Petronius Satyricon

” Everyone will find what he`s looking for. Nothing pleases everyone: this man gathers thorns, that one a rose.”

Gaius Petronius Arbiter(27 – 66 AD) is generally thought to be the author of the Satyricon, the world`s oldest surviving novel. He was the emperor Nero`s judge of good and bad taste; what was fashionable, and what was “so yesterday.”

The Satyricon receives regular translated updates to keep it`s freshness and vitality for the modern reader; but it`s subjects are timeless. Petronius homes in on all of the vices that have plagued human society since two people got together round the first camp fire for comfort and companionship: who has claim to the biggest bragging rights, avarice, jealousy, pomposity, vanity. He was not only ridiculing the desperate efforts of Trimalchio and his fellow freedmen to ape their social betters, but also the educated classes; the sterility of their language, thought and actions, compared to the ( admittedly pretentious) go getting, upwardly mobile lower classes represented by Trimalchio.

The dinner at Trimalchio`s is the centre piece of the novel, and it happily survives intact as a corrosively witty and subtle satire on first century Roman society. This famous feast will always remain as one of the great comic and social critiques of the foibles of humanity, as the acidic pen of Petronius dissects the vain glorious, and absurd pretensions  which mask the fragile egos of the dinner guests. It will surely remain as the greatest classic of tasteless ostentation ever to exist in literature,

The characters in the novel are not just separated by social strata, but the language they use also differentiates where in the social pecking order they reside. Schools of rhetoric (scholae) increased in number and importance after the fall of the republic, and promoted their own, distinct  style of speech patterns. Freedmen (ex slaves), no doubt attempted to mimic their former owners way of talking, but were still distinguishable by their use of language. Aristocrats inhabited the pinnacle of educated, sophisticated speech patterns; for a contemporary Roman, no one could mistake who was a pleb and who was of the senatorial class.

All of this is brilliantly observed by Petronius, this great arbiter of taste. Just as his novel was a send up of Roman society, so was his death; ordered by the merciless Nero when he realised that Petronius had far more street cred than he ever would. Our hero sat in his bath after slitting his wrists; then he bound them up to have a pleasant natter with his friends; then unbound them to let the blood flow some more. So it went on until his body had no more life to cling onto. Even his death was a deliberate satire of the Socratic and Stoic ideal.

As one of his latest transcribers stated…..” every sentence may be a parody or pastiche.”

Nothing is ever to be taken seriously where Petronius is involved. It`s one of the things which make this wonderful fragment of a book so attractive to modern eyes. It`s so modern.Image

One thought on “Petronius Satyricon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s