(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Petronius c. 20-66

(Full name Gaius Petronius Arbiter.) Roman novelist and poet.

Viewed by many critics as the first novelist, Petronius is the author of the Satyricon (circa 63-66), an episodic, satiric portrait of first-century Roman society. The Satyricon, only portions of which are extant, displays many different literary styles and its prose is interspersed with poetry, in some cases of considerable length. Its present fragmented state reflects its discontinuous plot, with one episode followed by another, and a host of appearing and disappearing characters. Scholars of the Satyricon have also noted that its realism and attention to detail make it an excellent source of information about its historical period. Because the Satyricon contains arguably pornographic content, critics have debated whether or not Petronius was a moralist: was he simply commenting without judgment on the scenes he depicts, or was he conveying his disapproval? Regardless of the answer, he is critically acclaimed for originality, characterizations, and mastery of comedy rich in parody, wit, and wordplay.

Biographical Information

The famous historian Tacitus writes of Petronius in his Annals, and his account is almost all that is known of Petronius. Petronius's days were passed in sleep, Tacitus writes, his nights in business and pleasure. He was regarded as a man of luxury. But Petronius also demonstrated energy and ability as proconsul and later consul elect of Bithynia, and he was chosen by the Roman Emperor Nero to be one of his intimate associates. It is believed that Petronius began writing the Satyricon around the time he was befriended by Nero. By 63 he was the leading cultural figure at Nero's palace and was officially declared elegantiae arbiter, or arbiter of good taste. Nero, according to Tacitus, thought nothing charming or elegant without first consulting Petronius for his approval. This led to jealousy on the part of the ruthless Tigellinus, head of Nero's guards and a rival confidant. Tigellinus aroused Nero's suspicions concerning an assassination plot involving a friend of Petronius's, Flavius Scaevinus. Tigellinus bribed a slave to become an informer and threw into prison many of Petronius's domestics who could have supported his innocence. On his way to Nero, who was heading to Campania, to try to persuade him of his innocence, Petronius was arrested and detained at Cumae. According to the legend, Petronius opened his veins, but bound them up again, prolonging his death, only to reopen them while conversing with friends on light topics. On some of his slaves he lavished gifts; others he ordered whipped. He dined and then slept a little so that his suicide might seem more natural. In his will, Petronius fully described Nero's perversions, naming both male and female partners who joined him in his acts, and sent the report under seal to Nero. Then Petronius broke his signet-ring so that it could not be abused after his death.

Major Works

The Satyricon is the only known work by Petronius. It appears to have been written to be read aloud, quite possibly as a court entertainment. The title likely refers to both satyr and satire. Although it is impossible to know for certain the length of the entire work, some scholars have estimated that ninety percent of it has been lost. Surviving are portions of eight major episodes comprising 141 short chapters, of which chapters 26 to 78 concern themselves with the "Cena Trimalchionis," or "Trimalchio's Dinner," which is the only complete episode. In addition, there are some thirty fragments extant. All portions appear to be from books fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, but it is not known how many books were in the original; some scholars surmise that there may have been twenty, or even twenty-four, while others believe such a massive book very unlikely. The Satyricon's setting shifts through southern Italy and the story is narrated by Encolpius, a Greek freedman who is the hero (some say anti-hero) of the story. Scholars have debated to what extent Encolpius's voice is Petronius's own. Because of the nature of the plot—an "amazing medley of riotous and indecent adventures," according to G. M. A. Grube—the Satyricon is difficult to summarize. It details the wandering adventures and misadventures of three intelligent rogues with no morals: Encolpius, his friend Ascyltos, and Giton, a boy. The centerpiece of the surviving Satyricon, the "Cena," depicts a banquet of the newly-rich, hosted by the multi-millionaire Trimalchio, who ostentatiously displays his wealth. For all their pretensions and airs, host and guests are revealed through their conversations and actions as ignorant vulgarians, wasteful and consumed with greed.

Critical Reception

Critics have lavished praise on Petronius for his skill at characterization. They have pointed out his modernity in revealing the essence of the characters through dialogue and action rather than by declarations of the author. The Satyricon has also been singled out for its variety: characters are rapidly introduced and as rapidly disappear, and the scenes and situations also change quickly. The work has also especially been extolled for its realism. Two areas of special interest to scholars are categorizing the Satyricon by genre and determining the purpose Petronius's purpose in writing it. The Satyricon defies traditional categorization: though many scholars view it as clearly a satire, others have insisted that it is not. It has been called the first novel, but others have asserted that it is not a novel at all. It has been viewed as mime, epic, picaresque novel, comedy, parody, Menippean satire, Milesian tale, erotic elegy, prose fiction, realistic novel, and various combinations of the above. Gareth Schmeling has contended that Petronius wrote each episode of the Satyricon in a recognizable format, thus one episode is picaresque, the next mime, another novel. Froma I. Zeitlin has pointed out that the Satyricon violates the notion that genres should be pure and contended that Petronius deliberately confounded readers' expectations. She has termed the style of the Satyricon a "synthesis of incongruous juxtapositions of styles and varying planes of literary suggestiveness which yield to and crowd in upon each other with a general effect of confusion." Scholars have much debated Petronius's stance in his novel, and the views that he is moral or immoral have each been vociferously defended.

