It is not surprising that the Satyrica has a long history as a banned book. Pierre Pithou, a humanist from the 1560’s joked that he kept his copy “in jail”. (1) In an archaic version of “Words with Friends” Lord Byron had “Codes with Friends” in which quoting portions of the Satyrica became a code for talking about his illicit sexual relationships. That being said, in Amy Richlin's essay “Sex in the Satyrica: Outlaws in Literatureland” she tells students reading Petronius that they are part of a brief moment in history where not only is reading the Satyrica accessible to the masses, (I found my copy for $2 at a thrift shop), but the Satyrica is also being taught to students as a study in literature rather than being sequestered away as corruptible material.
I’m not going to lie, after reading through the Satyrica I felt fully corrupted. Like Alice in Wonderland crawling through a rabbit hole only to find a world of x-rated Mad Hatters and general obscenity. I needed a guide. And thanks to our modern world of instant gratification I was able to find a digital copy of Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathan Prag and Ian Repath almost instantaneously. I found this book to be invaluable. It is comprised of twelve essays that cover everything from contemporary architecture: “Freedmen’s Cribs: Domestic Vulgarity on the Bay of Naples” by Shelley Hales, to mortality in “At Home with the Dead: Roman Funeral Traditions and Trimalchio’s Tomb” by Valerie Hope. So good.
Ok, here we go.
It is largely agreed that Petronius was the author of the Satyrica and a courtier of Nero. Upon gaining entry to Nero's coterie he became known as the “Arbiter of Elegance”. Tacitus mentions in his Annals that Petronius became more and more indispensable to Nero, until “in the end Nero’s jaded appetite regarded nothing as enjoyable or refined unless Petronius had given his sanction to it.” Here’s Tacitus’ review:
“Gaius Petronius deserves a further brief notice. He spent his days sleeping and his nights working and enjoying himself. Industry is the usual foundation of success, but with him it was idleness. Unlike most people who throw away their money in dissipation, he was not regarded as an extravagant sensualist, but as one who made luxury a fine art. His conversation and his way of life were unconventional with a certain air of nonchalance and they charmed people all the more by seeming so unstudied…” (Annals 16.18)
So what kind of book would a Neronian arbiter of elegance write? A very, very complicated one. First of all what makes matters difficult for the modern reader is that what we have are fragments, roughly three books out of a potential twenty-four. The Satyrica begins almost mid sentence and we have to race to catch up with protagonists that always seem one step ahead, weaving from one reference to another, throughout a web of literary obfuscations. It is a satire about satires, a comic epic that destructs cultural norms and literary expectations.
Our protagonists are an awkward love triangle comprised of Encolpius, Giton and Ascyltus. They live outside the law, (❡125.4) and outside the normative cultural positions of slave/free, man/woman. Ultimately, Encolpius is on a quest in search of his lost virility and his wayward lover, while the other two seem along for the ride. When the narrative opens, Encolpius is at a school of rhetoric with his teacher Agamemnon, yet it is the student we hear from first:
“…I’m sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, tyrants writing orders for sons to cut off their father’s 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. (❡1.1) (2)
While Encolpius’ complaint references those made by Seneca, this isn’t a philosophical treatise but rather the voice of a jaded student thinking up ways to prove there’s no point to learning so he can selfishly go back to his personal quest. In an almost modern complaint he says it’s the parents that are to blame, they rush their children through their studies when they are still young and frivolous. If only the parents would allow their children to mature to a point where they are intellectually capable of appreciating the “noble art of oratory” then this honorable art would have its true weight and dignity. Within the next paragraph the framework begins to emerge. This book will be a playful criticism of everything held dear, nothing will escape the brutal wit of the narrator.
“Your smooth and empty sound effects provided a few laughs, and as a result you took the guts out of real oratory, and that was the end of it. Young men were not tied down to rhetorical exercises when it was Sophocles or Euripides who developed the proper language for them. Academic pedants had not addled their wits when Pindar and the nine lyric poets shrank away from the Homeric style. And apart from the poets I can cite, I certainly cannot see Plato or Demosthenes going in for this sort of training.” (❡2)
What Petronius is about to do will make Plato roll over in his grave. He is about to systematically destroy everything sacred in a brilliant and hilarious way. A way that is without precedent or genre. In book III of the Republic, Socrates talks about how to tell stories, what meters to use, what meters to avoid, but most importantly he fundamentally forbids the artist or poet to represent characters that are vicious, unrestrained, slavish and graceless. He’s pretty specific, in a hyper controlling kind of way.
