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.