Died A.D. 66
Titus (or Gaius) Petronius is believed to be the author of the Satyricon, an early novel written in Latin. Some scholars consider the Satyricon one of the most brilliant and original pieces of Roman literature ever written. In addition to fragments of the Satyricon, some poems believed to have been written by Petronius also survive.
The author of the Satyricon was considered the “arbiter of elegance,” or the authority on proper behavior and good taste, at the court of the emperor Nero. Because of this reputation, he is usually referred to as Petronius Arbiter. Petronius also served as consul*. He took his own life in A.D. 66 after being implicated in a conspiracy against the emperor.
Although no one knows how many books were in the complete Satyricon—perhaps as many as 24—only parts of two volumes of the work survive. If there had been as many as 24, the novel might have run several thousand pages. The surviving fragments describe the adventures of a shady character named Encolpius, who also narrates the story, and a boy called Giton, as they travel through southern Italy. The longest, best- known fragment describes an extravagant and ostentatious dinner party given by Trimalchio, a rich and uncouth former slave.
The Satyricon belongs to a class of literature known in ancient times as Menippean satire—a blend of prose and poetry, philosophical* views, and realism—that was invented by the Greek philosopher Menippus in the 200s B.C. As a Menippean satire, Petronius’s novel includes both narrative and verse. For example, at his dinner party Trimalchio recites a short poem on death, a major theme of the novel:
Nothing but bones, that’s what we are,
Death hustles us humans away.
Today we’re here and tomorrow we’re not,
So live and drink while you may.
Petronius believed that intellectual pleasures were superior to those of the senses. He intended his novel to be a critical portrayal of the crass pursuit of sensual pleasures that characterized real-life Roman society during the time he was writing. Petronius may also have meant the novel to be a parody* of Homer’s great epic* poem the Odyssey. The wanderings of the narrator, Encolpius, can be seen as a low-class, comic version of the travels of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey.
While other Roman satirists*, such as Horace and Persius, wrote in verse*, Petronius combined satire and comedy in narrative prose*.
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* philosophical referring to the study of ideas, including science
* parody work that imitates another for comic effect or ridicule
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* satirist writer who uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly
* verse writing that has a systematically arranged and measured rhythm, or meter; such as a poem
* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry
Petronius’s Satyricon is also unusual for its time for the degree to which it uses common speech. In fact, more common Latin and slang are known from the fragments of the Satyricon than from any other single source. (See also Languages and Dialects; Literature, Roman; Novel, Greek and Roman; Odyssey; Satire.)