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The Satyricon is a novel by Gaius Petronius Arbiter (usually just known as Petronius), who lived in the first century CE and was an adviser to Emperor Nero. It has sometimes been described as "the first novel." Our view of it today is often shaped by what we already know...

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The Satyricon is a novel by Gaius Petronius Arbiter (usually just known as Petronius), who lived in the first century CE and was an adviser to Emperor Nero. It has sometimes been described as "the first novel." Our view of it today is often shaped by what we already know (or have been told) of its historical context and by the semi-mythical picture of "ancient Rome" that is a part of the collective consciousness of our time (and earlier).

Much of the novel contains quite graphic sexual scenes and has a general air of corruption and debauchery. Though it may not be obvious to the reader at first, it becomes more evident as one progresses through the novel that many of the goings-on are probably being depicted satirically. In my opinion, the key to Petronius's main theme can be found in the opening chapters, in which he criticizes the educational system of his time:

It is my conviction that the schools are responsible for the gross foolishness of our young men, because, in them, they see or hear nothing at all of the affairs of every-day life, but only pirates standing in chains upon the shore, tyrants scribbling edicts in which sons are ordered to behead their own fathers; responses from oracles, delivered in time of pestilence, ordering the immolation of three or more virgins; every word a honeyed drop, every period sprinkled with poppy-seed and sesame. [trans. W.C. Firebaugh]

This presumably becomes the author's rationale for describing in detail in his book just such "affairs of every-day life" not covered in school.

The novel is basically a series of almost dreamlike episodes involving sex, orgies, excessive eating and drinking, criminal behavior, and general foolishness, interspersed with observations about society, literature, art, and other topics. It's open to debate how much of this is a criticism of behavior which even for its time and place was probably considered excessive, how much is merely description without any implied judgement, and how much represents the author's own reveling in or endorsement of such thinking and such activities. You might wish to consult literature from Petronius's approximate era, or that immediately following it, such as Tacitus's The Annals of Imperial Rome, to get some idea of the actual ethics of ancient Roman society. It would also be good to compare Petronius's type of satire with that of other important writers of the approximate period or slightly earlier, such as Horace and Juvenal. What is it, one might ask, that makes Petronius different from more "respectable" writers, apart from the sex and general debauchery shown in the Satyricon?

Petronius was known as the arbiter elegantiarum (arbiter of elegance or taste) at Nero's court. In historical fiction such as Henryk Sienkiewicz's famous novel Quo Vadis, Petronius is depicted as something of a hero in spite of his own narcissism and hedonistic lifestyle, a man attempting to curb Nero's excesses and eventually having the integrity to stand up to him and to others in his administration who are leading Rome on a downward path. While this is a romanticized view, the historical Petronius did eventually run afoul of Nero and, like others in his predicament (such as Seneca), committed suicide rather than face imprisonment or execution. One might ask to what degree the Satyricon reveals this non-conformist, rebel side of its author, or whether the novel is simply an expression of the amorality and corruption of Petronius's time.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688

*Southern Italy

*Southern Italy. Region in which most of The Satyricon is set. Until the Pyrrhic and Second Punic Wars of the third century b.c.e., much of southern Italy—especially its seaports—was controlled by Greek colonists. Writing in the first century c.e., Petronius used the continuing presence of Greek influence, and the stereotyping by urban Romans of Greek greed, dishonesty, homosexuality, and overblown philosophizing to create scenes of life in southern Italian towns that are both caricatures of Greek stereotypes and assaults on traditional Roman sensibilities.


*Puteoli (poo-CHOH-lee; now Pozzuoli). Southern Italian port city, west of Naples, that Petronius portrays as suffering from high prices, food shortages, and bad gladiatorial games. According to Petronius, Puteoli lacks any real sense of high culture. Despite being a Greek town in origin, it has no room for poetry, and both its philosophy and its art are decadent. Petronius is, however, actually, critiquing Roman culture as a whole, a dangerous thing to do during the age of Emperor Nero.

