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The Satyricon, presumably written by Gaius Petronius, the emperor Nero's (AD 54-68) Arbiter of Elegance, comes down to us as a fragment of a work possibly ten times its present length. And yet, even in its reduced state, this satiric novel offers a mocking, insider's glimpse into the most excessively decadent, cruel, and contradictory aspects of life in Nero's Rome. The Satyricon is considered by many to be the crown jewel of Roman literary achievement, and, although its form defies most recognizable modes of modern literary classification, it has influenced countless modern novelists, poets, and filmmakers. A series of wandering, debauchery-filled tales, starring a picaresque anti-hero named Encolpius and his cohorts, Ascyltus and Giton, the text combines prose, verse, philosophy, and declamatory rhetoric and leaves no stone unturned in its relentlessly humorous battle against all forms of bad taste. The centerpiece of the Satyricon, the Cena Trimalchionus (Trimalchio's Supper) is a hedonistic dinner party thrown by a wealthy freedman named Trimalchio in which guests mangle philosophical topics and history in a hilarious parody of Plato's more lofty Symposium.
Most of what we know about Gaius Petronius (or Petronius Arbiter) comes from Tacitus' Annals, book 16. Herein, we learn that Petronius' lifestyle mocked that of the hard-working Marcus Catoesque, "new man" of the Roman Republic. He is said to have slept during the day and to have worked at night in the science of pleasure. Rather than achieve notoriety through hard work, Petronius valued laziness and voluptuousness. Nevertheless, as Tacitus points out, before working his way into Nero's inner circle and thus, into a vice-ridden position of authority, Petronius had proven himself a capable administrator. He had been governor of Bithynia-a country located in modern-day Turkey-and then consul in Rome. As Nero's Arbiter of Elegance, Petronius was in charge of approving all of the emperor's forms of elegant entertainment. This enviable job did not come without an element of risk, however. A rival pleasure-scientist, Tigellinus, became jealous of Petronius and turned the emperor's favor against him, resulting in the author's apprehension and death sentence. Petronius' death in AD 66 was no less theatrical than his life, or even his character Trimalchio's dress rehearsal of his own death in the Satyricon. Tacitus informs us that Petronius slit his veins and then proceeded to bind and unbind them at will, all the while conversing with friends, reciting light poetry, interacting with his slaves, and dining lavishly. Eventually he fell asleep never to wake up, giving his death sentence a natural look. On his death, a copy of Petronius' will was delivered to the emperor Nero. There was no flattery of any important person in the will, but instead, a complete description of the emperor's private sexual activities and a list of his male and female partners. As a result, a senator's wife named Silia was accused by Nero of giving Petronius this information and exiled. Silia is said to have been a close friend of Petronius and a partner in all of the emperor's intimate escapades.
The portions that survive of this perhaps 400,000-word work are fragments of books 14-16. Book 15, is almost completely intact. While exact authorship and date have been hotly debated for centuries (with suggestions ranging from the Augustus' reign to the second century), the greatest quantity of evidence points to Nero's time. For example, J. P Sullivan suggests that there are undeniable speech similarities between the Satyricon and Seneca's Apocolocyntosis, a work which can be traced to Nero's time. Further, Sullivan points out that Trimalchio and his company of diners speak in vulgarisms that are mirrored in wall inscriptions from Pompeii dating to a period before AD 79.1 Eminent translator William Arrowsmith, however, cautions against reading the Satyricon as somehow identified with Petronius' list of lecherous Neronian encounters.2 He suggests that the length of the surviving fragments alone prevents this interpretation. Translator and scholar P. G. Walsh suggests that the Satyricon amounts to nothing more than Petronius' understanding of the world as anarchic and irrational.3 Ancient Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56-circa 118) and satirist Lucian (circa AD 120) were of the opinion that the novel should be understood solely as a traditional comic romance designed to bring pleasure to its audiences.4 We will probably never know the exact purpose of this controversial text, whose form (a blend of prose, verse, rhetoric, and philosophy) belongs to the genre of Menippean satire, attributed to Cynic philosopher, Mennipus of Gadara. That said, the Satyricon is unique in its refusal to conform to a particularly Roman style of satire. As Arrowsmith points out, the comic humor in the text eclipses the savage tone of Juvenal, the "tolerant strictures of Horace," or the "crabbed austerity of Persius."5 Arrowsmith considers the Satyricon to exist on its own generic terms with parallels to be found only in more contemporary literature such as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. An even more recent text that could be considered stylistically comparable might be French author Marie Darrieussecq's 1997 dark satire about globalization and empire entitled, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation.
