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Critical Introduction

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    Wall painting (1st century AD) from the House of the Triclinium in Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This restored wall fresco depicts a convivium (dinner party for the wealthy). The individuals depicted as smaller in stature in front of the reclining guests are almost certainly slaves. The dining room (triclinium) in which this fresco was found also contains frescoes depicting later, rowdier stages of a dinner party.

    On the Author:

    The Satyricon, which has come down to us in fragmentary form, appears to have been written during the reign of Emperor Nero (c. 54-68 CE). Surviving manuscripts of the Satyricon attribute it to “Petronius Arbiter,” while some ancient authors simply refer to the author as “Arbiter.” While it cannot be conclusively proved, the name “Arbiter” may be linked to the historian Tacitus’ unflattering description of a courtier named Petronius in his Annals (XVI.17, 18-20):

    "Within a few days, indeed, there perished in one and the same batch, Annaeus Mela, Cerialis Anicius, Rufius Crispinus and Petronius. . . . With regard to Caius Petronius, his character and life merit a somewhat more particular attention. He passed his days in sleep, and his nights in business, or joy and revelry. Indolence was at once his passion and his road to fame. What others did by vigor and industry, he accomplished by his love of pleasure and luxurious ease. Unlike the men who profess to understand social enjoyment, and ruin their fortunes, he led a life of expense, without profusion; an epicure, yet not a prodigal; addicted to his appetites, but with taste and judgment; a refined and elegant voluptuary. Lively and airy in his conversation, he charmed by a certain graceful negligence, the more engaging as it flowed from the natural frankness of his disposition. With all this delicacy and careless ease, he showed, when he was governor of Bithynia, [1] and afterwards in the year of his consulship, that vigor of mind and softness of manners may well unite in the same person. With his love of sensuality he possessed talents for business. From his public station he returned to his usual gratifications, fond of vice, or of pleasures that bordered upon it. His gaiety recommended him to the notice of the prince. Being in favor at court, and cherished as the companion of Nero in all his select parties, he was allowed to be the arbiter of taste and elegance. Without the sanction of Petronius nothing was exquisite, nothing rare or delicious."

    "Hence the jealousy of Tigellinus, who dreaded a rival in the good graces of the Emperor almost his equal; in the science of luxury his superior. Tigellinus determined to work his downfall; and accordingly addressed himself to the cruelty of the Prince,-- that master passion, to which all other affections and every motive were sure to give way. He charged Petronius with having lived in close intimacy with Scaevinus, the conspirator; and to give color to that assertion, he bribed a slave to turn informer against his master. The rest of the domestics were loaded with irons. Nor was Petronius allowed to make his defense. Nero at that time happened to be on one of his excursions into Campania. Petronius had followed him as far as Cumae, but was not allowed to proceed further than that place. He scorned to linger in doubt and fear, and yet was not in a hurry to leave a world which he loved. He opened his veins, and closed them again, at intervals losing a small quantity of blood, then binding up the wound, as his own inclination prompted. He conversed during the whole time with his usual cheerfulness, never changing his habitual manner, nor talking sentences to show his contempt of death. He listened to his friends, who endeavored to entertain him, not with grave discourses on the immortality of the soul or the moral wisdom of philosophers, but with strains of poetry and verses of a lively and natural turn. He distributed presents to some of his servants, and ordered others to be chastised. He walked out for his amusement, and even lay down to sleep. In this last scene of his life he acted with such calm tranquility, that his death, though an act of necessity, seemed no more than the decline of nature. In his will he scorned to follow the example of others, who like himself died under the tyrant's stroke; he neither flattered the Emperor nor Tigellinus nor any of the creatures of the court. But having written, under the fictitious names of profligate men and women, a narrative of Nero's debauchery and his new modes of vice, he had the spirit to send to the Emperor that satirical romance, sealed with his own seal,-- which he took care to break, that after his death it might not be used for the destruction of any person whatever."

    "Nero saw with surprise his clandestine passions and the secrets of his midnight revels laid open to the world. To whom the discovery was to be imputed still remained in doubt. Amidst his conjectures, Silia, who by her marriage with a Senator had risen into notice, occurred to his memory. This woman had often acted as procuress for the libidinous pleasures of the prince, and lived besides in close intimacy with Petronius. Nero concluded that she had betrayed him, and for that offense ordered her into banishment, making her a sacrifice to his private resentment."

