Gaius Petronius Arbiter Biography


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The identity of the author of The Satyricon was agreed upon in the late twentieth century, and very little is known about his life. Gaius Petronius was governor of Bithynia and later consul. He became a member of Nero’s inner circle, where he was known as Arbiter Elegantiae and became responsible for keeping the Emperor amused and entertained by creating new and “elegant” diversions. Denounced by the leader of Nero’s Praetorian Guard, he was detained at Cumae to await the Emperor’s pleasure. His strange suicide, the only event of his life for which an account survives, is described in the Annals (c. 119) of Tacitus.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The scanty details of the life of Petronius (puh-TROH-nee-uhs) are drawn from what was written about him by other Roman writers of his time, including most famously by Tacitus. In book 16, chapters 17-19 of Annales (c. 116 c.e; Annals, 1598), Tacitus described the events leading up to Petronius’s suicide on the order of Emperor Nero in 66 c.e. Thus, more is known about the last days of Petronius’s life than about the previous forty-odd years of that life, and even about those last days there is considerable uncertainty. However, it is generally known and agreed that Petronius was well educated and of artistic temperament; that he became governor of Bithynia and later a consul; and that during his last years he was in the inner circle of the infamous Emperor Nero, probably the most decadent and destructive of the Roman emperors.

It is also agreed that Petronius occupied the position of arbiter for Nero in the particular area of entertainment. Petronius’s job seems to have been to review all entertainment activities and performances proposed for Nero’s pleasure and to decide which performances Nero actually witnessed and in which entertainment activities the emperor actually engaged. Although there is uncertainty as to whether Petronius was actually involved in many, if any, of Nero’s debaucheries, it seems clear that he was either involved or knew others well who were and who related the details to him. This is obvious from Tacitus’s explanation that after Petronius was framed by a rival and perjured testimony provided to Nero about Petronius’s supposed...

(The entire section is 677 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Plutarch, probably by a slip, referred to Gaius Petronius (puh-TROH-nee-uhs) Arbiter as Titus Petronius, but Tacitus in his annals for 66 c.e. tells of the death of Gaius Petronius, a brilliant, cynical man of pleasure who was as famous for his idleness as most people are for their industry. This Petronius was a man of culture, noted for his frankness. Tacitus also cites his political experiences, first as a proconsul of Bithynia and later as a consul and administrator. When Petronius abandoned diplomacy and returned to the licentiousness of Nero’s court, he became the emperor’s Arbiter Elegantiae, the arbiter of elegance and master of the court revels.{$S[A]Arbiter, Gaius Petronius;Petronius}{$S[A]Gaius Petronius Arbiter;Petronius}

Envy brought about his death. The emperor’s previous favorite, Tigellinus, forced a slave to testify that Petronius had plotted with the traitor Scaevinus, and soldiers were sent to place Petronius under house arrest at Cumae. Disgraced and politically suspect, Petronius cut his veins in such a way that his death would seem natural, and during his last hours he spoke and sang with his companions. In his will, instead of lauding the emperor, as was customary, he attacked Nero’s unnatural vices, describing them so accurately that the emperor searched among his courtiers for an informer. His suspicions finally fell on a companion of his revels, Silia, the wife of a senator, and she was...

(The entire section is 408 words.)