In classical antiquity prose fiction was regarded as a low form of writing and the arts, not bound by traditions of good taste or proper literary convention. The Satyricon, attributed to one of the emperor Nero’s courtiers, represents a brilliant mix of prose and verse and of conventional literary idiom and vulgar language. It satirizes and parodies the human absurdities and spectacular failures of contemporary Roman society. Petronius’ depictions of his protagonists and their equally disreputable acquaintances are icily drawn; the outrageous, the obscene, and even the monstrous appear as commonplace.
In the summer of 1922 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by John Sumner, filed suit to halt publication and sale of The Satyricon by the firm of Boni and Liveright. In a comment which well expresses the nature of the controversies which have surrounded The Satyricon for centuries, an editor for The New York Times remarked in the July 21 issue: “In any ordinary definition of that word Petronius is certainly obscene; and yet he is read by many who are merely annoyed by his obscenities. The extant fragments of what must have been a long book reveal a brilliant talent.” The complaint was dismissed in the early autumn of the same year.
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...
(The entire section is 604 words.)