Principal Work

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Petronius: Cena Trimalchionus [edited by Martin S. Smith] 1983

The Satyricon [translated by William Arrowsmith] 1983

Petronius [translated by Michael Heseltine; revised by E. H. Warmington] 1987

The Satyricon [translated by P. G. Walsh] 1997

Edwin W. Bowen (essay date 1903)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Ancient Roman Novel," The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. II, January to October, 1903, pp. 125-36.

[In the following essay, Bowen summarizes the Satyricon, with particular emphasis on the section called "Trimalchio's Dinner. "]

Fiction is the all-prevailing form of literature today. There is hardly a civilized nation whose literature is not now dominated by the novel. In France, Germany, Italy, and Russia this form of literature is conceded to be supreme; and in England and America the tyranny of the novel is acknowledged without question. How long fiction will continue to reign supreme is a problem to which the future alone can give a definite and...

(The entire section is 4816 words.)

Frank Frost Abbott (essay date 1907)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Use of Language as a Means of Characterization in Petronius," Classical Philology, Vol. II, No. 1, January, 1907, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, Abbott explains how Petronius expresses both the individuality and culture level of his characters through their vocabulary, colloquialisms, pronunciation, word-formation, and inflectional forms.]

The character and culture of a man are revealed by his dress, his conduct, his attitude toward the world, by the subjects in which he shows an interest, and by his manner of speech, and upon the use which writers of fiction have made of these indications of character depends the clearness with which we conceive the...

(The entire section is 2552 words.)

Frank Frost Abbott (essay date 1909)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius: A Study in Ancient Realism," in Society and Politics in Ancient Rome: Essays and Sketches, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909, pp. 115-30.

[In the following essay, Abbott provides background on Petronius's time, credits him with being the creator of the novel, and praises him for the modernity of his realism, particularly with regard to characterization.]

The Latin novelist, Petronius, of the first century of our era, has been strangely neglected, as it seems to me. In our latest, and in other respects our best, history of the early novel even his name is not mentioned. It is a perilous thing to discuss the work of an author whose life and...

(The entire section is 3224 words.)

Frank Frost Abbott (essay date 1911)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Origin of the Realistic Romance among the Romans," Classical Philology, Vol. VI, No. 3, July, 1911, pp. 257-70.

[In the following excerpt, Abbott searches in other genresincluding the epic, the serious heroic romance, the mime, and the prologue of comedy-for elements that could have influenced Petronius's composition of the first known realistic romance.]

One of the most fascinating and tantalizing problems of literary history concerns the origin of prose fiction among the Romans. We can trace the growth of the epic from its infancy in the third century before Christ as it develops in strength in the poems of Naevius, Ennius, and Cicero until it...

(The entire section is 5743 words.)

Keith Preston (essay date 1915)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Sources of Comic Effect in Petronius," Classical Philology, Vol. X, No. 3, July, 1915, pp. 257-70.

[In the following essay, Preston examines some of the techniques and devices used by Petronius for comic effect, including surprise, buffoonery, intoxication, and the continual introduction of new characters.]

The relation of Petronius to comedy is a subject which has already engaged the attention of scholars. In his very valuable studies on the literary sources of Petronius, Collignon1 devotes considerable space to this topic. Starting with a collection of all explicit references to drama, in the Satiricon, the more significant of which...

(The entire section is 3754 words.)

C. W. Mendell (essay date 1917)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius and the Greek Romance," Classical Philology, Vol. XII, No. 2, April, 1917, pp. 158-72.

[In the following essay, Mendell argues that the Satyricon is not a realistic but rather a romantic novel, and that it is neither a parody nor a satire, although it contains elements of both.]

Some years ago Professor Abbott published in Classical Philology1 a stimulating article entitled "The Origin of the Realistic Romance among the Romans." In that article he indicated many possible sources from which Petronius may have drawn something of his tone or matter. As Abbott himself suggests, all of these are sources for various specific...

(The entire section is 5975 words.)

B. E. Perry (essay date 1925)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius and the Comic Romance," Classical Philology," Vol. XX, No. 1, January, 1925, pp. 31-49.

