by Gaius Petronius Arbiter

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Petronius World Literature Analysis

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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 Odysseus’s heroic struggle to save his life and return to family and country and Giton’s attempt to hide from one of his homosexual lovers at the behest of another is humorously and satirically very effective.

Similar mock-epic parallels abound throughout The Satyricon , including the meeting between Circe and Encolpius, modeled after and contrasting with Odysseus’s encounter with the same goddess...

(This entire section contains 1561 words.)

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inOdyssey. In Petronius’s version, Encolpius’s crotch hilariously fails him, as he is impotent with Circe despite the enchantress’s beauty and sexuality. Upon that failure, Encolpius renders in epic poetry his attempt to sever his disobedient penis but inability to do it, and he then delivers an impassioned apostrophe to his penis, which of course hides its head in shame. The humor generated by the mock-epic parallels is probably the most effective aspect of Petronius’s writing and the aspect most unique among ancient literature, and there was no really equivalent mock-epic written until Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714).

Another important dimension of Petronius’s writing is the combination of satiric denunciation with a humanistically tragicomic perspective. The bitter diatribes of most ancient satire are totally lacking in Petronius’s work, in which all are implicated in the shortcomings presented. For example, in the final sections of The Satyricon, Petronius very effectively satirizes the greed of those who prey on the wealthy elderly in order to receive their property, but he does it by having all of his main characters concoct a plan for preying on those in Croton who prey on the wealthy elderly. These main characters decide to have the scholar/poet Eumolpus arrive in Croton and pretend to be a rich, elderly merchant as a way to get the legacy-hunters in Croton to bestow gifts upon him in hopes of receiving his estate. The plot works, and so does the satire; the humor is provided by the narrator’s humanistic ambivalence about participating in the scam and his tragicomic fear that the ruse will be discovered and that he and the others will be deservedly punished. In Petronius’s tragicomic, humanistic, and profoundly satiric vision, no one is free of responsibility for the chaos of the world.

The Satyricon

First published: c. 60 c.e. (English translation, 1694)

Type of work: Novel

Through the sexual and other decidedly unheroic misadventures of his main character, Petronius satirizes not only the heroic tradition but also the many excesses of ancient Roman civilization.

Understanding of The Satyricon (the name connoting both satire and satyr, a mythological sexual beast) needs to begin with the fact that the extant work is only a fragment of the original as Petronius wrote it. There are many gaps where entire sections and episodes have been lost. In fact, The Satyricon as it exists today is probably less than one-half of the original. Still, given the unique structure of the work, as a combination of fictitious travel narrative, epic poetry, rhetorical declamation, Greek romance, and mock-epic, it is likely that enough exists to suffice in understanding Petronius’s purposes and achievement.

The overall structure of the work is best understood as a deliberate parallel to and parody of Homer’s Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Petronius’s main character, Encolpius (“the crotch”), has offended a deity, in this case Priapus, the lord of lust, and thus embarks on a diverse series of sexual and other misadventures. These include the loss of his slave-boy Giton, with whom he has an intimate homosexual relationship; temptation by the goddess Circe, with whom Encolpius cannot perform, despite her perfect beauty and sensuality; and endurance of the “cure” for his impotence by the hag Proselenos, who among other activities inserts a leather phallus into Encolpius’s rectum after covering the phallus with oil, pepper, and ground nettle seed. Implicit in all of these misadventures is the humorous mock-epic parallel with Odyssey, with Petronius satirizing the excesses of the ancient Roman world and showing human nature much more realistically than is shown in Homer’s epic.

Manifestations of the satire include the hag Proselenos, who, drunk and frantic with lust, chases Encolpius down the street, and the slave-boy Giton, who skillfully manipulates the narrator and other lovers to achieve his sexual and monetary satisfactions. More importantly, there is Trimalchio, the wealthy merchant who is the focus of the longest section of the work, entitled “Dinner with Trimalchio.” An obese, decadent man whose ostentatious wealth and wastefulness are epitomized by a meal of seemingly endless courses, Trimalchio cannot keep his hands (and his mouth) off of his slave-boys, even in the presence of his own wife; his narcissistic self-indulgence (symbolic of all Roman self-indulgence in the time of Nero, when Petronius wrote) is epitomized by his drunken display of dressing in funeral attire, lying down, and demanding that his dinner guests pretend that he is dead and sing his praises.

However, probably the ultimate satiric message of The Satyricon derives from the last section of the work, in which Encolpius and friends, before arriving at Croton, concoct a plan to victimize legacy-hunters who prey on elderly people with wealth in order to receive their property. The plan is that Eumolpus will pretend to be a wealthy merchant, with extensive land, capital, and slaves in Africa, so as to entice the legacy-hunters to donate property to him in the belief that the gifts will generate much greater gifts after his death. The double-edged satire is obvious, but Petronius makes it even more so, showing human beings’ mutual attempts to devour each other by having Eumolpus write a will requiring that each devisee, in order to receive his property, eat a portion of Eumolpus’s dead body. A more negative satiric assessment of human beings is difficult to imagine. However, at the same time, Petronius’s humorously tolerant perspective on the weaknesses of all of his characters saves The Satyricon from the bitterness of other satires, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and combined with the inventive mock-epic structure, makes The Satyricon a unique, and uniquely valuable, work of ancient Roman literature.


Petronius Short Fiction Analysis