Guide to the classics: Petronius’s Satyricon – sex, satire and naughty boys

Musée d’Orsay

Tom Stevenson, The University of Queensland

The Satyricon by Petronius is an unusual surviving text from the ancient world. It is not a work of history, nor a work of soaring epic poetry like Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, and for various reasons it is hard to get a handle on.

Its contents are pretty grubby because it is about lowlifes and lowlife behaviour. It depicts petty theft, casual violence, opportunistic sex, prostitution, vulgar gluttony, crass displays of wealth by the most ridiculous social climber and gross disrespect for a range of gods, goddesses and hallowed religious rituals, like funerals and proper treatment of the dead. All the good sleazy stuff for when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.

Rather than a work about heroes or kings or queens or uplifting examples of how to live a virtuous life, the Satyricon is almost a how-to manual for the opposite.

It is the earliest surviving novel in Latin literature, but it is not even close to being intact. We appear to have bits of three books out of an original 16 or possibly more. So we run into problems trying to understand what the plot of the whole work might have been and whether the bits that survive are representative of it.

As far as we can tell, it’s a tale about the misadventures and love triangle of three young men – the narrator Encolpius, Ascyltus and the younger Gitōn.

They all behave disreputably, all know hunger and poverty, all hurt people, and all get hurt in return.

Encolpius arguably suffers the most when he upsets Priapus, a god of fertility, who renders him impotent. Priapus is normally represented in Roman art sporting an enormous, erect phallus – even weighing it in one famous example. He is a minor deity in comparison to Jupiter or Hercules, but he has one outstanding trait, which means a great deal to the “heroes” of this novel.

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold.
Wikimedia Commons

When Priapus deprives Encolpius of his virility, he strikes at the core of Encolpius’s identity, causing him much distress and forcing him in panic to seek a succession of absurd remedies.

The main characters are not good boys. They are jealous, perpetually randy, violent, unfaithful and capricious. They separate and come back together. They lack depth. And they meet a series of characters who complement their deficiencies with flaws of their own.

They look for food, shelter, sex and sexual restoration. Charlatans abound. Everyone is selfish and untrustworthy. Religion is flouted and abused, even though it plainly has power.

The attitude to religion seems to be “whatever works”, but no one is exactly sure what works, so they indulge themselves in equal amounts of devotion and derision – with predictable results.

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Our youths seem to be travelling between locations around the Bay of Naples – a notorious region of excess and extravagance, heavily influenced by Greek culture and less constrained by traditional Roman discipline than other parts of Italy.

There is little certainty about this, as with so many features of the tale, but the easy movement between city dives and country villas makes sense in this region.

The banquet of Trimalchio

The most outrageous character they run across is the nouveau-riche pretender Trimalchio, whom they meet through an acquaintance, Eumolpus, who is said to be a poet but is more like a sleaze with intellectual pretensions.

Together they end up at a sumptuous feast at Trimalchio’s villa – the famous Cena Trimalchionis or “Banquet of Trimalchio”.

The feast is a riot of nonsense. Trimalchio, an ex-slave who has bought his freedom, tries to prove he is a man of culture as well as wealth like his free-born counterparts in neighbouring villas and regions. In doing so, of course, he proves only that he completely lacks class or sophistication of any kind and emerges as a self-loving ignoramus.

The feast is ‘a riot of nonsense’, illustrated here by Norman Lindsay.
Project Gutenberg

There is way too much food, especially the meats and sweets. The dishes are too exotic and difficult, especially the tiny birds. They are served in ostentatiously absurd ways by a bizarre collection of slaves and other functionaries. The guests grab greedily and unappreciatively, upsetting plates, cups and each other. The talk is gross and unedifying.

Trimalchio ends up inviting his cronies to a rehearsal of his funeral, which he has planned meticulously on the model of a noble’s or emperor’s funeral. He fails to see how far he falls short. Clothes, and other props, do not make the man.

But there is more to the feast than meets the eye. The vulgarity of the subject matter is especially memorable because it is conveyed by a master satirist or comic genius.

Trimalchio is described with great attention to detail and inventiveness, and with a certain sympathy rather than vindictiveness. Trimalchio and his hangers-on are acquainted with high literature, though they mangle it terribly, sometimes speaking in vulgar Latin and in language rendered comic by its malapropisms and other features. The writer is a virtuoso for pulling off these effects so cleverly.

A comic approach

The key to interpretation is that the text is a satire, as its name implies. It is inspired by the deeds of satyrs: lecherous, half-human creatures of myth, obsessed with sex. They were symbols of the outrageous, the destabilising and the violent.

The youths of our tale are plainly modelled on them. And the text is comic in approach, designed for a festival atmosphere, when it’s okay to release the irrational, the absurd and the bottled-up frustrations that go along with daily commitment to civilised straightness.

The comic silliness of it all is important to consider when pondering the author and purpose of the work. The author, according to the name that has survived with the text, was Titus Petronius Arbiter.

He is generally identified with the prominent courtier of Nero, the senator Gaius Petronius, who was forced to commit suicide in AD 66 for his part in a conspiracy against the emperor. In a famous passage (Annals 16.17-20), Tacitus says Nero looked to this man as his “arbiter of elegance”, as though his judgment of culture and pleasure was admired.

