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Last Updated 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...

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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.

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.


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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. 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 parallel with Odyssey, with Petronius satirizing the excesses of the ancient Roman world and showing human nature much more realistically than is shown in Homer’s epic.

Manifestations of the satire include the hag Proselenos, who, drunk and frantic with lust, chases Encolpius down the street, and the slave-boy Giton, who skillfully manipulates the narrator and other lovers to achieve his sexual and monetary satisfactions. More importantly, there is Trimalchio, the wealthy merchant who is the focus of the longest section of the work, entitled “Dinner with Trimalchio.” An obese, decadent man whose ostentatious wealth and wastefulness are epitomized by a meal of seemingly endless courses, Trimalchio cannot keep his hands (and his mouth) off of his slave-boys, even in the presence of his own wife; his narcissistic self-indulgence (symbolic of all Roman self-indulgence in the time of Nero, when Petronius wrote) is epitomized by his drunken display of dressing in funeral attire, lying down, and demanding that his dinner guests pretend that he is dead and sing his praises.

However, probably the ultimate satiric message of The Satyricon derives from the last section of the work, in which Encolpius and friends, before arriving at Croton, concoct a plan to victimize legacy-hunters who prey on elderly people with wealth in order to receive their property. The plan is that Eumolpus will pretend to be a wealthy merchant, with extensive land, capital, and slaves in Africa, so as to entice the legacy-hunters to donate property to him in the belief that the gifts will generate much greater gifts after his death. The double-edged satire is obvious, but Petronius makes it even more so, showing human beings’ mutual attempts to devour each other by having Eumolpus write a will requiring that each devisee, in order to receive his property, eat a portion of Eumolpus’s dead body. A more negative satiric assessment of human beings is difficult to imagine. However, at the same time, Petronius’s humorously tolerant perspective on the weaknesses of all of his characters saves The Satyricon from the bitterness of other satires, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and combined with the inventive mock-epic structure, makes The Satyricon a unique, and uniquely valuable, work of ancient Roman literature.

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