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Petronius

(d. c. 66 ad)


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Author of the extant Satyrica, possibly identical with Petronius (1), the politician and arbiter elegantiae at the court of Nero. Given that the Satyrica belongs in style and factual detail to the Neronian period, and that Tacitus' account of the courtier Petronius describes a hedonistic, witty, and amoral character which would well suit the author of the Satyrica, many find it economical to identify the two, but the matter is beyond proof.

Of the Satyrica itself we seem to have fragments of bks. 14, 15, and 16, with bk. 15 practically complete, containing Trimalchio's Feast. The whole work was evidently lengthy; one conjectural reconstruction has suggested twenty books and a length of 400,000 words. It is prosimetric in form, an inheritance from the similar satires of Varro. The outline of the plot is naturally difficult to reconstruct; the main characters are the homosexual pair Encolpius (the narrator) and the younger Giton, who undergo various adventures in a southern Italian setting. They meet a number of characters, some of whom, e.g. the unscrupulous adventurer Ascyltus and the lecherous poet Eumolpus, try to divide the lovers; Giton is not esp. faithful, and this, like the sexual orientation of the lovers and many other elements in the novel, constitutes an evident parody of the chaste fidelity of the boy–girl pairings of the ideal Greek novel. Encolpius seems to be afflicted with impotence as the result of the wrath of Priapus, and several episodes describe his sexual failures; the wrath of Priapus is evidently a parody of the wrath of Poseidon in Homer's Odyssey, and other parallels between Encolpius and Odysseus appear, esp. when he encounters a woman named Circe.

Many themes familiar from Roman satire appear, such as legacy‐hunting and the comic meal (Trimalchio's Feast); in the latter Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltus attend a dinner given by the rich freedman Trimalchio, probably in Puteoli, in the narrative of which both Trimalchio's vulgar and ignorant display of wealth and the snobbishness of the narrator emerge very forcibly, and which contains, in a parody of Plato's Symposium, a collection of tales told by Trimalchio's freedman friends which gives some evidence for vulgar Latin (see latin language), though Petronius has naturally not reproduced colloquial speech exactly. Several other inserted tales are told in the novel, esp. those of the Pergamene Boy and the Widow of Ephesus, suitably lubricious stories for their narrator Eumolpus, but also clearly drawing on the Hellenistic tradition of Milesian tales (see novel, latin). The inserted poems in various metres sometimes appear to comment on the novel's action; the two longest, presented as the work of Eumolpus, seem to relate to other Neronian writers: the 65‐line Capture of Troy written in the iambic trimeters (see metre, greek) of Senecan tragedy, and the Civil War in 295 hexameters, closely recalling Lucan's homonymous epic on the same subject (and restoring the divine machinery which Lucan had excluded). Literary and cultural criticism is certainly a concern of the novel; there are prominent attacks on contemporary oratory, painting, and poetry.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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