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Day One- Trimachio's Feast

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    Day One: Study Guide for Petronius, The Satyricon

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    Over two class meetings, we will use Petronius’ Satyricon (written near the end of the 1st century CE) as a doorway into the lives of ordinary Romans and freedpersons. As you read Petronius, draw on the details of his story to try to reconstruct what daily life in ancient Rome would have been like.

    Before class, please read:
    1. Petronius, The Satyricon, introduction, plot summary, essays on freed persons and funerals.
    2. Next read Seneca (d. 65 AD), Epistulae Morales (Moral Letters), Letter XXVII (the text follows the questions below).
    3. Use the “List of Characters” in the introduction to acquaint yourself with these dinner guests: Encolpius, Ascyltus, Giton, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Trimalchio. As you encounter other guests, look up the meaning of their names in this list.
    4. Finally, read chapters 26 to ch. 78 of The Satyricon. Note that the dinner is described from Encolpius’ viewpoint. For Roman dining customs, see
    5. Be prepared to answer the questions indicated in class.

    Questions for Class:

    Students may be called on to discuss the following questions (or questions may be preassigned to small groups or pairs). Everyone should be prepared to answer them. These questions have been adapted from a lesson plan created by John Shinners, reprinted here with his permission.

    1. What are the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this dinner party? Which of these strike Encolpius as ordinary and which are extraordinary? Are any of these sense impressions familiar to you? Which ones? Which are the strangest sense impressions for you?

    2. What, in your mind’s eye, is the most vivid or memorable image that Petronius depicts here? Be able to describe it (with chapter citation) and explain why it so strikes you. (A good test: which passage did you read aloud to your roommate? Have a “second most vivid” image ready
    in case someone else chooses yours first.) What is the funniest moment, incident, punch line here?

    3. What sort of specific things happen during this dinner party that never happened during Thanksgiving dinner at your house? What is the cumulative effect of these incidents?

    4. Can you think of any modern analogues--from TV, films, books, etc.--that resemble the sort of story, the sort of situations, or the sort of characters that Petronius depicts here? Be specific!

    5. What classes, sorts of people, types of professions does Petronius describe? What social class do the majority of the dinner guests come from? Cite specific examples. What is Trimalchio’s social status? How did he make his fortune?

    6. What sorts of social relationships exist among these guests? Are they friends? Why or why not? What relationship do these guests have with their host, Trimalchio? Why are they at his dinner party?

    7. What are the priorities of these people; what is important to them in life? Do their values coincide with traditional Roman values from “the good old days”? Why or why not?

    8. What’s the point of Seneca’s anecdote about Calvisius Sabinus (see below) and how is it appropriate to Trimalchio?

    9. The twentieth-century writer Virginia Woolf claimed that “one cannot think well...if one has not dined well.” Would you say this is true for this group of people? What are the topics of conversation at this dinner? What do they complain about? What problems could we infer are going on in the Roman empire?

    10. Build up a character portrait of Trimalchio. What does he look like, what are his beliefs and values, how educated is he, how religious is he? Is he well-respected by his guests? By Petronius?

    11. Trimalchio strives to impress his guests with his wealth. What is the most extravagant thing he does during the dinner?

    12. What images of women emerge from the story? Has their condition improved from Grecian times? Cite specific examples to support your answer. What portrait of Fortunata does Petronius paint?

    13. What Roman attitudes toward the following topics emerge:

    • money
    • social status
    • sex
    • love
    • the gods
    • superstition
    • politics
    • pleasure
    • slavery and/or freed persons
    • death, burial, and memory

    14. What was Petronius’ purpose in writing this work? What attitude does he take toward his characters? If his purpose is critical or satirical, what is he criticizing or satirizing?

    15. Barrow, speaking of slavery (p. 99), claims that it “comes nearest to its justification in the early Roman Empire”--during which Trimalchio’s dinner is set. What does he mean and would you agree?

    Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE), Letter 27 from his Epistulae morales (Moral Letters)

    “What,” you say, “are you giving me advice? Indeed have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellowmen when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself. I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext. I keep crying out to myself: “Count your years, and you will be ashamed to desire and pursue the same things you desired in your boyhood days. Of this one thing make sure against your dying day—let your faults die before you die. Away with those disordered pleasures, which must be dearly paid for; it is not only those which are to come that harm me, but also those which have come and gone. Just as crimes, even if they have not been detected when they were committed, do not allow anxiety to end with them; so with guilty pleasures, regret remains even after the pleasures are over. They are not substantial, they are not trustworthy; even if they do not harm us, they are fleeting. Cast about rather for some good that will abide. But there can be no such good except as the soul discovers it for itself within itself. Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arises, it is but like an intervening cloud, which drifts in front of the sun but never prevails against it.”

    When will it be your lot to attain this joy? Thus far, you have indeed not been sluggish, but you must quicken your pace. Much toil remains; to confront it, you must yourself lavish all your waking hours, and all your efforts, if you wish the result to be accomplished. This matter cannot be delegated to someone else. The other kind of literary activity admits of outside assistance. Within our own time there was a certain rich man named Calvisius Sabinus; he had the bank account and the brains of a freedman. I never saw a man whose good fortune was a greater offence against propriety. His memory was so faulty that he would sometimes forget the name of Ulysses, or Achilles, or Priam—names which we know as well as we know those of our own attendants. No steward in his dotage, who cannot give men their right names, but is compelled to invent names for them—no such man, I say, calls off the names of his master’s tribesmen so atrociously as Sabinus used to call off the Trojan and Achaean heroes. But none the less did he desire to appear learned. So he devised this short cut to learning: he paid fabulous prices for slaves—one to know Homer by heart and another to know Hesiod; he also delegated a special slave to each of the nine lyric poets. You need not wonder that he paid high prices for these slaves; if he did not find them ready to hand he had them made to order. After collecting this retinue, be began to make life miserable for his guests; he would keep these fellows at the foot of his couch, and ask them from time to time for verses which he might repeat, and then frequently break down in the middle of a word. Satellius Quadratus, a feeder, and consequently a fawner, upon addle-pated millionaires, and also (for this quality goes with the other two) a flouter of them, suggested to Sabinus that he should have philologists to gather up the bits. Sabinus remarked that each slave cost him one hundred thousand sesterces; Satellius replied: “You might have bought as many bookcases for a smaller sum.” But Sabinus held to the opinion that what any member of his household knew, he himself knew also. This same Satellius began to advise Sabinus to take wrestling lessons—sickly, pale, and thin as he was, Sabinus answered: “How can I? I can scarcely stay alive now.” “Don’t say that, I implore you,” replied the other, “consider how many perfectly healthy slaves you have!” No man is able to borrow or buy a sound mind; in fact, as it seems to me, even though sound minds were for sale, they would not find buyers. Depraved minds, however, are bought and sold every day.

    But let me pay off my debt and say farewell: “Real wealth is poverty adjusted to the law of Nature.” Epicurus has this saying in various ways and contexts; but it can never be repeated too often, since it can never be learned too well. For some persons the remedy should be merely prescribed; in the case of others, it should be forced down their throats. Farewell.

    Translation from: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Epistles, translated by Richard M. Gummere, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1917-25), vol. 1, pp. 195-199.


    Day One- Trimachio's Feast is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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