    Such is the scant information we have, supplemented by a few later additions. The author of the Satyricon appears to have been Caius [Titus] Petronius; he was perhaps from the Roman equestrian class and may have been born in what is now Marseilles, France. He appears to have served at one point as organizer for Nero’s notorious revelries. Pliny and Plutarch add one further detail, that prior to his death, Petronius broke to pieces a priceless Murrhine vase to prevent its falling into Nero’s clutches. Although most scholars agree that the author of the Satyricon is the same individual described by Tacitus, the Satyricon is almost certainly not the “tell-all” work he is said to have written in his dying days.


    [1] Bithynia was a Roman province located adjacent to the Black Sea region in Asia Minor on the fringes of the Roman empire.

    The Surviving Text:

    Considered one of the inspirational texts of classical literature, the Satyricon survives only in fragments. Even in its original form, it was an experimental composite of multiple genres -- two types of satire and Greek romance -- and forms -- a narrative frame tale with interspersed episodic stories and verse. Both the Satyricon and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (also known as the Metamorphoses) are two examples of a Roman genre which would eventually, over centuries, develop into what we recognize as the novel. The surviving portions of what was originally a much longer text describe the picaresque adventures of the narrator, Encolpius, and his slave and lover Giton, a sixteen-year-old boy (see the plot summary below).

    Encolpius, a former gladiator, and most of the main characters are far from heroic and the Latin used oscillates between polished verse and everyday slang. Humor, irony, caricature, parodies of “classic” literature and philosophy, vivid and convincing character portrayal, satire and social commentary predominate. Petronius lampooned “educated” Romans for eschewing daily reality for the philosophical and literary “truths” and epic legends seen as essential for entry into the corridors of power. Ironically, his own work became popular quite quickly. The Satyricon is the literary equivalent of archaeological finds from contemporary Pompeii, including graffiti, shops, brothels, apartment blocks (insulae) as well as the homes of the newly rich (prosperous traders, merchants) and the aristocratic elite whose culture they aspired to and imitated through frescoes of Greek and Roman legends (as well as earthier topics). [2]

    Despite, or perhaps because of, its bawdy content, the Satyricon, particularly the section on Trimalchio and his feast, has influenced many later artists and writers. Oscar Wilde alluded to The Satyricon in The Picture of Dorian Gray, while F. Scott Fitzgerald nearly titled The Great Gatsby “Trimalchio,” and made a direct comparison between Trimalchio and Gatsby in chapter seven. Trimalchio’s image of the bottled Cumaean Sibyl as desiring only to die was quoted by T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, and by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his short story “All the Troubles of the World.” In 1969, the Italian film-makers Federico Fellini and Gian Luigi Polidoro both adapted Satyricon to the screen. The form of the Satyricon directly influenced the growth of “picaresque” novels full of improbable adventures and escapades by a central protagonist and his/her companions/sidekicks, such as Tom Jones, Tristam Shandy, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Don Quixote, and The Three Musketeers.

    Petronius’ work makes many allusions to Greek and Latin “high” literature while mocking those with pretensions to learning. He quotes The Odyssey as well as near-contemporaries Horace and Virgil. Many of the cast of characters below are given “Greek” rather than “Roman” (Latin) names for that very reason. All of the names, in best Dickensian fashion, indicate something of the person’s character.


    [2] See, for example the spectacular and almost exactly contemporary House of the Vettii, home to two freedmen, in Pompeii.

    Cast of characters:

    Encolpius (“Crotch”): a retired gladiator, the narrator.

    Ascyltos (“Unflappable”): Encolpius’ former lover, sometime comrade and rival.

    Giton (“Cuddles” or “Squeeze”): Encolpius’ teenaged slave and lover.

    Agamemnon and Menelaus: teachers of rhetoric named after the two Spartan kings who led the Greek forces during the Trojan War.

    Quartilla (“Fourth”): female follower of Priapus.

    Pannychis (“All-Night Party”): underage female attendant to Quartilla.

    Trimalchio (“Triple King”): a ridiculously rich freedman.

