Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

Satyricon
Petronius
Translated from the Latin by William Arrowsmith
(Univ Michigan, 1960) [c.60 AD]
225 p.

The Satyricon of Petronius has a singular place in the Roman literature that survives to our time; its nearest rival would be Apelluis’ The Golden Ass, written a few generations later, which still does not manage to out-Petronius Petronius. The Satyricon is an anti-epic — a huge, sprawling, shapeless, irreverent, disgusting mess of a book that nonetheless manages to cast a different, and therefore, in its own way, valuable kind of light on Roman life in the first century.

The story, such as it is, concerns the antics of Encolpius and a few companions who wander from misadventure to misadventure in search of food and sex — both in a profuse variety limited only by the imagination of the author. The joke on Encolpius — whose name means something like “crotch” — and the running joke through the entire work, is that he is impotent. No matter what shenanigans he gets into it, no matter how careful the plotting or how tantalizing the young boy, he’s left tending naught but a wilted lettuce. Ha ha. There you have the Satyricon in brief compass.

Many readers have found in the work an attractive free spiritedness, a liveliness of invention, a fascinating window into first-century Roman sexual mores and the lives of the lower classes, a refreshing buffoonery and light-heartedness, and a diverting satirical tone that clears away the formality of the Roman poets who otherwise dominate the literature. There is something to be said for the Satyricon on these grounds.

The work, as we have it, is fragmentary. In fact, it might be better to say that we have only fragments of the work. Though it runs to a couple of hundred pages in a modern edition, I am told that scholars speculate that we might have only about one-tenth of the original whole. Weeping is not warranted, however; we have enough. A little pederasty goes a long way, and my appetite, at least, for peppered dildos shoved where the sun don’t shine is easily satisfied by the merest morsel.

If asked to speculate, I’d have guessed that the author was a ne’r-do-well from the provinces who tried to make a name for himself by scandalizing the reading public. But in fact Petronius was a notable Roman, a governor and even a consul, who held an honoured place in Nero’s court. The Satyricon, it seems, was just what passed for keen entertainment in Nero’s company. The most intriguing reading of the Satyricon I’ve yet come across holds that its anti-hero, Encolpius, may have been a subtle satire on Nero himself; if true, it would do much to redeem the nearly unfathomable scurrility of the work.

The book has been a black sheep for most of the interval between its writing and today. It made a comeback in the late nineteenth century when the Decadent movement took up its standard: J.K. Huysmans in France championed it, especially in his novel À rebours, and in the English-speaking world it made its first big splash in a pseudonymous translation by Oscar Wilde. One can surmise what attracted these writers to the book. It is worth noting, I think, that both these authors later converted to Catholicism. If enthusiasm for the Satyricon is a stepping stone in that direction, it gives us another, perhaps surprising, opportunity to affirm that nothing in this vale of tears is wholly bad.

2 Responses to “Petronius: Satyricon”


  1. I’ve never read this, but as I’m sure you know Fellini made a film based on it. It was something of a sensation at the time. I saw it and remember nothing much except the final scene in which the faces of two of the characters become faces painted on a now-ancient wall. A memorable effect, very suggestive of both the passage of time and the human reality of those long-ago lives, but, I suspect, probably not worth sitting through the whole thing.


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