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This identification between the author of the Satyricon and the Petronius of Tacitus might be right. Roman nobles were highly educated in literature and philosophy. Intellectual attainment was one of the myriad ways they competed with one another for social pre-eminence. Such a man might well have been capable of the literary virtuosity and wit that is on display in the text as we have it.

Martin Potter as Encolpio in Fellini’s 1969 film adaptation.

What is slightly worrying about this identification, however, is that Tacitus gives an appreciative portrayal of a man who sends up and resists a tyrant. Nero was certainly this, as the paranoia and murders of his reign indicate. Yet he was also a great sponsor of culture, especially literature and drama.

Even if the identifications with Tacitus’s Petronius and the reign of Nero are correct, we don’t need to adopt Tacitus’s tone and perspective. The Satyricon does not have to be a work with subversive intent against Nero, and Nero does not have to be read into the story in place of Trimalchio. Petronius does not have to be a social critic who was appalled by the corruption and depravity of Nero’s court.

It’s much more fun if he wasn’t any of these things in this work, but was instead a man who was excellent at satire in a spirit that was fundamentally light and frivolous.

Suggested translations: J.P. Sullivan, The Satyricon and the Fragments, translated with an introduction by J.P. Sullivan, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965. P.G. Walsh, Petronius: The Satyricon, translated with an introduction and explanatory notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.The Conversation

Tom Stevenson, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History, UQ, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We should use ‘I’ more in academic writing – there is benefit to first-person perspective


Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

The use of the word “I” in academic writing, that is writing in the first person, has a troublesome history. Some say it makes writing too subjective, others that it’s essential for accuracy.

This is reflected in how students, particularly in secondary schools, are trained to write. Teachers I work with are often surprised that I advocate, at times, invoking the first person in essays or other assessment in their subject areas.

In academic writing the role of the author is to explain their argument dispassionately and objectively. The author’s personal opinion in such endeavours is neither here nor there.

As noted in Strunk and White’s highly influential Elements of Style – (first published in 1959) the writer is encouraged to place themselves in the background.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

This all seems very reasonable and scholarly. The move towards including the first person perspective, however, is becoming more acceptable in academia.

There are times when invoking the first person is more meaningful and even rigorous than not. I will give three categories in which first person academic writing is more effective than using the third person.

1. Where an academic is offering their personal view or argument

Above, I could have said “there are three categories” rather than “I will give three categories”. The former makes a claim of discovering some objective fact. The latter, a more intellectually honest and accountable approach, is me offering my interpretation.

I could also say “three categories are apparent”, but that is ignoring the fact it is apparent to me. It would be an attempt to grant too much objectivity to a position than it deserves.

In a similar vein, statements such as “it can be argued” or “it was decided”, using the passive voice, avoid responsibility. It is much better to say “I will argue that” or “we decided that” and then go on to prosecute the argument or justify the decision.

Taking responsibility for our stances and reasoning is important culturally as well as academically. In a participatory democracy, we are expected to be accountable for our ideas and choices. It is also a stand against the kinds of anonymous assertions that easily proliferate via fake and unnamed social media accounts.

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It’s worth noting that Nature – arguably one of the world’s best science journals – prefers authors to selectively avoid the passive voice. Its writing guidelines note:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.

2. Where the author’s perspective is part of the analysis

Some disciplines, such as anthropology, recognise that who is doing the research and why they are doing it ought to be overtly present in their presentation of it.

There’s more to Descartes’ famous phrase than a claim to existence.

Removing the author’s presence can allow important cultural or other perspectives held by the author to remain unexamined. This can lead to the so-called crisis of representation, in which the interpretation of texts and other cultural artefacts is removed from any interpretive stance of the author.

This gives a false impression of objectivity. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel notes, there is no “view from nowhere”.

Philosophy commonly invokes the first person position, too. Rene Descartes famously inferred “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). But his use of the first person in Meditations on First Philosophy was not simply an account of his own introspection. It was also an invitation to the reader to think for themselves.

3. Where the author wants to show their reasoning

The third case is especially interesting in education.

I tell students of science, critical thinking and philosophy that a phrase guaranteed to raise my hackles is “I strongly believe …”. In terms of being rationally persuasive, this is not relevant unless they then go on tell me why they believe it. I want to know what and how they are thinking.

To make their thinking most clearly an object of my study, I need them to make themselves the subjects of their writing.

I prefer students to write something like “I am not convinced by Dawson’s argument because…” rather than “Dawson’s argument is opposed by DeVries, who says …”. I want to understand their thinking not just use the argument of DeVries.

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Of course I would hope they do engage with DeVries, but then I’d want them to say which argument they find more convincing and what their own reasons were for being convinced.

Just stating Devries’ objection is good analysis, but we also need students to evaluate and justify, and it is here that the first person position is most useful.

It is not always accurate to say a piece is written in the first or third person. There are reasons to invoke the first person position at times and reasons not to. An essay in which it is used once should not mean we think of the whole essay as from the first person perspective.

We need to be more nuanced about how we approach this issue and appreciate when authors should “place themselves in the background” and when their voice matters.The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking; Curriculum Director, UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.