(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Little is known about the life of Petronius Arbiter (peh-TROH-nee-uhs AHR-beht-ehr). Perhaps a senator with ties to the Neronian court, he is reputed to be the author of the Satyricon (c. 60 c.e.; The Satyricon, 1694). This lengthy but fragmentary Latin work combines both prose and poetry to recount the adventures of its hero and narrator Encolpius and assorted other characters as they travel about southern Italy.

Much of the Satyricon has been lost, but the extant portions of the work are episodic in nature and often depict contemporary Roman society with exaggerated realism. The most famous episode is the “Cena Trimalchionis” (“Trimalchio’s Dinner Party”), in which the main characters are guests at an extravagant and vulgar dinner party. Other episodes are of a romantic or more graphically sexual nature, and the work features inserted tales and poetic interludes that derive from and reflect on the plot of the text.

Petronius Influence

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Satyricon satirized Roman social mores and parodied a variety of Greek literary works, including Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and earlier prose fiction. Although the work was relatively unacknowledged in ancient times, its rediscovery in the Renaissance was met with great interest. Modern investigation of the text has revealed much information about colloquial Latin and about the development of the Roman novel as a genre.

Petronius Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Satyricon is the only existing work attributed to Petronius.

Petronius Achievements

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The novel, in the sense of a long work of fiction possessing a continuous plot, was largely the creation of Petronius. Though The Satyricon contains elements of Menippean satire (a mixture of prose and poetry), Milesian tales (bawdy stories that usually deal with romantic conquests), ancient mime (short scenes intended for dramatic recitation or performance), and more traditional satire, nothing exactly like The Satyricon had ever existed in either the Greek or Roman literary traditions. Breaking new ground, The Satyricon is able both to ridicule and to celebrate much of the decadence seen in Rome during the age of Nero.

Petronius departed radically from the heroic and romantic characters, which had been the mainstay of classical literature until his own day. Far from the larger-than-life characters found in the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) or the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), the central figures of The Satyricon are scoundrels, petty criminals, and the nouveau riche. These individuals, though each of them is exaggerated in his or her own way, would have reminded Petronius’s audience of types completely familiar to them from everyday life.

Petronius also departed from earlier authors in using not the elevated Latin of Cicero and Vergil but a language more like that spoken by ordinary Romans. In his use of slang, dialect, and colloquialisms, Petronius pioneered elements of style found in later authors such as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and J. D. Salinger.

Petronius Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In what ways does Petronius’s The Satyricon show the influence of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614)?

In making parallels to and contrasts with Odyssey, is Petronius’s purpose to ridicule first century c.e. Roman life as he knew it, or to ridicule Homer’s work, or both, or neither? If neither, what is Petronius’s reason for using the parallels and contrasts with Odyssey?

In what ways does The Satyricon reflect the worldview, philosophy, and religion of the ancient Greek and Roman world?

How is Roman slavery as reflected in The Satyricon similar to and/or different from slavery in the American South before the Civil War?

What opinion does Petronius seem to want the reader to formulate about Trimalchio? Does he seem to want the reader to admire Trimalchio, to be disgusted by him, or both, or neither? If neither, what attitude does Petronius want the reader to have toward Trimalchio?

How does hyperbole (deliberate overstatement) contribute to the humor in The Satyricon?

Who is the most despicable character in The Satyricon, and why? Who is the most admirable character, and why?

Petronius Bibliography

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Colton, R. E. “The Story of ‘The Widow of Ephesus’ in Petronius and La Fontaine.” Classical Journal 71 (1975): 35-52. Examines the influence of Petronius’s short fiction upon Jean de La Fontaine. Considers the degree to which La Fontaine, in his version of the story “The Widow of Ephesus,” suppressed unpleasant details found in Petronius’s original, added new elements, and used more refined language than that found in the Roman version of the story.

Conte, Gian Biagio. The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius’ “Satyricon.” Translated by Elaine Fantham. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Offers a good discussion and analysis of the seminal work.

Corbett, Philip B. Petronius. New York: Twayne, 1970. A general and easily accessible introduction touching upon nearly every aspect of Petronius’s work and his literary style. Also contains a useful bibliography.

Kimball, Jean. “An Ambiguous Faithlessness: Molly Bloom and the Widow of Ephesus.” James Joyce Quarterly 31 (Summer, 1994): 455-472. Examines the influence of Otto Rank’s 1913 psychoanalytic interpretation of the tale of the “Widow of Ephesus” on Joyce’s Ulysses; discusses the faithfulness of the wife, the triangle of characters, and the motif of the hanged man.

McMahon, J. M. “A Petronian Parody at Sat. 14.2-14.3.” Mnemosyne 50 (February, 1997): 77-81....

(The entire section is 448 words.)