Petronius breaks everything apart. He not only combines poetry and prose, but he combines meters as well. He mixes iambic and hexameters within the same poem, which becomes an inside joke for the contemporary literati. When it is at last Agamemnon’s time to respond to Encolpius’s accusations he does so through poetry, saying “Just to show you how I’m not above a bit of low-level improvisation in the manner of Lucilius, I’ll throw you off a few lines expressing my feelings…” what follows is a mash-up of iambic and hexameters. The joke is that while Lucilius did write in different meters, we have no evidence that he did so within the same poem. And therefore the poem is completely un-Lucilian. (3) The joke follows a thematic trail throughout the Satyrica of the uneducated posing as educated. It is grandiose posturing on a Neronian scale.
After a description of the appropriate meter and mode for the most manly and heroic themes, Plato goes on to discuss the correct relationship between a boy and a man. The teacher/student relationship is sacred. It is not to be erotic and passionate but pure and chaste. Petronius’ heroes are unrestrained, slavish and graceless and make fun of sexually normative behaviors. They are anything but chaste.
Giton to Encolpius: So thank you for loving me in such an honorable Platonic way. Alcibiades himself couldn’t have been safer when he slept in his teacher’s bed.”
Encolpius to Giton: Honestly, dear lad, I can’t realize I’m a man, I don’t feel it. The part of my body that once made me an Achilles is dead and buried. (❡128-129)
I mentioned Encolpius’ quest above. Another genre that Petronius plays around with is the epic. Homeric references saturate the text and the Satyrica can be read as “sustained rewriting of the Odyssey". (4) Just as Ulysses faces the wrath of Poseidon after killing his son the cyclops, Encolpius faces the wrath of Priapus after desecrating a sacred ritual.
Side note: Priapus is the guardian of the gardens and he protects his property with his huge erection, threatening to rape any attempting thieves. So…yikes.
Priapus thwarts Encolpius’s romantic success at every turn ending in the sustained impotence of our hero. But while Ulysses is the penultimate masculine hero, Encolpius is effeminate, and frequently confused for a prostitute. While Ulysses is married to the faithful Penelope, Giton is hardly a faithful lover, the only absolute being his predictable fickleness. The majority of the humor focuses on Encolpius constantly losing Giton to Ascyltus and many others, both men and women. Again and again Encolpius tends to “epicize” his own non-adventures.
When Encolpius gives Giton the choice between himself or Ascyltus, without much of a thought, “before the last syllable is out of his mouth” Giton picks Ascyltus. As the two wander away, Encolpius is wracked in grief. He packs up his belongings and spends three days in a quiet place along the seafront mourning the loss of his beloved. As he struggles to come to terms in his classically histrionic way he ponders how this has happened and who has done this to him:
“…who brought this loneliness upon me? An adolescent wallowing in every possible filth, who even on his own admission had been rightly run out of town, free - for sex, freeborn, for sex, whose youth you’d buy with a ticket, who had been hired as a girl even by someone who thought he was a male. As for the other one! Putting on women’s clothes the day he became a man, talked into effeminacy by his mother, doing only women’s work in the slave pen, and after he couldn’t meet his debts and had to change his sexual ground, he abandoned the claims of an old friendship and - in the name of decency! - sold out everything like a whore on the strength of a one night stand.” (❡81)
It’s not clear whom each epithet belongs to. The descriptions seem to fit all three reasonably well. When Encolpius decides to rouse himself for battle and fight for his ‘Penelope’, he girds his loins, puts on his belt, grabs his sword and races to the market prepared to wreak havoc along the way. This is his most soldierly and heroic behavior. When a soldier seeing the rage and hell bent blood and destruction written all over his face he asks for the name of his regiment. Encolpius lies, thinking he has perpetrated a successful deception. The soldier then asks him if it’s normal for the soldiers in his regiment to walk around in slippers? And Encolpius realizes the ruse is up. He walks away, almost thankful that he didn't have to injure someone (most likely himself) with his soldiering.
By far, the most famous portion of the Satyrica is Dinner with Trimalchio, where the three heroes make there way for a free dinner. This is where Petronius riff's on Horace (Dinner with Nasidienus 2.8), and this is where the narrative becomes the most elaborate and cacophonous. Everything drips and glitters with garish theatric stage appeal. Trimalchio is a self made man (a slave that slowly earned his way to the top) and he’s proud of his prodigious wealth. The definition of satiric elegance, with a clock that ticks away telling him how much longer he has to live.
