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The Satyricon – Petronius



Posted September 3, 2016 by

The Satyricon – Petronius – Late 1st century A.D.

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson           Date: 15 September 2001

The Satyricon has reached us in a particularly bad shape. What we still have is the concoctions of modern scholarship. The long lost archetype for such endeavor was already removed from the original script by many centuries; and who knows whether the author’s own script had been free of errors. To produce a manuscript was slow and costly. Before the invention of the codex, scrolls could be a cumbersome affair of 90 ft. in length and up to 30 pounds of weight. Once a column had disappeared in the interior of such scroll, the author, even if he needed to refresh his memory, would be very reluctant to go through the trouble of unscrolling.

Worst of all, we look at a book that in all likelihood had never been disseminated very widely. Most copies seem to have been private notes, little bits and pieces from here and there. Since it is a frank and unashamedly lewd text, our copyists must have been a bunch of schoolboys, who copied out only the juicy bits for later uses in the dormitory. This has saddled the modern reader with a collection of snippets that under-represents the entire text by 90% and over-represents the sex in it by 100%. Of reportedly some 20 books, only portions of book 14, 15, and 16 have survived in loose snippets from all over Europe, but nobody has yet established an undisputed order for all the fragments.

For all we know, prior to the surviving part, the story starts at Marseilles. The first person narrator Encolpius, for unknown reasons, had fallen foul of the god Priapus and goes on a quest to regain his erection. He may had been exiled from the city (after a year’s entertainment at public expense) or ran away from the plague, travels by sea to Italy and at some point is rescued from the gladiatorial arena in Rome. Freeloading and thieving, Encolpius moves down through Italy, until a Tarentine ship owner, Lichas, is attracted to him and picks him up. Encolpius however seduces Licha’s wife and commits some terrible outrage on his benefactor in the porticus of Hercules at Baiae, a famous pleasure resort in south Italy. He also steals the robe and rattle of the goddess Isis from Licha’s ship.

About the same time, the famous courtesan Tryphaena becomes his mistress in a love triangle between him, her, and the handsome slave Giton. Grown jealous, Encolpius disgraces his mistress in public, and he and Giton gang up with another low life character, Ascyltus. The three are involved in the murder of a certain Lycurgus, rob his villa and saw up the proceeds in a ragged tunic. During a separation, perhaps while stealing an expensive cloak, Encolpius loses the garment with the stolen money inside. Mutual suspicions of dishonesty and jealousy over Giton shake up the trio, before it barges in into some secret Priapean rites conducted by the priestess Quartilla. Finally we find the three in Puteoli and associating as men of culture with a teacher of rhetoric, Agamemnon, who has a school there. It is here, when the surviving text opens in the middle of a discussion on the time’s rhetorical education.

So, if the condition of the fragments is such a sorry affair, why bother at all? (For the lewd bits you certainly can substitute from your friendly XXX video store.) Well, to begin with, the author obviously had been a linguistic genius with an ear for common people’s speech-patterns. For all we know, Petronius was a member of the inner circle surrounding the emperor Nero. Tacitus gossips over Nero’s incognito forays into the streets and taverns of the capital, even after his coronation which occasionally got him in fist fights with his subjects who didn’t recognize him. Sometimes this earned the teenage emperor a black eye and the subject trouble with the law. So Petronius, as his companion, had had ample opportunity for first hand observations on Rome’s seedy side and indeed much of this material found its way into his novel.

But it is an unusually rich presentation, that straddles the entire scale from the vulgar to the mockingly sublime, interspersed with poems and sometimes deliberately bad poetry, and with an uncanny eye for trifles and little sensations. Just notice how the eye follows a drifting bird feather, sinking down to the sea and floating there in narrow circles before being sucked under by the whirling pool of the little waves that dimple the surface – most unusual for practically the entire literature of the period, before and long after. An incredibly rich tapestry unfolds, of local customs, idiosyncratic character traits, the smells and gusto of real people’s life.

In 65 Ad. Petronius’ alleged involvement in Piso’s conspiracy, did force him to commit suicide, but not before in a last letter he gave the Emperor a piece of his mind. According to Roman custom the public reading of a deceased’s will was often used to settle old scores in a piece of unanswerable libel. Considering the enormous length of the novel, Petronius’s death may very well have left unfinished this product of insomnia by a notorious night-owl. What had survived, has found in William Arrowsmith a very able translator – it is a hard act to do, and Arrowsmith gave us as good a rendition as can reasonably be expected.

ReadLit Team


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