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.
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.
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.
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.