The Satyricon

by Gaius Petronius Arbiter

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Critical Evaluation

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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...

(This entire section contains 1322 words.)

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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 abound within stories ofThe Satyricon acquire richer tones of irony, satire, or comedy, depending upon the context at the moment. Petronius’s chief device is parody, either to amuse or to ridicule, and the stories furnish ample subjects for literary and social burlesques.

Although The Satyricon belongs to the genre of Menippean satire—a mixture of verse with prose, philosophy with low comedy, romance with realism—the word “satire,” as it is commonly understood, should not be applied to the book. Troubled by Petronius’s outspoken and often coarsely erotic subject matter, some prudish commentators have attempted to apologize for the work on the grounds of its supposed moral satire. To be sure, the picture of Roman manners and morals that the author provides is one of vulgarity and excess. Petronius, however, is neither a Christian moralist nor, for that matter, a moralist in the stamp of Juvenal. Far from ridiculing the corruption of contemporary morals, he approaches his subject with amused tolerance. Even the great scene of Trimalchio’s banquet, widely regarded as a keen satire on Roman debauchery, may be seen in a different light as a comic burlesque on vulgar ostentation. The tone of Petronius’s irony is sprightly rather than censorious. If the author has a moral argument to demonstrate, he skillfully conceals it.

Similarly, any notion that The Satyricon is intended as a social satire—one concerned with the degradation of Roman culture—must be examined cautiously in terms of Petronius’s moral ambivalence. Although his major characters are clearly homosexual (some are less clearly bisexual) and parasitical, they are not treated as objects of ridicule; instead, they are shown as amusing rogues, foolish or crafty, successful or unfortunate. The main character, Encolpius (whose name is roughly translated as “the crotch”), is easily misled, especially by the guile of his homosexual partner, the sixteen-year-old, narcissistic Gito; Encolpius is cheated and abused by his rival for Gito’s affections, the devious Ascyltus; another rival is the old pederast Eumolpus, the poet. In the world of The Satyricon, homosexual intrigues are taken as a norm and are treated casually. As a youth, Trimalchio began to earn his fortune through his sexual compliance with his master. To be evenhanded, Petronius treats heterosexual relations with the same casual tolerance. The women in the work are as sexually assertive as the men. Quartilla, Tryphaena, Circe, Chrysis, Corax—all are aggressive, earthy, lusty types quite the equal of their lovers.

The reader should not conclude from the evidence of the story that Petronius judges Roman society harshly. Rather, he takes men and women as he finds them, observes their habits with cool, realistic detachment, and—in the section dealing with obscenity, following the Circe episode—refutes the charges that his book is obscene. The matter rests ultimately with the reader, who may regard Petronius’s fragment as a work either of social criticism or of mock-epic romance.

Judged from the second point of view, The Satyricon describes the fortunes of Encolpius, who has apparently aroused the wrath of the sex god Priapus. Throughout the book, the god’s vengeance pursues his hapless victim. Against his will, Encolpius must take part in the orgy of Quartilla, priest of the cult of Priapus; with Circe he is humiliated by his impotence. He always tries to free himself from blame but only manages to offend Priapus more seriously (as when he kills a pet goose sacred to the god). Encolpius’s adventures may be understood as a parody of Odysseus’s in the Homeric epic. Just as Odysseus outraged the god Poseidon and suffered from mistreatment as a consequence, so Encolpius apparently is tormented by Priapus. If the comparison drawn from the fragment is apt, the complete Satyricon must have been a prose mock epic of great scope and richness, recalling the later James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which, modeled on Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), parodies heroic and literary conventions. Both Ulysses and The Satyricon are replete with puns, verbal games, and innovative stylistic techniques, and, through myth and symbolic action, each creates its own moral universe.