PETRONIUS AND THE SATYRICON


Fragments of a popular Roman Novel

The name of one Gaius (?) Petronius who died in 65 A.D. has been for so long associated with the fragmentary novel called The Satyricon, that it seems petty at this time to argue the question of authorship. Tacitus does give in about a page a vignette of Petronius, formerly consul and a governor of Bithynia, adding that he was a man of undisputed taste, which led to his being called (or appointed?) arbiter elegantiae , an interesting and unique title, but one whose meaning is not really clear. He lived an unconventional life, often reversing night and day, but had talent for administration also. But no mention is made of his writing any book, and the best reason for staying with this Tacitean Petronius is the lack of any other candidate to whom the Satyricon can be assigned. The question still remains whether the kind of man Tacitus describes would be like to write a novel devoted to people of the lower classes, whether he would be as intimately aware of their language and their sociology as the writer of the Satyricon is.

One MS of the central portion which we have, the Cena Trimalchionis , was discovered in the 17 c. in what is now Yugoslavia, which together with some pages of dissociated text usually printed before and after it, form the hundred or so pages of this absolutely unusual novel. Our text is apparently one section of a much longer work, perhaps fifteen times as long, of which the outline is not at all clear to us. It does seem a shame that so little of a work of such value is preserved, while reams of Statius and Silius Italicus survive intact!

The Satyricon is our only source of information about the language of the people who made up the Roman populace. It is true, Plautus does show traces of popular speech in his Grecizing comedies, and the myriad inscriptions do reveal bits and pieces of ordinary language, but in the Satyricon we find description, conversations, stories and bits of biography which tell us much about that unknown Roman, the proletariat. In Trimalchio, at whose villa an elaborate party is being staged, we see what must have been a common occurrence in Rome of the time, an immigrant bourgeois who has become rich without picking up any of the elements of taste and education which would make him pass for a Roman gentleman. Coarse as he is, gross, rich and often disgusting, Trimalchio is above all real, as are the friends who congregate for free dinner at his lavish table.

Reading this novella, there are many surprises, but perhaps none is more interesting than the language itself. It is not easy to read in places, since there are numerous items of vocabulary found rarely or nowhere else in Latin. But there is nothing of the well-groomed literariness of Ciceronian periods, sentence structure is simple and direct, and the notions of the speakers are just the sort of things that real people are liable to be saying. Knowing so little about the Roman lower classes, we are grateful for this one eye-opened, and only wish we had more of it. For social history of the Roman immigrant freedmen of the 1 st c. A.D., the Satyricon is a mine of information, actually the only such mine of information we have.

Fellini's film Satyricon is well worth seeing as background to reading the text. It is such a lavish and overwrought production, that one might miss the fact that it is quite near to the text, actually most of the dialog is close translation into Italian, while the scenes of the Cena are as gross and gaudy as the Latin text indicates.

One episode, that of the Ephesian Matron, is completely remarkable and unexpected, since it portrays a light-hearted skit of a widow attending a corpose of her husband in a tomb. For reasons based in the story line, the body of the husband ends up hung on a crufix outside the tomb, in sompany with two cricified criminals. There is no space to go into this here, but it seems clear that someone who misunderstood Christianity totally, heard of Christ's entombment and crucifixion, and turned it into an odd form of comedy. This needs further study and discussion....

No student who has studied a few years of highschool Latin should miss reading sections of Petronius. This is what Romans read for entertainment, there is nothing fancy or oratorical here, but the daily talk of the little people who have vanished from the Roman scene. The gabby table-talkers, the nouveau riche Trimalchio, the grossly expensive estate with everything a person could imagine imagining---- these were a part of Roman life, and curiously, can be found in astonishing replica in America of the end of the 20th century!

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris