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I encountered Petronius for the first time at school, when we read sections from the Cena Trimalchionis for what it reveals about Roman attitudes towards slaves and freedman. As a postgrad, I returned to consider the design of Trimalchio's house and his funerary monument, and also had a go at translating the stories of the werewolf and the widow of Ephesus in various Latin classes. At Warwick, I set (in English) Echion's speech on the gladiatorial spectacles of Titus and Norbanus as a way of helping first-year students to understand ancient attitudes towards the games. Now, though, I have finally done for this book what I did two years ago for Apuleius' Metamorphoses: actually read it as a proper novel, rather than just mining it for historical data and language practice.

Not that I can quite do that in the way that its author intended, since unlike Apuleius' work, it survives now only in fragments. In some places, in fact, I'm pretty surprised so much does survive, given that the principal means of transmission for ancient texts is being copied out by medieval monks. The surviving portions include, to give just one example, a scene of the main character (Encolpius) being anally raped with a dildo rubbed with crushed pepper and nettle seeds. Yet this clearly was copied out; and indeed was still being read widely and treated as a great work of literature by Christian authors such as Sidonius Apollinaris, Fulgentius, Jerome and Isidore of Seville, all of whom use citations from Petronius to demonstrate grammatical or other points in their own work. I suppose it just goes to show a) how an established status as great literature can carry a text forward into a new age even if its subject-matter might be considered distasteful and b) that we shouldn't over-exaggerate the extent of early or medieval Christian prudery just because we are looking back at it through a Victorian filter.

One of the major debates surrounding this work is whether it was or wasn't written by the same man who served as Nero's 'arbiter of elegance', and whose death in AD 66 is famously described by Tacitus. The problems are a) that neither Tacitus, nor Pliny and Plutarch (who also write about the same figure) mention that he was also the author of the Satyricon, and b) that Tacitus calls him 'Gaius Petronius' whereas the other two call him 'Titus Petronius', a name which does appear on a manuscript of the Satyricon, but only in about 1450. I'm not particularly troubled by any of this - if the Satyricon were his only literary work, it would not be particularly unusual not to mention it if what you really want to talk about is his relationship with Nero. 'C.' and 'T.' (the standard abbreviations for 'Gaius' and 'Titus' respectively) also look extremely similar when you're writing in an uncial script, so that is no reason to believe that the Gaius described by Tacitus is really a different person from the Titus referred to by Pliny, Plutarch and the medieval manuscript, rather than just the product of a copyist's error.

Meanwhile, within the novel itself there is marked inter-textuality with Lucan's Civil War, unfinished at the time of its author's suicide in AD 65, as well as references to Pompeii as a place where you might still own gardens. This should give us a window of composition between c. AD 60 and the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which is certainly entirely consistent with authorship by Nero's court arbiter. Personally, at this point, the question pretty much loses interest for me, because we now have enough to say that this novel was written in the AD 60s / 70s by a well-educated elite male who was clearly cognisant with the contemporary high-life centring around the Bay of Naples area. In other words, if it wasn't written by Petronius Arbiter, it was written by someone of a very similar social status with a very similar name. And that's about as good as our state of understanding ever gets for the ancient world, anyway.

The plot is less explicitly fantastical than Apuleius' Metamorphoses, given that it does not revolve around a human who has been transformed into an ass, but this is far from realism all the same. Most of the characters are exaggerated comic stereotypes, while the world in which they move is very much one full of adventurers, perilous scrapes and witchcraft. In fact, there are some ways in which the Satyricon actually feels more fantastical than the Metamorphoses. Despite the magical predicament of Lucius, the main character in the Metamorphoses, a lot of the things which he hears and experiences while in the form of an ass are actually unremittingly brutal, so that by the end of the novel he is basically completely worn down by the unbearable weight of his experiences. Some pretty miserable things happen to Encolpius in the Satyricon, too, and he does complain about them. But somehow they still manage to come across light-hearted comic escapades which do not really bother the main character to any terribly serious or meaningful degree, and do not need to bother us as readers, either.

