The Satyricon is a mere fragment of an extremely complex medley of stories that, in the complete version, perhaps were part of a mock-epic prose romance. Attached to the manuscript of The Satyricon, which was discovered in 1663 at Trau in Dalmatia, was a scribe’s note describing the contents as taken from the “fifteenth and sixteenth books.” If this information is correct, the original work must have been enormously long.
For centuries, scholars have disputed the purpose, scope, and meaning of the whole work. Not even the name of the author is accepted for certain. By tradition, The Satyricon is attributed to Gaius Petronius—better known as Petronius Arbiter, the arbiter of the court of Nero. Tacitus’s famous description of the death of Gaius Petronius seems to correspond well with the reader’s perception of the writer of such a book: a refined voluptuary, clever but cynical, practical, sophisticated in his knowledge of the pleasures and vices of ancient Rome. Apart from Tacitus’s brief account concerning Petronius, nothing is known for certain about the origin or reception of his book, and the fragment that remains has often been misinterpreted.
One major problem in reading The Satyricon in English is that many translations, particularly those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are corrupt. Some translators, because of prudery, have cut from the text whole portions that they consider offensive. Others have interpolated sections that are clearly not Petronius’s; these additions, for the most part, err in the opposite direction: They are passages of deliberately and crudely obscene material that surpass in indelicacy the author’s refined erotic language. In general, one of the best translations of The Satyricon is that by William Arrowsmith, whose vigorous, honest, and sensitive version closely approximates the qualities of the Latin original. Readers of Latin may examine with confidence the modern scholarly editions by Alfred Ernout and E. T. Sage, or the older but still useful edition by W. D. Lowe. The reader, however, must be cautioned about poor English translations that markedly alter the content or misconstrue the tone of the Petronius model. These inadequate translations, for the most part, cut out all or most of the poetical selections. A simple test to determine whether or not a given translation is faithful to the source is to check Eumolpus’s long verse passage titled “The Civil War”; accurate translations include the whole passage, although the poem, allusive and rhetorically pompous, may seem tedious to some readers.
In its context, Eumolpus’s poem imitates or parodies heroic style. Petronius delights to parody conventions of language or literary form. The title of his work has been variously translated as “medley” (from satura, a mixed dish, from which the word “satire” is derived) and as “satyr-book” (from saturika, that is, concerned with satyrs and hence lecherous). From the fragment that exists, The Satyricon may be taken in both senses, as a Roman “satire”—a farrago of mixed stories using a multitude of styles—and as a book of comic-erotic adventures pleasing to satyrs. Within the main plot concerning the adventures of Encolpius are interwoven many stories or parts of stories, in the manner of popular Greek tales and of their imitated Roman counterparts, of which Lucius Apuleius’s early second century Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass , 1566) is a famous example. The most remarkable of the stories is Eumolpus’s “The Widow of Ephesus,” a cynical narrative that has served many later writers and dramatists, including—to choose only English authors—George Chapman and Christopher Frye. Although Eumolpus’s story may be extracted from the plot as a perfect short piece, in the context of the action (Encolpius, Gito, and Eumolpus are aboard the ship of their enemies, Lichas and Tryphaena), the anecdote takes on additional ironic meanings. Similarly, the stories that...
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