    Fortunata (“Lucky Woman”): Trimalchio’s wife, perhaps a former entertainer or prostitute.

    Habinnas: a stonemason.

    Scintilla (“Little Spark” or “Flashy”): Habinnas’s wife.

    Hermeros (“Lusty Hermes”): Trimalchio’s friend.

    Phileros (“Lusty Lover”): Trimalchio’s friend.

    Niceros (“Lusty Victor”): Trimalchio’s friend.

    Bargates: caretaker of the apartment block (insula). His name, like Habinnas, may be of Semitic origin.

    Eumolpus (“Beautiful Bard”): the disreputable and starving pedant and poet.

    Lichas ("Licker"): a vindictive merchant and sea-captain, perhaps named after a servant who betrayed Hercules and died for it.

    Tryphaena (“Fancy Lady”): a beautiful woman who “travels the world for her pleasures,” perhaps exiled for having violated Augustus’ anti-adultery laws.

    Circe: a young married matron of Croton.

    Chrysis (“Golden Girl”): maid to Circe.

    Proselenos (“She who goes before the Silen”): aged maid of Circe. A Silen was a deity of debauchery.

    Oenothea (“Goddess of wine”): a witch who attempts to cure Encolpius.

    Philomena (in myth, sister of Procne): a woman who pimps her children to Eumolpus.

    Plot Reconstruction:

    Narrated by the retired gladiator and central protagonist, Encolpius, the first surviving sections feature Encolpius traveling with a former lover and companions, Ascyltos,to rejoin Encolpius’ slave, Giton, who has remained at Encolpius’s lodgings. Encolpius is in a Greek-speaking town in Campania. Standing outside a school, he attacks the current system of education based on studying certain works of Greek and Latin literature and public speaking or oratory (think English literature blended with speech or debate class) (1–2). He engages in debate with the sophist Agamemnon (3–5) before discovering that Ascyltos has slunk off (6). In search of Ascyltos and Giton, Encolpius asks an old woman for directions to his lodgings, and is taken to a brothel instead. There, Encolpius meets Ascyltos (7–8) and Giton (8), who complains that Ascyltos made sexual advances (9). After a hot-tempered fight, the friends reconcile but plan to split up at a future date (9–10). Encolpius then tries to make love to Giton, but Ascyltos assaults Encolpius after catching him with Giton (11). After going to the market, the three men become embroiled in a dispute over stolen goods (12–15). When they return to their rented lodgings, a worshipper of Priapus, Quartilla, accuses them of attempting to discern the cult’s mysterious secret rituals (16–18). Taken captive by Quartilla, her female servants and an elderly male prostitute, the companions are sexually assaulted (19–21), then given dinner and drawn into further escapades (21–26). This portion of the “novel” ends with Encolpius and Quartilla kissing while voyeuristically spying on the sixteen-year-old Giton having sex with a very young girl (26).

    Perhaps the most famous portion of the Satyricon is the description of Trimalchio’s dinner party, which follows the conventions of Menippean satire. One of Agamemnon’s slaves invites Encolpius and his companions to dine at the estate of the fabulously wealthy freedman, Trimalchio. After a bit of scene-setting in the estate’s baths and halls (26–30), the guests (mostly freedmen and their spouses) enter the dining room. Once Trimalchio joins them, more and more ridiculously extravagant delicacies are served while Trimalchio boasts of his wealth and “learning” (31–41). After Trimalchio leaves to relieve himself, the guests engage in conversation among themselves about universal concerns: neighbors, weather, hard times, public games, their children (41–46). Trimalchio returns (47), more courses appear, and while arguing with Agamemnon, Trimalchio claims he saw the Sibyl of Cumae, encased in a flask, forever deathless (48). The guests amuse each other with stories about werewolves (62) and witches (63). A prosperous stonemason named Habinnas belatedly arrives; his wife Scintilla (65), compares her jewellery to that of Trimalchio's wife Fortunata (67). Trimalchio announces his will and instructs Habinnas on the construction of Trimalchio’s monumental tomb (71). Having had enough, Encolpius and his companions attempt to abscond when the other guests proceed to the estate’s baths (72). Stopped by a porter, they escape under cover of Trimalchio’s mock funeral; the night watchmen hear the horns, think a fire has broken out and storm the estate to put it out (78).