Both novels also share the same narrative device of using a primary story-line as a framework within which to present a series of smaller vignettes and stories-within-stories; although Petronius also adds poetic pastiches to the mix, which Apuleius does not. In spite of the fragmentary nature of the Satyricon, though, its narrative line felt more coherent than Apuleius'. Where a lot of the shorter vignettes in Apuleius are merely overheard by the main character, Encolpius and his friends are usually at least physically present at, if not actively involved in them, tying the main story-line a little more directly to the sub-plots. Characters and events established at one point in the novel also tend to recur more frequently in Petronius (even if one or the other episode is usually missing), again lending more of a unified feel to the work as a whole.

As a reader of novels, I'd find it hard to call which I enjoyed most, and of course the comparison isn't really fair, given that the Satyricon is fragmentary, and thus has no proper opening or resolution. I have a feeling it might win out all the same, due to its greater sense of joie-de-vivre, and the absence of the creepy, cultish conversion ending which Apuleius appends to the Metamorphoses. But, then again, if I could only take one of them to a desert island, it would probably be the Metamorphoses all the same, purely because it is complete and therefore makes for a more satisfying read.

As a Classicist, they are both of course incredibly precious. I felt the same sense of greedily hoovering up details and refining my understanding of Roman social history from reading the Satyricon as I did when reading the Metamorphoses. Given the focus of my professional interests, it was also particularly helpful this time to have everything set in Italy and described by an author familiar with that part of the empire (whoever he was). My favourite find was a reference to a religious offering made by circling three times around a religious shrine. This, in a securely Italian setting, is a useful rebuff to the rather tedious argument that because people may have practised circumambulation in Gaul (based mainly on Strabo 4.4.6), then we should automatically expect to see that reflected in the architecture of their temples. This doesn't seem to have been the case in Italy, so I don't see it as sufficient explanation for the concentric galleries that were a common feature of temples in Britain and Gaul.

But I'm off into territory that more properly belongs in my academic publications, here. In this context, I'll content myself by saying that Petronius has been a brilliant read - and I will be back for Lucian's True History before terribly long.

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Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
poliphilo
Jun. 28th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
I only know Fellini's version- which I should imagine takes great liberties- but I know I've got a copy of the book lying around somewhere. maybe I'll hunt it down.
strange_complex
Jun. 28th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC)
Fellini is very true to the character and atmosphere of the novel - but yes, as the film goes on it does depart quite significantly from the actual events of the book. It's one of those cases where knowing one enhances your appreciation of the other, though - so if you like the film, I would definitely recommend reading the book.
swisstone
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
I look forward to your reading of Lucian - I shall have stuff to say, having read it (twice, in a couple of translations) fairly recently.
strange_complex
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:47 pm (UTC)
Excellent! Don't hold your breath too hard, though - I have an awfully long list of books I want to read, and Lucian isn't currently at the top of the pile.
kissmeforlonger
Jun. 28th, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)
Do you ever repost these entries on a classics blog like Ecblogue? Would make an interesting read for a wider audience.
strange_complex
Jun. 29th, 2009 08:27 am (UTC)
Thanks for the suggestion, but I don't really want to generate extra writing commitments for myself. I can use this journal to post what I want when I want, without feeling any great weight of expectations about whether I do so or not. But if I were to post in a more explicitly professional manner, I think I'd feel obliged to put more effort into producing regular posts of the requisite standard. I'd rather save those efforts for actual publications, and keep my blogging as a leisure activity.
greenelephant
Jul. 6th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this helpful discussion of the book; I say helpful because my interests in grad school always leaned more towards the Republic, and I now realize that I've given imperial literature short shrift (an especially guilt-inducing realization when I teach Roman civ.). I should probably spend some time on this sort of thing before September. Did you read it in the original? Or if not, do you have an edition which you would particularly recommend?
strange_complex
Jul. 6th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it! I think I had virtually the opposite problem to you - it was all about emperors during my own studies, and then I was suddenly asked to teach Republican history when I graduated. Anyway, I'm sure you'll enjoy reading this, and it is bound to pay off in your teaching somehow or other. I read the Oxford World Classics edition, and was pretty impressed with it.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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