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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

The Satyricon is a long work, primarily in prose but with verse interludes, in a genre known as "Menippean satire." It was written by one Gaius Petronius, whom most scholars identify with the historical figure Titus Petronius Niger, known as the "arbiter" due to his role as an arbiter of good taste in the court of the notoriously violent and dissolute Roman emperor Nero. The main account of the life and suicide of Titus Petronius Niger is found in Tacitus' Annales.

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The text of The Satyricon that has been preserved is partial and fragmentary. The first books of the text are not extant and only excerpts from the middle of the work remain. This means that, if there was originally an overall narrative arc, it is difficult to reconstruct from the fragments still in existence. The Satyricon also includes many tales within tales and other disruptions to narrative continuity. For example, one "tale within a tale" is the story of the "widow of Ephesus" who retreats to her husband's tomb and eventually has an affair with the soldier hired to guard her husband's body; it is meant to show that even those with a public reputation for chastity are lecherous in private.

The fragments that form the modern text most students read in translation deal with the adventures of Encolpius (a Latin word meaning "groin" or "crotch"). Encolpius is a character of the sort sometimes known as the "parisitus" (parasite), a man-about-town who tries to hang out with the fashionable and wealthy, getting food and sometimes lodging in return for being an entertaining presence at social events and helping to make hosts appear successful and popular, sometimes by flattery and sometimes just by being present. He trades on his past successes as a gladiator to be an appealing guest and is also a con man. Petronius's work satirizes the decadent society in which Encolpius moves, its devotion to sensual luxury and excess, and its sexual and gustatory habits.

In the first major preserved episode, readers are introduced to the main character Encolpius, a retired gladiator; his friend and former lover Ascyltos; and his handsome young slave boy Giton. After recounting an episode including an extended attack on the Asiatic school of oratory and the teaching profession, the narrator shows Encolpius being kidnapped by Quartilla, a lust-driven wealthy matron. The events of the section in her house revolve mainly around food and various sexual misadventures.

The most famous episode of The Satyricon concerns the dinner hosted by Trimalchio, a fat, vulgar freedman who worked his way out of slavery to become enormously wealthy and who displays that wealth in ostentatious and tasteless home decor and entertainment. There is really no strong plot element; the text instead presents a scathing portrait of Trimalchio's vulgarity and the way even aristocratic or well-educated guests fawn over and indulge him due to his vast wealth. Some critics argue that Trimalchio may actually satirize Nero himself.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

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 ....

(The entire section contains 1094 words.)

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