[In the following essay, Perry rejects several proposed literary forerunners of the Satyricon, contending that its more likely model was the straightforward comic narrative.]

In the present state of our knowledge, and owing to the nature of the problem itself, any attempt to account for the origin and peculiarities of Petronius' Satyricon must involve, at one point or another, the assumption of something that cannot be definitely proved. The following study is subject, of course, to these limitations. It is undertaken, however, in the belief that...

(The entire section is 7815 words.)

Philip Schuyler Allen (essay date 1928)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Approach to Romanesque Poetry," in The Romanesque Lyric: Studies in Its Background and Development from Petronius to the Cambridge Songs 50-1050, University of North Carolina Press, 1928, pp. 66-83.

[In the following excerpt, Allen examines some of Petronius's poetry, explaining how it breaks with Roman tradition and why some critics have scorned it.]

In my preceding narrative I have several times used the phrase Romanesque poetry to describe a certain manner of early European metrical writing.

As so applied, my choice of the word Romanesque is determined by the current application of the same attributive term to transitional types in the...

(The entire section is 21440 words.)

Gilbert Bagnani (essay date 1954)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Date and Authorship of the 'Satyricon'," in The Phoenix, Vol. II, 1954, pp. 3-26.

[In the following essay, Bagnani explains the difficulties and contradictions that must be overcome in determining the authorship and date of composition of the Satyricon; rejects arguments of other scholars that involve circular reasoning; and concludes that it was written by the Petronius described in Tacitus's Annals around the year 60.]

Notes upon books outdo the books themselves.

The present state of the "Petronius Question" can only be described as...

(The entire section is 11195 words.)

J. Allen Cabaniss (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Satyricon and the Christian Oral Tradition," Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies, Vol. 3, 1960, pp. 36-9.

[In the following essay, Cabaniss contends that Petronius was familiar with the pre-literary Christian gospel and presents several passages from the Satyricon that he believes allude to it.]

Several years ago I offered a tentative suggestion that some "minor, but nonetheless tantalizing, resemblances between the famous Milesian tale of the matron of Ephesus" in the Satiricon and the Biblical account of Christ's burial were the result of cynical and garbled use by Petronius of an oral version of the new Christian gospel which he...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)

J. P. Sullivan (essay date 1961)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Satyricon of Petronius: Some Psycho-Analytical Considerations," The American Imago, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 353-69.

[In the following essay, Sullivan contends that the psychosexual interestsparticularly exhibitionismof the characters in the Satyricon reflect Petronius's own, and are thus valid evidence in a psychoanalysis of the author.]

  1. Psycho-analytical studies like those of Freud on Dostoevsky and Jones on Hamlet, have thrown much light on modern works of literature, but except for mythological investigations like those of Otto Rank and Theodor Reik there has been no equivalent work undertaken for...

(The entire section is 5793 words.)

Herbert Musurillo (essay date 1961)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life a Dream: The Poetry of Petronius," in Symbol and Myth in Ancient Poetry, Fordham University Press, 1961, pp. 159-64.

[In the following essay, Musurillo examines Petronius's use of dream symbolism in his poetry and describes how it works on more than one level.]

Petronius Arbiter is chiefly known as the author of that curious and sometimes scatological novel, the Satyricon. That he is to be identified with the Master of the Revels of Nero's court who enjoyed a rather theatrical suicide in A.D. 66 is most likely, there being very little serious evidence to challenge the traditional point of view.1 But he has also left us a very striking...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)

G. M. A. Grube (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius," in The Greek and Roman Critics, University of Toronto Press, 1965, pp. 262-8.

[In the following excerpt, Grube outlines Petronius's thoughts on poetry, particularly his attack on declamations and his assessment that the arts had reached a degenerated state in Rome.]

… [Petronius] is always superbly alive.1 In that amazing medley of riotous and indecent adventures which make up the Satyricon we find several passages bearing on literature. The book as we have it begins with a violent tirade against the practice of declamations which Encolpius addresses to a teacher of rhetoric called Agamemnon. It may be quoted here as a typical...

(The entire section is 3120 words.)

John Sullivan (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Humour of Petronius," in The Satyricon of Petronius: A Literary Study, Faber and Faber Limited, 1968, pp. 214-31.

[In the following essay, Sullivan discusses Petronius's wide range of humor, including the humor of incongruity, literary humor, farce, mime situations, verbal wit, and satiric dialogue.]

i. Some General Considerations

Nothing is more boring than writing about what is comic, and so one approaches the subject of Petronius' humour with a heavy heart, though it is almost the first characteristic of the Satyricon that the reader notices. L. Dugas' sound remarks come to mind:


(The entire section is 8239 words.)