While the Satyricon is frequently referred to as the first Western novel, the story has many qualities that render it outside of the parameters of a linear narrative; one that travels from a starting point to an end point in a set period of time. For example, the text is episodic. Each episode is its own self-contained, elaborate play. It refuses to follow linear logic in that its anti-hero, Encolpius wanders through various scenes. The text has a cyclical quality. Encolpius and other characters move through various bodily cycles (like food and sex) that repeat. And finally, this tale is an explicitly non-moral one. Unlike the heroes of many stories who learn important life lessons as a result of their wanderings, the anti-hero of the Satyricon does not seem to evolve in any obvious moral direction. There is a marked absence of rules or role models for him to follow along the way. The surviving text begins with a critique of the education of young boys:
Our professors of rhetoric are hag-ridden in the same way, surely, when they shout "I got these wounds fighting for your freedom! This eye I lost for you. Give me a hand to lead me to my children. I am hamstrung, my legs can't support me." We could put up with this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers first enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I'm sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, tyrants writing orders for sons to cut off their fathers' heads, oracles advising the sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague-a mass of cloying verbiage: every word, every move just so much poppycock.6
Here Encolpius speaks to Agamemnon, a former expert in the art of war in the Homeric tradition turned warrior in the art of rhetoric. However, the apparent integrity of these two characters falls apart quickly when it becomes clear that they use their intelligence and rhetorical skills to say what rich men, like Trimalchio, want to hear in order to get dinner invitations and eat for free. The traditional relationship between high and low is subverted in this and many other ways in the Satyricon.
Though unique, the Satyricon is not completely divorced from previous forms of Roman and Greek literature. As a work of Mineppean satire that engages in literary parody, the Satyricon draws upon an arsenal of literary styles. In his depiction of the life of a non-moral man, Encolpius, Petronius references the genre of moral biography commonly associated with Plutarch (circa AD 50-120). Declamatory rhetoric-speeches that focus on social ills in a satirical fashion-is also employed in the service of the text. Compare the above quote to Juvenal's outraged protest in his first satire:
Today every vice has reached its ruinous zenith. So hoist your sails, cram on all canvas! But where, you may wonder, is a talent to match the theme? And where our outspoken ancestral bluntness, that wrote at passion's behest? . . . It's safe enough to retell how Aeneas fought fierce Turnus . . . But when fiery Lucilius rages with Satire's naked sword his hearers go red; their conscience freezes with their crimes, their innards sweat in awareness of unacknowledged guilt. . .7
Many scholars have cited the diminished power of rhetoric and education under Empire-as opposed to its importance during the Roman Republic-as a possible source for Petronian and Juvenalian declamatory rhetoric. Encolpius and Agamemnon are not simply victims of absolute power, however. They are depicted by Petronius as parasites who feed on the wealthy. Their mocking laughter has little or no effect on Trimalchio, however, whose wealth has made it possible for him to climb higher socially than his intellectual superiors.
Petronius reverses or breaks down many of the conventions of Greek romance narratives (like the heterosexual romances that drive the plots of Menander plays). These plays are characterized by high, emotional drama and random twists of fate, but are usually resolved in the end with a reinstitution of virtue. Encolpius and Giton differ wildly from the typical heterosexual simpler characters of Greek romance. They are not connected with any particular domestic sphere of their own, but wander from place to place. This part-time couple, part-time trio (with another friend, Ascyltus) constitutes an intellectual cadre that makes use of the high sentiment and melodrama of romance, demonstrating at random such emotions as jealousy, grief, and despair.