Puteoli’s role as a major port for eastern goods meant that it had both a prevalence of Easterners and a general ethic focused on money, as embodied in Trimalchio. Encolpius himself, however, is truly an outsider to this ethic, a beggar and an exile, and is thus easily lost in Puteoli’s maze of streets.

The city’s shrine to Priapus, into which Encolpius and Ascyltus stumble, sets the sexual tone of the work. The prevalent homosexuality that is taken for granted throughout Puteoli seems the one characteristic binding Encolpius to the town’s society. That a man such as Trimalchio should serve as the apex of local society marks the city as a poor place indeed.

Trimalchio’s house

Trimalchio’s house (trih-MAHL-kee-oh). Puteoli home of Trimalchio, a former slave who is now rich. Unused to wealth, he is vulgar and makes great shows of his riches to impress other people. Petronius’s swipe at the pretensions of provincial people who are newly rich and lack any genuine sense of taste is focused on Trimalchio’s house. Its mural of the freedman’s deeds recalls similar domestic murals in patrician houses depicting celebrated ancestors—rather than the owners themselves. Trimalchio’s crude personal habits and banal, if ostentatious, banquet reflect both on the economic successes of his class and its inability to do more than mimic the established families of Roman society. His home is the meeting place for the mediocre and fawning, ne’er-do-wells and toadies who value and praise Trimalchio for his money and little else.

Lichas’s ship

Lichas’s ship. Vessel on which Encolpius and Eumolpus escape from Puteoli, that evolves into a trap in itself after Encolpius discovers that an old nemesis is a fellow passenger. The deck of the ship becomes a battlefield and then a court for negotiation as the parties dispose of their differences. Their voyage to Tarentum is spoiled, however, by a shipwreck in which Lichas is drowned. Encolpius and Eumolpus make their way ashore at Croton.


*Croton. Southern Italian city where Eumolpus poses as a rich landowner, while Encolpius and Gito pose as his slaves. By cleverly deluding the inhabitants, they live luxuriously as guests of the town. After a year, however, the local people grow suspicious about Eumolpus’s alleged wealth. Encolpius and Gito escape just in time, but the angry townspeople deck out Eumolpus with boughs and sacred vestments, lead him through the city, and hurl him down a cliff.

Croton’s distance from Rome, in the very “toe” of the Italian peninsula, allows Petronius to make it appear even less Roman than Puteoli. Petronius’s depiction of Croton and its society is not as well developed as that of Puteoli, as Croton may have been less well known to him. His emphasis is on fortunes and on fortune hunting: Encolpius and his party claim the former, while pursuing the latter. Stereotypes of Greek greed and dissimulation again come to the fore. The association of magic with charlatans and shysters in Croton goes well with Croton’s depiction as a den of legacy-chasers.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242

Auerbach, Erich. “Fortunata.” In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. A masterly study of Trimalchio’s banquet that contrasts Petronius’ treatment of fortuna with Homer’s.

Bagnani, Gilbert. Arbiter of Elegance: A Study of the Life and Works of C. Petronius. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954. Includes discussions of the date and authorship, Roman propaganda literature, the language of The Satyricon, and a comparison of Alexander Pope and Petronius.

Slater, Niall W. Reading Petronius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Explores the humor of The Satyricon through an initial linear reading, two readings focusing on various language systems and on Petronius’ comedic purpose, or lack thereof.

Sullivan, J. P. “The Satyricon” of Petronius: A Literary Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. Discusses authorship and date of The Satyricon, Petronius’ choice of form, satire, criticism, and parody in the work, the author’s humor, and sexual themes.

Todd, Frederick Augustus. “The Satiricon of Petronius.” In Some Ancient Novels:Leucippe and Clitophon,” “Daphnis and Chloe,” “The Satiricon,” “The Golden Ass.” Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. In his contrast of The Satyricon with earlier classical romances, Todd declares Petronius’ work to be unique in his use of common, highly individualistic characters, realistic scenes, and lack of rhetorical flourish. He points out that Petronius suits the language to the character and is one of the chief sources for information about spoken Latin.

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