wilde, Privately Printed, 1928, p. 58)

Little is known of Petronius the Judge's life; his original name was probably Titus Petronius Niger. Petronius was apparently wealthy and belonged to a noble family. He served as proconsul of of the Asian province of Bithynia and then acting consul or first magistrate of Rome. After this he became the favorite of Emperor Nero and the "judge of elegance", whose word on all matters of taste was law.

Soon Petronius' position made him an object on envy. The commander of the emperor's guard, Tigellinus, accused him of treason. Arrested at Cumae in 66 AD, he did not wait for the sentence, but committed suicide.

Thus Petronius shared the fate of the poet Lucan and the philosopher Seneca, who also perished. According to Tacitus, the author's last act was to send to Nero a list of the emperors sexual partners, male and female. Tacitus described Petronius' death in the sixteenth book of the Annals. "Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince's shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperilling others." (The Complete Works of Tacitus, translated from the Latin by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, The Modern Library, 1942, pp. 408-409)

Tacitus he does not say anything about Petronius' literary activities. Pliny the Elder and Plutarch mention Titus or Petronius. Tacitus named him Gaius. Petronius wrote for the amusement of the urban, cultured elite. At that time Rome was a city of over a million inhabitants. The relatively large administrative class of literate clerks and accountants at Nero's court, who had money enough to buy books, formed another audience. Satyrica, which took up several scrolls, was particularly expensive. The title of the book (Satyricon in English versions) possibly refers to the word "satyr", or is derived from the Latin "satura" (medley), a plate filled with different kinds of food. The word "satire" dates from the 16th century; the first satirical novels were written in the 18th century, but such earlier writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, François Rabelais, and Miguel de Cervantes influenced deeply its development. Satirical novels had also inherited some of the features of the satires of the classic Roman writers.

The Satyricon can be divided into three parts: the first and last deal with the adventures of Encolpius ("Crotch") and his companions. The second and the longest portion is a satirical account of a dinner given by a semiliterate self-made millionaire and freedman, Trimalchio (Cena Trimalchionis). Among other notable sections is a story about the Matron of Ephesus. The Satyricon includes also poems in various meters. Only parts of books XIV, XV and XVI have survived.

Petronius' work gives a vivid picture of the life, decadence and social manners of the ancient Rome of Nero's time. The speech of many of the characters is composed in the dialect of the lower classes (sermo plebeius). Often the Satyricon has been called a picaresque novel, referring to its loose comic narrative and satiric commentary on social and moral values. It has also been claimed that Petronius was sneering at the emperor in the character of Trimalchio. Nero (37-68 AD) lived in extravahant luxury and considered himself a poet and songster. However, Petronius keeps his story on a comic level without bringing forth serious political or social issues. He mocks nouveau riche, their vulgarity, manners and taste. One of Trimalchio's quests tells of his friend: "His life was like a pipe dream, not like an ordinary mortal's. When his affairs commenced to go wrong, and he was afraid his creditors would guess that he was bankrupt, he advertised an auction and this was his placard: JULIUS PROCULUS WILL SELL AT AUCTION HIS SUPERFLUOUS FURNITURE." (The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, translated by W. C. Firebaugh, Liveright, 1927, p. 92)

The story, which takes the form of a parody of Homer's Odyssey, relates the adventures of three Greeks in southern Italy; or at least the characters have Greek names. Most probably the major events are placed at Puteol (now Pozzuoli) or according to some sources Cumae. Both are in south Italy near Naples. Encolpius, the narrator, is an educated rogue, who has brought down upon his head the wrath of the god Priapus. Portrayed as a bisexual, his serving boy and lover is Giton. Encolpius's friend, Ascyltus, lusts also after Giton. Ascyltus' name refers to a sexually tireless person; all these three names have sexual connotations.

In the beginning, Encolpius takes the role of a young rebel. He complains of the decay of Latin oratory to Agamemnon, a teacher: "A dignified and, if I may say it, a chaste, style, is neither elaborate nor loaded with ornament; it rises supreme by its own natural purity. This windy and high-sounding bombast, a recent immigrant to Athens, from Asia, touched with its breath the aspiring minds of youth, with the effect of some pestilential planet, and as soon as the tradition of the past was broken, eloquence halted and was stricken dumb." (Ibid., p.  42) Agamemnon answers, it's the parents you should blame, and starts a long speech.