Trimalchio's dinner party, the largest part of the novel, is a grotesque parody of Plato's Symposium; wherein, through the guests' conversations, Plato illustrates his idea of the transcendence of physical form through an upward movement that strives to know an ultimate, immaterial good. Trimalchio's diners, by contrast, remain rooted in the material world of food, sex, bodies, and death. The host's obsession with death has nothing to do with a philosophical interest in transcending the realm of the physical, or with investigating what might happen in the afterlife, or whether there even is an afterlife. His is an obsession that relates primarily to the material legacy he will leave behind, having already achieved an almost godlike status among his circle of freedmen friends:
While all this was going on, three boys in brief white tunics came in. Two of them set down on the table the household deities, which had amulets round their necks; the other, carrying round a bowl of wine, kept shouting: 'God save all here!' . . . Our host said that one of the gods was called Cobbler . . . There was also a golden image of Trimalchio himself, and as all the others were pressing their lips to it we felt too embarrassed not to do the same.8
Katherine Dunbabin points out in The Roman Banquet that Petronius and Apicius provide us with the most detailed extant information about complexity of Roman cuisine. Trimalchio's chefs prepare such foods as stuffed roasted pig, sausages, blood puddings, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and all sorts of fowl. The variety of foods found in the Satyricon is depicted visually by Federico Fellini's wonderful film adaptation of the text. When it came out in 1969, Fellini's Satyricon broke all cinematic codes for representing Roman antiquity simply by maintaining the fragmentary shape of the novel and remaining true to the themes therein. Unlike most Hollywood historical films about ancient Rome, Fellini's film provided a complex allegory of life under arbitrary authoritarian rule. He is quoted as saying:
If the work of Petronius is the realistic, bloody and amusing description of the customs, characters and general feel of those times, the film we want to freely adapt from it could be a fresco in fantasy key, a powerful and evocative allegory-a satire of the world we live in today. Man never changes, and today we can recognize all the principal characters in the drama.9
Fellini found a certain universal quality in the cruelty of the text that he attempted to bring to the screen. The cinematic fresco he created, while surreal and other worldly in many ways, resonated with familiar themes from Italy's Fascist past.
The final genre that Petronius' Satyricon mocks is the epic tradition of Homer and Virgil. Parodies of scenes from the Odyssey and the Aeneid occur constantly. The wandering structure of Encolpius' journey mimics that of Odysseus' travels. Like Odysseus, we know from the remaining fragments that Encolpius has angered a god at the beginning of the narrative. Whereas Odysseus angered Poseidon by blinding his son Polyphemus, Encolpius has supposedly angered the fertility garden-god Priappus and is left impotent until the end of the surviving text. Encolpius' lack of virility parodies Odysseus' virility. Petronius seems to mock Rome's imperial founding epic, the Aeneid. He further emasculates Roman tradition by casting Giton in the roles of some well-known heroes from the Aeneid, like Nisus and Euryalus, and even as the heroine Dido, confounding the codes of masculine heroism with an effeminate young, aimless male.
The Satyricon seems to have been relatively unknown in early antiquity, widely circulated among Christians and non-Christians alike in late-antiquity, and rediscovered with vigor between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.10 The first complete edition was published in Amsterdam in 1669. This manuscript of M. Hadrianides, like all of the complete editions that would follow, dated back to a now lost, mid-ninth century codex that had itself once been part of a complete edition of Petronius' works. In the seventeenth century alone, the Satyricon is said to have influenced such writers as Ben Johnson (Volpone), George Chapman (The Widowes Teares), Roberto Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy), and Jeremy Taylor (Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying). Petronius is praised by John Dryden as "one of the most judicious authors of the Latin tongue in his essay Of Heroique Plays.11 Petronius is also quoted in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1711). The Satyricon carries particular weight with the Irish literary tradition. Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, and Oliver St. John Fogarty are said to have admired Petronius. Wilde is purported to have translated this particular edition of the Satyricon under the name of Sebastian Melmoth, although exact authorship is still in question. In the U.S. context, Petronius is said to have influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, and Gore Vidal among others.12
Frank Palmeri points out in Satire in Narrative, that the Satyricon is more than a simple exercise in subverting hierarchies; the text levels categories that represent high and low culture. Petronius seems to support such an interpretation in the following verses toward the end of the extant text:
Cato frowns and knits his brows,
The Censor wants to stop us,
The Censor hates my guileless prose,
My simple modern opus.
My cheerful unaffected style
Is Everyman when in his humor,
My candid pun narrates his joys,
Refusing to philosophize.
The Satyricon, with its vicious, unrestrained laughter, mocks all aspects of the human condition. Perhaps this is why it has made an impact upon so many writers throughout history and across literary genres.