    Returning to their shared lodgings, Encolpius makes a pass at Giton, then falls into a drunken stupor while Ascyltos seduces Giton (79). Encolpius awakes to find his travelling companions in bed, and he and Ascyltos agree to part ways. Giton, however, decides to abandon Encolpius for Ascyltos (80). Fantasizing about revenge, Encolpius is disarmed of his sword by a soldier (81–82). After admiring a display of artwork, Encolpius meets with an elderly poet, Eumolpus. The two commiserate about their mishaps (83–84), and Eumolpus relates his grooming and seduction of a boy he was tutoring in Pergamon (85–87). After lamenting the decline of art and literature in comparison to the old masters (88), Eumolpus explains a picture depicting the capture of Troy with some verses he had composed on that theme (89). Pedestrians nearby prove unappreciative and pelt Eumolpus with stones (90). Encolpius invites Eumolpus to dinner. As Encolpius returns home to prepare, he encounters Giton, who reinstates himself in Encolpius’ good graces (91). When Eumolpus arrives, he reports that there was a man (Ascyltos?) searching for “Giton” at the public baths (92). Encolpius conceals Giton’s identity, but he and the Eumolpus quickly both attempt to win Giton’s affections, leading to a brawl (93–94) between the poet and those living in the apartment block (95–96). Arriving with a municipal slave, Ascyltos searches for Giton, who hides under a bed (97). Eumolpus threatens to reveal Giton but eventually makes peace (98).

    In the next surviving scene preserved, Encolpius and company take ship (99). Too late, Encolpius realizes that the captain, Lichas of Tarentum, is his old nemesis, and that he has had previous encounters with another passenger, Tryphaena, whom Giton does not want to be recognized by (100–101). Despite hilarious attempts to disguise themselves as Eumolpus’ slaves (103), Encolpius and Giton are both discovered (105). Eumolpus comes to their defense (107), fighting erupts (108) and peace eventually results (109). To prevent further conflict, Eumolpus tells the pan-Mediterranean tale of the widow of Ephesus. Although planning to pine away in starvation in her husband’s tomb, she succumbs to the advances of a soldier set to guard the bodies of crucified criminals and when one turns up missing, substitutes her husband’s corpse to save her new lover from death (110–112). After being shipwrecked (114). Encolpius, Giton, Eumolpus, and his servant Corax survive (115). The band soon learns they are near Crotona, a city inhabited by infamous legacy-hunters (116). Eumolpus suggests he poses as a wealthy invalid without heirs while the others pretend to be his slaves (117). He lectures his captive audience about the need for elevated subject matter in poetry (118), inflicting on them a long poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great (119–124). The Crotonians prove more than welcoming (125). A female servant, Chrysis, flatters Encolpius and brings along her appropriately named mistress, Circe, who propositions him. However, Encolpius proves impotent (126–128), and rebuked by Circe, he attempts to cure himself by abstaining from Giton (129–130). To their next tryst Circe brings an aged enchantress, Proselenos, who attempts a cure (131). Encolpius’ failure to perform means Circe has both him and Chrysis whipped (132).

    Although Encolpius is tempted to unman himself, he instead prays at Priapus’ temple (133). Proselenos arrives with the priestess and sorceress Oenothea, who promises to cure Encolpius and begins cooking (134–135). In the women’s absence, Encolpius is pecked by geese sacred to Priapus and kills one of them, and pays blood-money to the distraught Oenothea (136–137). Oenothea eviscerates the goose, and foretells Encolpius’ future by reading its liver (137). She then whips out a “leather dildo” with which she and Proselenos threaten to penetrate Encolpius (138). Encolpius escapes, and finds that Chrysis has taken a shine to him (138–139). Thinking Emolpus is wealthy and childless, an older legacy-huntress, Philomela, places her son and daughter with him to be “educated.” Eumolpus seduces the daughter with the assistance of his servant, Corax. Enamored of the son, Encolpius finds he is no longer impotent (140). As the legacy-hunters become impatient and suspicious, Eumolpus has his will read out to the citizens, who find out that in order to inherit, they must eat his corpse (141).