Encolpius is invited to dinner, given by the vulgar businessman Trimalchio. The name is Semitic. Petronius describes his luxurious life-style as thoroughly as later Thorstein Veblen examined the conspicuous consumption of the "leisure class". It is the most famous episode of the story. Many of its observations can be fit the modern corporate world. One of the quests describes Trimalchio's wealth: "And as for slaves, damn me if I believe a tenth of them knows the master by sight." (Ibid., p. 90) François Rabelais' rude Gargantua and Pantagruel would have loved the gastronomic absurdities of the feast, in which Trimalchio gives praise to his cook: "he'd make you a fish out of a sow's hole, if that's what you wanted, a pigeon out of her lard, a turtle-dove out of her ham, and a hen out of a knuckle of pork: That's why I named him Dædalus, in a happy moment." (Ibid., p. 134)

After further adventures, Encolpius, Giton, and Eumolphus, a poet, start a voyage to Tarentum. On board of the ship, Eumolphus tells of the Widow of Ephesus. A storm rises, the trio is rescued by fishermen and continue their wanderings to Croton. The Odyssey has inspired Petronius, although his work is more than a parody of the famous epic. When Ulysses has raised the anger of Poseidon, Encolpius' is under a curse from the Phallic god Priapus.

The Satyricon fell into oblivion for centuries as other pornographic works of the ancient world, and most of its text disappeared. The earliest extant Satyricon manuscript is from the ninth century. In 1423, the Cena Trimalchionis was discovered at Cologne Cathedral by the Florentine collector Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), most famous for his Liber Facetiarum, a collection of stories, satires and obscenities. The first printed edition appeared in 1482 in Milan, about fifteen copies have survived. Generally the Satyricon was considered a curiosity.

Most of the editions of Petronius in the sixteenth century were published in France. Two scholars, J.J. Scaliger and Caspar Schoppe began a long feud over Petronius and religious issues around 1601. Schoppe, who had became a Catholic, accused Scaliger – a Protestant – of being homosexual because he had worked on the Satyricon. Scaliger declared that he did not like Petronius and had only copied a manuscript long ago. Moreover, he had hardly glanced at the Satyricon in the last thirty-seven years! (A Bibliography of Petronius by Gareth L. Schmeling, Johanna H. Stuckey, 1977, p. 17)

Petronius himself was one of the central characters in Quo Vadis?(1896) by Henry Sienkiewicz: "Then he went into his library, and, sitting at the rosecolored marble table, he commenced work on his "Feast of Trimalchion." But Lygia's escape and the illness of the little Augusta distracted his thoughts so much that he did not work long." (Quo Vadis: A Tale of the Time of Nero, translated by S. A. Binion and S. Malevsky, Henry Altemus, 1897, p. 104)

In the English literature Petronius has left many traces. He is mentioned in some religious texts in the 17th century and by John Dryden (1631-1700) in his critical works. The first English translation of the Satyricon appeared in 1694. It was made by "Mr. Burnaby, of the Middle Temple," with "Another Hand." Burnaby was twenty-one or twenty-two when the translation came out. Charles Carrington's translation, published in Paris in 1902, was attributed to "Sebastian Melmoth," a pseudonym used by Oscar Wilde after 1897.  

The "widow of Ephesus" legend inspired Walter Charleton's Ephesian Matron (1639) and Christopher Fry's finest play A Phoenix too Frequent (1946). F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925) was originally to be entitled Trimalchio's Banquet. The rich Trimalchio was the literary prototype of Jay Gatsby. Federico Fellini's dreamlike film version of the Satyricon (1969) drew parallels between the ancient and modern worlds, the decadent Roman adolescent boys and the vitelloni and hippies of the 1960s. According to a story, when the American premiere was given at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the audience consisted of 10,000 hippies high on dope.

