The Satyricon Themes

The Satyricon by Gaius Petronius Arbiter is, as the title suggests, a work of satire. Since only a small portion of the entire original work is still extant, readers can only identify the themes in the preserved portion; other sections of the work may have addressed other themes.

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Unlike the satire of Aristophanes, Petronius's Satyricon is not primarily political in nature, nor is it focused on attacking specific individuals, but instead is thematically concerned with what the author views as the vices, pretensions, and absurdities of the Roman upper classes and nouveau riche.

The first theme addressed is that of gluttony, manifested in both desire for large amounts of food but also in the increasing exotic tastes of the Romans and their focus on elaborate presentation and rare and expensive ingredients as a way of a host flaunting his wealth.

The next theme addressed is sexual excesses and vices, ranging from jealousy and possessiveness to excessive sexual desire, and from pretensions of chastity to serial infidelity. The approach to sexuality makes fun both of people pretending to virtues they lack, of those who overestimate their own sexual attractiveness, and those who are slaves to their own lust.

The next theme explored is that of wealth and taste. In Roman society, wealth, nobility, and taste were supposed to be associated with one another, but in reality, Petronius shows the vast wealth of the newly wealthy, such as Trimalchio, undermines the role of the elite as a guardians of taste. Petronius makes fun of wealthy people who use poor grammar and vulgar language and also of the way that wealth seems to beget rather than satisfy greed.

Finally, education is another theme for satire. Petronius associates the overblown rhetoric of the Asiatic school with the ostentatious luxury of Trimalchio as both examples of the corruptions of taste. Pedantry and pretension are opposed to true education.