PETRONIUS ARBITER (d. A.D. 66)
Roman satirist. Petronius is usually identified as a high official and Nerols favorite, "arbiter of taste" at the court, whose career and then suicide when he lost the Emperor's good will are recorded by Tacitus: "His days were passedin sleep, his nights in social engagements and the pleasures of life. The fame which other men attain by diligence he won by his use of leisurc." The lengthy extant fragments of the fifteenth and sixteenth books of Petronius' Satires (usually called the Satyricon) amount to about one-tenth of the original.
Claiming that it had Hellenistic antecedents or models (in addition to the obvious borrowings such as the "Milesian Tales," the widow of Ephesus, and the boy of Pergamon), some scholars deny the originality of the Satyricon. Some modern authorities believe that there were two prominent men named Petronius who lived at the time of Nero, and that they have been wrongly conflated. Others havc maintained that this novel may not have been composed before the third century. Yet the overwhelming majority believe it the highly original creation of Petronius Arbiter.
In a famous set piece, the rich parvenu freedman Trimalchio stages an ostentatious feast of many courses to be vomited up in turn, accompanied by garish entertainment, all in the worst possible taste-a classic literary example of "life as it ought not to be." Set mostly in Southern Italy, Magna Graecia, and involving slaves or freedmen of Greek descent, the work is a veritable gold mine for students of Roman manners and of colloquial language and idiom. The disreputable youth Giton, a freedman of Greek extraction, deflowers a seven-year-old girl in fullview of an amused audience. One of his lovers, the hero or anti-hero Encolpius, considers castrating himself when temporarily impotent (in a public bath) "and while the boys just ridiculed me as a lunatic . . . a huge crowd surroundcd him with applause and the most awe-struck admiration. You see, he had such an enormous sexual organ that you'd think the man was just an appendage to his penis." Made-up eunuchs, transvestites, prostitutes of both sexes abound.
Typical of the casual attitudes is the inserted story of the boy of Pergamon. Avisitor to the boy's father's home offered progressively more expensive gifts to the boy, who feigned sleep, in exchange for sexual favors. However, the boy was disappointed when the visitor failed to deliver the final present, a Macedonian stallion.
Petronius thought that most ladies were fascinated by and preferred low-life lovers. In spite of titillatingscenes, the language is less coarse than Catullus' or even Horace's. The speech varies with the rank and education of the character: slave, freedman, aristocrat, foreigner, or Roman. Each episode is almost an independent mime, stage-managed by the author.
No ancient work survives as perverse, bizarre, and titillatingly amusing as this one, which with allusions to Epicureanism ridicules the pompous "gravitas" of the leading contemporary courtier Seneca, the philosopher of Stoicism, litterateur, and tragedian. Doubtless Petronius continued the tradition of Varro's lost Menippean Satires, interspersing prose andverse, perhapsin parody of the Pharsalia of Lucan, Seneca's nephew. The Satyricon is often considered a forerunner of the picaresque novel in which adventurous episodes follow one another without rhyme or reason.
Historians of eroticism have found the Satyricon rich in meaning not only for its portrayal of total sexual abandon with equalinterest in homosexual and heterosexual escapades, but also as the best ancient documentationof voyeurism, cxhibitionism, scopophilia, scopomixia, as well as of castration fantasies, and sadomasochism, all erotic penchants found much more in Latin than in Greek literature. Petronius thus bequeathed to later ages an imperishable record of the sexual life of the early Roman Empire with its unabashed and overt homosexuality.
The "sexual revolution" of the 1960s saw arevived interest in the author. Federico Fellini's extravagant 1969 film Satyricon, though only loosely based on the original, documents this intersection.
Joachim Adamietz, "Zum literarischen Charakter von Petrons Satyrica," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 130 (1987),329-46; Charles Gill, "The Sexual Episodes in the Satyricon," Classical Philology, 68 (19731, 172-85; J. P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius: A Literary Study, London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
William A. Percy