For further information: A Reading of Petronius' Satyrica by Lee Fratantuono (2023); Inventing the Novel: Bakhtin and Petronius Face to Face by R. Bracht Branham (2019); The Satyrica of Petronius: An Intermediate Reader with Commentary and Guided Review by Beth Severy-Hoven (2014); Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathan Prag and Ian Repath (2009); Petronius and the Anatomy of Fiction by Victoria Rimell (2002); A Companion to Petronius by Edward Courtney (2002); Paralysin Cave: Impotence, Perception, and Text in the Satyrica of Petronius by John M. McMahon (1998); Petronius the Poet: Verse and Literary Tradition in the Satyricon by Catherine M. Connors (1998); The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius' Satyricon by Gian Biagio Conte (1997); The Language of the Freedmen in Petronius' Cena Trimalchionis by Bret Boyce (1997); Verse With Prose from Petronius to Dante: The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form by Peter Dronke (1994); Reading Petronius by Niall W. Slater (1990); Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon, Melville, & Pynchon by Frank Palmeri (1990); The Date and Author of Satyricon by K.F.C. Rose (1971); Petronius the Artist: Essays on the Satyricon and its Author by H.D. Rankin (1971); The Roman Novel: The 'Satyricon' of Petronius and the 'Metamorphoses' of Apuleius by P. G. Walsh (1970); The Satyricon of Petronius by J.P. Sullivan (1968); Petronius in Italy from the Thirteenth Century to the Present Time by Anthony Rini (1937) - Suomennokset: Trimalkion pidot, 1945 (suom. Edwin Linkomies); Satyricon, 2003 (suom. Pekka Tuomisto)

Editions and translations:

  • Petronii Arbitri Satyricon: cum notis & obseruationibus variorum, 1601
  • Satyricon, cvm Petroniorvm fragmentis, 1618
  • Satiricon extrema editio ex Musaeo D. Iosephi Antoni Gonsali De Salas, 1643
  • Le Petrone en vers. Tradvction novvelle. Par M.L.D.B., 1667
  • The Satyr of Titus Petronius Arbiter, a Roman Knight: with Its Fragments, Recover'd at Belgrade, 1694 (transl. by Mr. Burnaby of the Middle-Temple, and another hand)
  • The works of Petronius Arbiter, in prose and verse, 1736 (translated by Mr. Addison; to which are prefix'd The Life of Petronius by Monsieur St. Evremont)
  • Petronii Arbitri Satirarum reliquiae, 1862 (ed. Franz Bücheler)
  • Saturae. The satyricon; or, Trebly voluptuous, 1866
  • The Works of Petronius Arbiter, in Prose and Verse, 1736 (transl. by Mr. Addison)
  • Trimalchio's Dinner, 1898 (transl. from the original Latin with an introduction and bibliography appendix by Harry Thurston Peck)
  • Cena Trimalchionis, 1902 (ed. with introduction and commentary by William E. Waters)
  • Petronii Centa Trimalchionis, 1905 (transl. by W. D. Lowe)
  • The Bellum civile of Petronius, 1911 (transl. by Florence Theodora Baldwin)
  • The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, 1922 (transl. by W. C. Firebaugh; illustrations by Norman Lindsay)
  • The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius, 1927 (transl. by Jack Lindsay, illustrated by Norman Lindsay)
  • The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter in the Translation Attributed to Oscar Wilde, 1927 (with an introduction, notes and bibliography, illustrations by Allen Lewis)
  • The Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius, 1950 (2nd ed., edited by W.B. Sedgwick)  
  • The Satyricon, 1959 (transl. with an introd. by William Arrowsmith)
  • The Satyricon, and the Fragments, 1965 (transl. with an introd. by John Sullivan)
  • Satyricon, cum apparatu critico edidit Konrad Müller, 1961 (ed. Konrad Müller)
  • Petronius: Cena Trimalchionis, 1970 (ed. with notes by Thomas Cutt; introd. to the rev. ed. by Jacob E. Nyenhuis)
  • Cena Trimalchionis, 1975 (ed. by Martin S. Smith)
  • Satyrica, 1996 (ed. and transl. by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney)
  • The Satyricon, 1997 (transl. with an introduction and notes by P.G. Walsh)
  • Satyricon, 2000 (transl. with notes and topical commentaries by Sarah Ruden)
  • La guerra civile, 2022 (a cura di Stefano Costa; original text in Latin with parallel Italian translation; introduction in Italian)
  • Selections from Petronius, the Satyrica: the Tales of Eumolpus, 2022 (edited by Debra Freas and Andrew Zissos)

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