The three find themselves at the bath with their soon to be host, who is involved in all sorts of glamorous and esoteric sporting endeavors surrounded by a host of “long haired boys” (capillati) and eunuchs. A friend runs up and tells them that this bald old man in the red shirt is their host and they watch in amazement as:
“…Trimalchio snapped his fingers. At the signal the eunuch brought up the pissing bottle for him, while he went on playing, With the weight off his bladder he demanded water for his hands, splashed a few drops on his fingers and wiped them on a boy’s head…
[they all go into the bath and Trimalchio gets smothered in perfume while his masseurs drink and spill Falernian wine]
Wrapped in this scarlet felt he was put into a litter. Four couriers with lots of medals went in front, as well as a go-kart in which his favorite boy was riding, a wizened , bleary-eyed youngster, uglier than his master. As he was carried off, a musician with a tiny set of pipes took his place by Trimalchio’s head and whispered a tune in his ear the whole way.
"We followed on, choking with amazement by now, and arrived at the door with Agamemnon at our side.” (❡27-28)
Already our protagonists have witnessed the hight of self congratulatory conceit. Trimalchio makes a triumphal procession the short distance to his front door, glorying in his as of yet unattained victory. Besides taking a bath he has little to be “triumphant” about. This is reminiscent of Nero, the emperor without militaristic prowess. His victories were over “musicians, poets and playwrights, epitomes of high culture rather than barbarians.” (5) Oh yes, and family members. Tacitus mentions (Annals 14.13) the people lining up to watch Nero’s triumphal entry after murdering his mother…
After contemplating the murals decorating the entrance of Trimalchio’s mansion, which include signage that reads: “Any slave leaving the house without his master’s permission will receive one hundred lashes” and “Beware of Dog” the three enter a literary hall of mirrors, surrounded by guests representing the poverty of high culture. (The “Beware of Dogs” sign is a throw back to “Virgil’s Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades (Virgil Aen. 6.417-23) The allusion makes explicit that dining at Trimalchio’s is a living hell.” (6)
As one would expect, working for Nero was perilous and unpredictable. Eventually Petronius’ popularity lead to a jealous rival, Tigellinus, who sewed seeds of discord and manipulated the emperor’s penchant for cruelty.
Side note: Nero forced his tutor and advisor Seneca to commit suicide for his alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy. Seneca’s grandson Lucan after a brief literary success was also accused of treason (this time accurately) and forced to commit suicide as well at the age of 25. Nero himself was a self professed actor, poet, musician and charioteer and did not share the spotlight well. It was a dangerous time to be a literary man.
So according to Tacitus (Annals 16.19):
“Petronius got as far as Cumae and was prevented from going any further. He refused to prolong the suspense that hope or fear involved. Not that he was hasty in taking leave of his life. On the contrary, he opened his veins and then, as the fancy took him, he bound them up or re-opened them, and all the while talked with his friends, but not on serious topics or anything calculated to win admiration for his courage..simply gay songs and light verses. He dealt out rewards to some of his slaves and floggings to others. He began a lavish dinner and took a nap, so that his death, although forced on him, should appear natural. Even in the codicils of his will he refused to flatter Nero or Tigellinus or anyone else powerful. Instead he wrote out a full description of the Emperor’s vicious activities, giving the names of his male and female partners and specifying the novel forms his lust had taken…”
And from Pliny the Elder (Natural History 37.20):
“T. Petronius, a consular, when he was going to die through Nero’s malice and envy, broke his fluorspar wine dipper so that the Emperor’s table would not inherit it. It had cost 300,000 sesterces.”
In a world where daily survival took risk and intrigue, Petronius created a world to hide inside, a jest within a jest, a hall of mirrors, which allowed him to simultaneously critique his contemporaries and poke fun of everything else. In the end, life will be short and your fate will be in the hands of pernicious and vindictive gods. So like Trimalchio, Petronius rose a glass and surrounded himself with songs and light verses as he took his last breath:
‘What comes next you never know,
Lady Luck runs the show,
So pass the Falernian, lad.”
1. Richlin, Amy. "Sex in the Satyrica: Outlaws in Literatureland."Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathon Prag and Ian Repath, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
2. All Satyrica quotes are from Sullivan 1965
3. Slater, Niall W. "Reading the Satyrica." Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathon Prag and Ian Repath, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
4. Andreau, Jean. "Freedmen’s Cribs: Domestic Vulgarity on the Bay of Naples." Ibid.
5. Klebs, E. 1889. Ibid.
6. Vout, Caroline. "The Satyrica and Neronian Culture." Ibid.