Gareth Schmeling (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius: Satirist, Moralist, Epicurean, Artist," The Classical Bulletin, Vol. 45, No. 4, February, 1969, pp. 49-50, 64.

[In the following essay, Schmeling considers Petronius's intent in the Satyricon, concluding that the author sought to entertain, and that the moral aspects of the satire are present only as a part of the means to the end of producing art.]

In 1941 Gilbert Highet noted that Petronius, writing as a satirist, ought also to be considered a moralist.1 This was novel and perhaps even a bit shocking. In 1963 Oskar Raith proposed that Petronius be regarded as an Epicurean, but one without a moral stance.2 William...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

H. D. Rankin (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Comments on Petronius's Portrayal of Character," in Petronius the Artist: Essays on the Satyricon and its Author, Martinus Nijhoff, 1971, pp. 11-31.

[In the following essay, Rankin studies some of the major characters in the Satyricon as well as the dis.contented society in which they lived.]

Within the broken economy of the Satyricon's remains, Petronius' characters move convincingly. There are few characters in the work that are not drawn with their own special life. The Roman satiric tradition,1 and the works of the Greek characterologists who were possibly in some rapport with the Athenian New Comedy,2 provided a...

(The entire section is 10231 words.)

Froma I. Zeitlin (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Petronius as Paradox: Anarchy and Artistic Integrity," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 102, 1971, pp. 631-84.

[In the following essay, Zeitlin contends that the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and incongruities of the Satyricon are deliberate and that they reflect Petronius's worldview, which embraced irrationality, chaos, and disintegration.]

The recent renewal of interest in the Satyricon has produced many new and valuable insights into this strange work.1 But enigmatic it still remains—both in respect of its form or genre and of the purpose or stance of the author—while contradictory...

(The entire section is 21520 words.)

Christopher Gill (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sexual Episodes in the Satyricon," Classical Philology, Vol. LXVIII, No. 2, April, 1973, pp. 172-85.

[In the following essay, Gill takes issue with J. P. Sullivan's (see excerpt dated 1961) psychoanalytic reading of the sexual scenes in the Satyricon, advocating instead a literary approach which views them in terms of their function of stressing the bizarre and the shocking.]

Scenes in the Satyricon which include a strongly sexual element compose a not inconsiderable amount of the extant text. The actions of the main protagonists outside the Cena, Encolpius and Giton, and of the characters they encounter, involve incidents and...

(The entire section is 7293 words.)

Roger Beck (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Observations on the Narrative Technique of Petronius," The Phoenix, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 42-61.

[In the following essay, Beck attempts to reconcile discrepancies in the character of Encolpius by considering him as two separate persons: the narrator and the subject of the narration.]

One of the most problematic questions in the Satyricon is the character of the hero and narrator of the story, Encolpius himself. Critics rightly point out the fluctuations and seeming inconsistencies in Petronius' portrayal of him, as the following pen sketches from two recent studies show: "alternatively romantic and cynical, brave and timorous,...

(The entire section is 9879 words.)

T. Wade Richardson (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Homosexuality in the Satyricon," Classica et Mediaevalia, Vol. XXXV, No. 1984, pp. 105-27.

[In the following excerpt, Richardson states that "the Satyricon provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of homosexual activity in Roman times," stressing that Petronius used homosexual elements in his writing for their comic possibilities and that he did not view homosexuality as perverse.]

Classical homosexuality has its bibliography, but the subject has lacked the methodical analysis that one expects of scholarship. This is particularly true of the Satyricon, whose homosexual incident has not received, to my knowledge, a separate consideration....

(The entire section is 9085 words.)

Niall W. Slater (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Character Voices," in Reading Petronius, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. 137-54.

[In the following essay, Slater contends that it is the content and occasion of language more than its form that results in the sense of individual characterizations in the Satyricon.]

Our initial linear experience (in the previous chapters) of Petronius's novel is over. This experience itself has been a fiction: I who write and, most likely, you who read are not first-time readers of the Satyricon. We began by attempting to forget our previous experiences of reading Petronius and strove to construct a new "first reading." While our construct will not...

(The entire section is 6187 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Arrowsmith, William." Luxury and Death in the Satyricon." Arion V, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 304-31.

Explores the theme he finds in the Cena segment of the Satyricon—-an excess of luxury that, when uncontrolled, can bring death.

Beck, Roger. "Eumolpus Poeta, Eumolpus Fabulator: A Study of Characterization in the Satyricon." Phoenix XXXIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1979): 239-53.

Contends that the many-sided characterization of the poet Eumolpus in the Satyricon demonstrates Petronius's sophistication.

Best, Edward E., Jr. "Attitudes toward Literacy Reflected in Petronius." Classical Journal 61 (November...

(The entire section is 990 words.)