Petronius World Literature Analysis - Essay

Gaius Petronius Arbiter

Petronius World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Petronius’s style is unique in ancient literature in that it combines sophisticated literary allusiveness and symbolism with earthy, realistic situations, events, and characters; unites a variety of literary genres and modes; and combines complex satiric denunciation with a humorous and humanistic perspective that effectively captures both the comic and tragic nature of human life.

The repeated allusions to and deliberate parallels with the works of other ancient writers have produced a virtual cornucopia of scholarship tracing these allusions and parallels. They include direct references to Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Plato, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Hyperides, Cicero, and so many other ancient writers as to be virtually impossible to count. Ancient mythology also figures prominently in Petronius’s work, including references to Athena, Mount Helicon, Minerva, Mercury, and others, yet these are also worked realistically into Petronius’s writing as a reflection of the beliefs of the multitude of characters who populate that writing. For example, in the most famous section of Satyricon (c. 60 c.e.; The Satyricon, 1694), entitled “Dinner with Trimalchio,” frescoes depicting scenes from Greek mythology and from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) line the walls of the home of Trimalchio, a wealthy merchant. In addition, as is typical in ancient literature, figures from mythology actually appear as characters in the work, including, for example, Circe’s appearance to tempt Encolpius, the first-person narrator of The Satyricon, to have sexual relations with her.

However, unlike in ancient epics, this literary and mythological allusiveness in Petronius’s work is deliberately combined with a decidedly nonheroic set of characters and situations, as the characters are uniformly in pursuit of pleasure, mostly sexual, while they usually attempt to maintain the public facade of other, more socially acceptable, purposes. This, of course, creates great potential for satire, as when the scholar/poet Eumolpus at one point in The Satyricon is in hot, lusty pursuit of a homosexual relationship with the narrator’s slave-boy, Giton, and later declaims sonorously against “perversion everywhere.”

Petronius’s work is also uniquely a combination of literary genres and modes. Functioning overall as a fictitious travel narrative, The Satyricon also includes elements of Greek romance, including the requisite separation of lovers by shipwreck. The work features epic poetry, particularly Eumolpus’s lengthy poetic recitation of Roman historical warfare that is one of the longer sections of the work. In addition, The Satyricon contains sections of declamatory rhetoric, as in the rant by the scholar Agamemnon that begins the work.

Much of the humor of The Satyricon derives from its mock-epic aspects, particularly those instances in which the heroic travels and adventures of Odysseus are parodied by the much less heroic misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, whose name translates roughly as “the crotch.”

In one humorous episode, Encolpius attempts to keep his sexual relationship with his slave-boy, Giton, despite the lusty pursuit of the handsome young Giton by Encolpius’s best friend, Ascyltus, and by the scholar/poet Eumolpus. At one point, Encolpius encourages Giton to hide from Ascyltus by clinging to the underside of a bed, and Petronius makes the parodying, mock-epic parallel by indicating the similarity to Odysseus’s escaping detection by the Cyclops by clinging to the belly of a ram. The dissonance between...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)