Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677
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 collusion with a conspirator against Nero, and after Nero’s message that Petronius was to kill himself, Petronius wrote a detailed account of Nero’s debaucheries. This account included the names of all of Nero’s sexual partners, male and female, and a list of all of Nero’s sexually deviant activities, and Petronius sent the account to Nero himself. Thus, even if Petronius was himself an Epicurian (worshipper of pleasure), as seems likely from his position in Nero’s circle, he clearly retained a satiric sense of the perversity of Nero and had the courage to communicate that perception, albeit after his own suicide freed him from personal reprisals by Nero for the communication.
Petronius’s courage and satiric vision, his ability to perceive the ironic disconnect between appearance and reality, between pretension and achievement, between selfish motive and rationalization, are also evident in his refusal to follow the custom of willing a substantial portion of his property to the emperor. In fact, Petronius destroyed some of that property, including a fluorspar wine dipper worth 300,000 sesterces, so that Nero would not receive it, as reported by Pliny. In addition, Plutarch indicates Petronius’s courage and satiric tendency in noting that Petronius sneered at the reckless and wasteful spending and the pettiness and sordidness of Nero and others of Rome’s elite class.
It is clear from the scanty biographical information that Petronius was a humanist with a sense of justice and fair play, also essential beliefs of the successful satirist. This humanism and sense of justice are evident in Tacitus’s description of Petronius rewarding some of his slaves and punishing others prior to his death, and then destroying his signet ring—his seal of authority from Nero—so the ring could not be used to harm others.
Thus, the overall biographical picture of Petronius that results from the scanty details of his life is that he was well educated and artistic; that he was an Epicurian, yet retained a sense of enlightened decorum that caused him to abhor the extremes of debauchery that he witnessed at first hand or learned about from firsthand sources; and that he possessed an ironic perspective on the excesses of all aspects of life during the late Roman Empire. He also possessed the courage and sense of justice and fair play to satirize those excesses while recognizing his own, albeit more limited, participation in those excesses, which would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire itself.