    Slaves and Freed Persons in Roman Society:

    Portion of a marble relief depicting slaves led by a helmeted man, from Smyrna (Turkey), 200 CE. From the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

    The concept and practice of slavery was deeply embedded in Roman society. In the early periods of Roman history, most farms were worked by free laborers paid on a daily basis by landowners. However, Rome’s expansionist wars had two consequences: laborers were called to serve in the army and foreigners captured during wars became cheaply available as slaves. The consequence was that, by the height of the Roman empire’s expansion, most free Romans owned slaves. Many slaves were formerly free individuals and some were highly educated and/or skilled. Greeks, for example, were favored as tutors for rich Roman children. Skilled slaves were often hired out to others or allowed to work semi-independently in workshops, with a portion of the profits going to their master. Sometimes slaves were even allowed to start their own business on the condition they pay an annual sum to their owner.

    Slaves played a key role in virtually every facet of Roman life, serving as agricultural laborers, cooks, tailors, physicians, and nannies. A wealthy free Roman might be wakened and dressed by a slave, eat food grown and prepared by slaves, dictate letters to slaves, be accompanied by slaves to the market and the public baths, etc. Household slaves sometimes forged very close relationships with their owners’ families, although brutality was also not uncommon. This was particularly true of individuals legally condemned to slavery for the state who worked in brutal conditions in quarries and mines and as rowers on ships. Because slavery in Rome was not based on race, many slaves could potentially “pass” as a free Roman and so Roman law strictly limited slaves’ rights and passed harsh statutes punishing runaway slaves and slave rebellions.

    Most slaves, therefore, hoped for freedom. There were two main ways to obtain freedom. A slave could purchase freedom or be freed by his master. This act of freeing a slave was known as manumission and consisted of a formal renunciation of ownership and bestowal of a freedman’s cap (pileus) performed in front of a public official, usually a judge. In some instances, the owner would simply announce a slave's freedom in front of friends and family (or in a will), or invited them to dine as an equal with the family. Once freed, former slaves joined the ranks of the “libertini” or freedpersons, although they remained the clients of their former masters (now their patrons). Many freed persons worked in trade or as artisans. A very few became rich and powerful men, but by law, they could never obtain true legal and social equality with free-born citizens (for example, they could vote but not hold public office), although their children could. Many nonetheless desired to be seen as of equal worth to the patrician classes and so emulated their lifestyles and burial customs, including splendid tombs.

    Photograph by Ad Meskens, Relief depicting the manumission of slaves. Marble, 1st century B.C. Musée Royal de Mariemont, inv. B.26. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

    Death and Burial in Ancient Rome:

    Because, similar to the Greeks, Romans believed that the soul of the dead could only properly rest once the body had been appropriately buried, funeral ceremonies stretched over a week. Relatives closed the deceased’s eyes while calling out the dead person’s name, then ritually washed and arranged the body, which lay in state near the home’s front entryway, so that friends and family members could pay their respects. Once respects were paid, a funeral procession accompanied the body to the tomb. Depending on the family’s wealth, it could be simple and quiet or an elaborate affair led by musicians, jesters and men wearing wax masks resembling the deceased, followed by the body carried on a litter, and finally, family, freedpersons, and friends. High status individuals might even be honored by a public speech in the forum and paraded around the city before proceeding to the cemetery outside the city. The Romans practiced both cremation and inhumation. Either way, the remains were laid in a tomb or grave with tokens and gifts to ensure that they did not return and visit bad fortune on their family. After burial, the family engaged in a formal nine days of mourning. The tombs of the wealthy lined the public roads leading to the city, and were designed to have a lavishly decorated front viewed by those passing in and out of the city. Carvings could include portraits, inscriptions, and items that indicated the way the individual wished to be remembered and their wealth and lifestyle.

    Click on this link to see images of the marble cinerary urn provided by Vitalis, a former slave of the Emperor and Scribe of the Bedchamber, for his wife Vernasia Cyclas. The “AUG.L” indicates he was a former imperial slave (British Museum).

    Further Resources:

    Sarah Ruden, trans., Petronius: Satyricon (Indianapolis/London, 2000). This fresh translation includes commentaries on important aspects of the Satyricon omitted here.

    Critical Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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