Petronius

Petronius

Life and Identity

The identity of Petronius is an unsettled debate within scholarship. The name on the manuscripts is Petronius Arbiter. Some scholars connect this name to a certain Petronius whom Tacitus, Pliny, and Plutarch mention in connection with the court of Nero. This Petronius was called arbiter elegantiae (“judge of good taste”) by Tacitus (Annals 16.18), but was forced to commit suicide by the emperor.

When the manuscript of the Satyricon showed up with the name Petronius attached to it, scholars connected the satirical portrayal of Trimalchio to Nero. Trimalchio was a trashy yet nouveau riche freedman known for gaudy dinners, lavish displays, and outlandish remarks. Nero too was known for his ostentatious displays, and perhaps, some scholars thought, the Satyricon was the work that so infuriated the emperor that he sentenced Petronius to death.

Another issue is the praenomen. Pliny and Plutarch give this Petronius the arbiter elegantiae the praenomen Titus, Tacitus calls him Gaius. The latter is likely just an error, though.

However, that all writers were talking about the same Petronius and that this Petronius is the author of the Satyricon remains still an unproven hypothesis.

Works

Petronius’ only work is the Satyricon, a satirical novella about the adventures of Encolpius, a declamator and teacher to young, wealthy Roman boys.

The most famous section is the Cena Trimalchionis, the “Dinner of Trimalchio,” in which the aforementioned freedman Trimalchio throws an embarrassingly extravagant dinner for his guests, during which he is able to show off his enormous fortune while proving himself unable to fit in to high society—his grammar is atrocious, his manners most rude, but worst of all, he holds a “mock funeral” for himself, requiring his guests to present eulogies, until the whole display is broken up by firemen who mistook the raucous for a fire alarm.

Another rather famous scene is the miniature Bellum Civile in the middle of the book. Because of the close connections to Lucan’s Pharsalia, scholars have used this as further proof of the Petronian authorship of the Satyricon, since Lucan and Petronius (from the literary record) were both members of Nero’s court. The scene is especially notable for being a serious endeavor and not a parody, unlike the rest of the novella.

Online Texts

Satyricon (Latin) at PHI Latin Texts
Satyricon (Latin and English) Loeb translation at Internet Archive

Secondary Reading

  1. Georg Luck, “On Petronius’ Bellum Civile.” The American Journal of Philology 93.1 (1972): pp. 133–141.
  2. K. F. C. Rose, “The Author of the Satyricon.” Latomus 20.4 (1961): pp. 821–825.