The Satyricon "He Has Joined The Great Majority"

Gaius Petronius Arbiter

"He Has Joined The Great Majority"

Context: Titus Petronius Arbiter was a favorite and intimate of Nero; he served as leading authority on matters of style and taste in the latter's court and thereby earned for himself an unsavory reputation. In Nero's court vice was a fine art: the "arbiter of elegance" was an authority on the subject and doubtless assisted his emperor in creating new forms of it. Tigellinus, another expert in debauchery, saw Petronius as a possible rival and decided to eliminate him. This act was done by playing on the emperor's love of cruelty; Tigellinus persuaded him to charge Petronius with treason, and Nero doubtless thought the whole thing a hilarious joke. Petronius, knowing full well the emperor's inventive genius regarding forms of death, committed suicide rather than wait for execution. His chief work, The Satyricon, is a satire on the social life of the time and a disturbing view of the decadence to which Rome had sunk. The first portion of the work is an elaborate account of Trimalchio's banquet. Trimalchio is a vulgar, newly-rich freedman who loves ostentation and has the means to satisfy his desires. The guests are overwhelmed with a little too much of everything–sumptuous surroundings, the very latest advances in sanitary and other facilities, an almost endless meal. Petronius has a considerable gift for vivid and picturesque writing: after reading the mottoes on the walls, taking part in the orgy, and listening to scraps of incidental chatter among the guests, we feel we have actually been in attendance. Seleucus, in his anecdote about a funeral, says of the departed: "Tamen abiit ad plures." This is variously interpreted by translators, ranging from the matter-of-fact "Well, he is gone," to the sententious "He has joined the great majority." The following version, however, is much truer to the witty spirit of the original:

Seleucus took up the tale and said: "I do not wash every day; the bathman pulls you to pieces like a fuller, the water bites, and the heart of man melts away daily. But when I have put down some draughts of mead I let the cold go to the devil. Besides, I could not wash; I was at a funeral to-day. A fine fellow, the excellent Chrysanthus, has breathed his last. It was but the other day he greeted me. I feel as if I were speaking with him now. Dear, dear, how we bladders of wind strut about. We are meaner than flies; flies have their virtues, we are nothing but bubbles. And what would have happened if he had not tried the fasting cure? No water touched his lips for five days, not a morsel of bread. Yet he went over to the majority. The doctors killed him–no, it was his unhappy destiny; a doctor is nothing but a stop to conscience. Still, he was carried out in fine style on a bier covered with a good pall. The mourning was very good too–he had freed a number of slaves–even though his own wife was very grudging over her tears. I daresay he did not treat her particularly kindly. But women one and all are a set of vultures. It is no use doing anyone a kindness; it is all the same as if you put your kindness in a well. But an old love pinches like a crab."