In classical antiquity prose fiction was regarded as a low form of writing and the arts, not bound by traditions of good taste or proper literary convention. The Satyricon, attributed to one of the emperor Nero’s courtiers, represents a brilliant mix of prose and verse and of conventional literary idiom and vulgar language. It satirizes and parodies the human absurdities and spectacular failures of contemporary Roman society. Petronius’ depictions of his protagonists and their equally disreputable acquaintances are icily drawn; the outrageous, the obscene, and even the monstrous appear as commonplace.
In the summer of 1922 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by John Sumner, filed suit to halt publication and sale of The Satyricon by the firm of Boni and Liveright. In a comment which well expresses the nature of the controversies which have surrounded The Satyricon for centuries, an editor for The New York Times remarked in the July 21 issue: “In any ordinary definition of that word Petronius is certainly obscene; and yet he is read by many who are merely annoyed by his obscenities. The extant fragments of what must have been a long book reveal a brilliant talent.” The complaint was dismissed in the early autumn of the same year.
Understanding of The Satyricon (the name connoting both satire and satyr, a mythological sexual beast) needs to begin with the fact that the extant work is only a fragment of the original as Petronius wrote it. There are many gaps where entire sections and episodes have been lost. In fact, The Satyricon as it exists today is probably less than one-half of the original. Still, given the unique structure of the work, as a combination of fictitious travel narrative, epic poetry, rhetorical declamation, Greek romance, and mock-epic, it is likely that enough exists to suffice in understanding Petronius’s purposes and achievement.
The overall structure of the work is best understood as a deliberate parallel to and parody of Homer’s Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Petronius’s main character, Encolpius (“the crotch”), has offended a deity, in this case Priapus, the lord of lust, and thus embarks on a diverse series of sexual and other misadventures. These include the loss of his slave-boy Giton, with whom he has an intimate homosexual relationship; temptation by the goddess Circe, with whom Encolpius cannot perform, despite her perfect beauty and sensuality; and endurance of the “cure” for his impotence by the hag Proselenos, who among other activities inserts a leather phallus into Encolpius’s rectum after covering the phallus with oil, pepper, and ground nettle seed. Implicit in all of these misadventures is the humorous mock-epic...
Encolpius rails at the growth of artificiality in modern rhetoric and the ill-prepared students who come to the school. Agamemnon, the professor, agrees with him but places the blame entirely on parents who refuse to make their children study. Weary of the dispute and far gone in drink, Encolpius flees the school. An old woman, who makes indecent proposals to him, shows him the way back to his inn.
Gito, Encolpius’s sixteen-year-old slave, has prepared supper, but the comely boy is crying: Ascyltus has made violent love to him. Encolpius is soothing the boy with caresses and tender words when Ascyltus breaks in on them. A quarrel ensues between the two friends as to who should enjoy Gito’s favors. The dispute is settled only when all three agree to pay a visit to Lycurgus, a rich friend of Ascyltus. Lycurgus receives them most cordially and introduces them to Lichas, his friend. Lichas, completely taken with Encolpius, insists that Encolpius and Gito come home with him. On the way, Tryphaena, a beautiful woman attached to Lichas’s entourage, makes surreptitious love to Encolpius, who resolves to have little to do with Lichas. When the party arrives at Lichas’s villa, Tryphaena deserts Encolpius for the bewitching Gito. Smarting under her desertion, Encolpius makes love to Doris, Lichas’s attractive wife. All goes fairly well until Gito tires of Tryphaena—she then accuses both Gito and Encolpius of making improper advances, and the two return in haste to Lycurgus’s house.
Lycurgus at first supports the two adventurers, but as the jealous Lichas increases his complaints, Lycurgus turns against the pair. At the suggestion of Ascyltus, the three set out again to seek whatever love affairs and plunder they can find. They are well supplied with gold, for Encolpius plundered one of Lichas’s ships before leaving.
A fair is in progress at a nearby small town, where they come upon a groom who is saddling a rich man’s horse. When the groom leaves for a moment, Encolpius steals the rich man’s riding cloak. Soon afterward, Ascyltus finds a bag of coins on the ground. The two friends hide the gold by sewing it under the lining of Encolpius’s threadbare tunic. Just as they finish, the rich man’s retainers give chase to recover the riding cloak. Dashing through a wood, Encolpius is separated from his friend and loses the tunic. When they meet again later at a market, they see the tunic up for sale there, with the gold pieces still hidden in the lining. They offer to trade the riding cloak for the tunic, but the bystanders become suspicious and try to make the two friends appear before a judge. Dropping the riding cloak and seizing the tunic, they flee.
After telling Gito to follow later on, they set out for the next town. Seeing the dim forms of two comely women hurrying through the dusk, Encolpius and Ascyltus follow them, unobserved, into an underground temple. There the two men see a company of women in Bacchanalian garb, each with a phallic...