The action of the plot commences when Encolpius stumbles upon a secret ritual performed by followers of Priapus, the Roman god of lust. In the context of other ancient novels, I think it is extremely important to note that the god who spurs the heros wanderings is not Eros, the god of love, but Priapus, a perhaps degenerate form of Eros. Rendered impotent by the angry god, Encolpius begins experiencing external complications as well. Encolpiuss lover, the boy Giton, and his best friend Ascyltus get into repeated quarrels over Gitons preference of partner: Encolpius or Ascyltus.
For a mere boy, Giton is presented throughout the Satyricon as its most shrewd and interesting character. He lurks on the peripheries of the main action, yet the reader can clearly perceive his manipulative actions, as he takes the side in any argument or dispute of the party most likely to win, switching camps at a moments notice. In the dissolute moral background of Roman imperial society, Giton is shown to be the best at doing as the Romans do.
As a curse-born eunuch, Encolpius roams about with Giton and the bombastic, and epically terrible poet Eumolpus, trying to restore himself to full masculinity. Along the way, Petronius presents us with a range of different critiques. The most impressive of these episodic satires is the oft-cited chapter five, Dinner with Trimalchio. In it, we see a largesse, a gluttony, whose perversions are so outlandish, that we join with Ascyltus in laughing at it, while we secretly revel in its unquestionable splendor.
The excesses of this chapter can be seen as a model for the Satyricon itself: conversations begin and end on a whim; like Trimalchio, Petronius as author can be clearly felt in guiding the course of events. Trimalchios restroom breaks are like those times in the narrative where Petronius himself seems to take breaks from the actual plot, as in Eumolpuss extended and inane epic poem on the Roman civil war. In any event, with all its literary styles, parodic forms, and its stubborn refusal to be simply categorized, the Satyricon, even fragmentary as it is, is a fabulous text.
This book is still lively and engaging English for a 21st century crowd.