Titus Petronius Niger, the man scholarly consensus seems to agree is the author of the scandalous, fragmentary narrative of debaucherous and decadent abandon known as the Satyricon, was a consul in Nero’s senate in AD 62; subsequently, he became something akin to Nero’s personal social director, granted the unofficial title “Arbiter of Elegance”. Tacitus, in his Annals, describes Petronius as a man who treated idleness as his profession, “one who made luxury a fine art”. “In the end,” says Tacitus, “Nero’s jaded appetite regarded nothing as enjoyable or refined unless Petronius had given sanction to it.”
In AD 66, after a rival poisoned Nero’s affections against him, Petronius made effort to flee Rome, was thwarted, and so decided to preempt his likely torture and execution with suicide. He threw an extravagant dinner party, during which he opened his veins and bled himself slowly to death to the accompaniment of feasting, wine, music, satiric poetry, and pithy conversation.
There’s a dude who stuck to his principles.
I think I’ve been aware of Petronius as a historical figure for a while, but had until not so very long ago considered him among the ranks of Machiavelli, the Marquis de Sade, and Nero himself: egomaniacal pretend intellectuals championing amorality for no other purpose than to further their own fame—the people who brought us Charles Manson.
I have to admit, though, that hedonism, at least in a watered-down form, has gained a certain abstract appeal for me. Pseudopagan pantheism does seem to lend itself to a philosophy of pleasure. And the ideas involved do have a great deal of practical relevance for me, if not necessarily as a human being, then as a writer. What with the centaurs and all.
So I’ve been reading the Satyricon—in a used Penguin Classics edition, translated by J.P. Sullivan, which is a lot of fun in that it couches all the homoerotic innuendo and hypermasculine grandstanding in the terms of stiff-upper-lip 20th century British slang. And it really is a pleasure. The characters are actually quite reasonable people, even wise, in their approach to their debaucheries. As a window on the culture and period, it’s utterly fascinating, an unplumbable resource. And the parallels with modern culture—and by extension, with human culture across geography and era, whenever a society has passed its peak—are just astounding. For example, certain passages—street chases and a vicious love triangle between two men and a boy—remind me very much of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. The wealth of pithy witticisms evoke Oscar Wilde, the party scenes Rabelais. Even the scene structure and pacing seem to prophesy a good few thousand years into the future.
All these parallels with later stuff are so numerous and engrossing, it took me awhile to realize that the Satyricon also looks a lot like a prose reinterpretation of the epic poetry form. There are nested stories, comparisons to the exploits of gods and legendary heroes, and points at which the narrative is temporarily arrested for a long soliloquy on aesthetics or philosophy—though, in the case of the Satyricon, such soliloquies are as likely to be about the etiquette of sharing a nubile youth among a roomful of older men as about the death of art.
In short, I highly recommend it to anybody with the capacity for patience and detachment necessary to look past all the gorging and fondling and see the Satyricon for the solid gold it is. If you appreciate the centaurs, I think you’ll be as fascinated by it as I am.
To close, a piece of ageless wisdom on the plight of the struggling writer from Eumolpus, the Satyricon‘s sexpot poet:
‘No doubt about it. If a man sets his face against every temptation and starts off on the straight and narrow, he’s immediately hated because of his different ways. No one can approve of conduct different from his own. And secondly, those who are interested in piling up money don’t want anything else in life regarded as better than what they have themselves. So lovers of literature are sneered at by whatever means possible to show that they too are inferior to wealth.’