In The Satyricon, Petronius quotes Trimalchio who says, “A slave is a man and drank his mother’s milk like ourselves … I am leaving a property to Philargyrus and to Carrio.” What is Petronius implying here? Is he highlighting the typical behavior of the nouveau-riche in Roman society at the time, which was to flaunt wealth and prosperity to others?

Here, as elsewhere in The Satyricon, Petronius is satirizing the nouveau-riche of Roman society, making them appear vulgar show-offs. Trimalchio's bequest to his slaves, Philargyrus and Carrio, is presented as ostentatious rather than as an act of generosity.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The prime target of Petronius's withering satire in The Satyricon is Rome's nouveau-riche. Right throughout the book, he presents them as vulgar, ostentatious show-offs without class or style. All of these unpleasant characteristics are embodied in the character of Trimalchio, the former slave who's now one of the wealthiest men in Rome.

Having become phenomenally rich, Trimalchio flaunts his wealth at every opportunity, most notably by throwing lavish parties at which the old money elite shamelessly bow and scrape before him.

At one of these parties, Trimalchio announces to his assembled guests that he's decided to free all his slaves in his will and bestow property upon them:

“Slaves are men, my friends”, he observed, “but that's not all, they sucked the same milk that we did, even if hard luck has kept them down; and they'll drink the water of freedom if I live.”

On the face of it, this seems like a magnanimous gesture on Trimalchio's part. Not only is he going to give his slaves their freedom; he's also going to divide his property among them. Philargyrus will get a farmhouse and Carrio will receive a tenement.

Yet Petronius presents Trimalchio's perceived generosity in a much more cynical light. The announcing of his plans to his party guests is meant to seem tawdry and inappropriate, nothing more than what today we might call virtue signaling.

Far from being generous, Trimalchio is simply showing everyone what an incredibly nice guy he is. This is certainly not the kind of thing we'd expect from a well-born Roman, a member of the old social and political elite.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial