The Satyricon

by Gaius Petronius Arbiter

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What are the virtues and values in this Rome of The Satyricon?

Virtues and values in the Rome of The Satyricon are notable by their absence. This is a society in which the headlong pursuit of pleasure is the governing principle. The upper classes of Rome depicted in the story lead lives of hedonistic excess, openly displaying contempt for the very idea of virtue. In such a society there are no values to speak of. Instead, rampant selfishness and immorality are very much the order of the day.

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Anyone looking for signs of virtue in The Satyricon is liable to be disappointed. The society depicted in the story is characterized by the pursuit of excess and self-indulgence. Taking their cue from the Emperor Nero, the elite members of Roman society act like unashamed hedonists, who eat, drink, and be merry with no thought for the next morn.

All the old values traditionally associated with Romans—asceticism, a sense of duty, patriotism—have gone out of the window as the upper classes play a never-ending game of follow-the-leader, with all the excess and vulgarity that that entails.

In such an environment, many of the traditional boundaries between the classes have broken down, as can be seen by the rise to social prominence of the freedman Trimalchio. Once a humble slave, he's become one of the richest men in Rome; like many parvenus he wants to show off his enormous wealth to all. This he does by throwing lavish parties and sex orgies attended by some of the leading citizens of Rome. The suggestion here is that the traditional Roman elite have become decadent and corrupt; all they care about is indulging themselves in the finer things of life. They think little of carrying out their duty as nobles.

The wholesale abandonment of traditional Roman virtues is much in evidence in the tale of the Widow of Ephesus. After her husband dies, she behaves in the traditional fashion by remaining with him inside his tomb. But before long, she disrespects her late husband's corpse. The message is clear: the Rome in which The Satyricon is set holds nothing sacred.

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