Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the ancient book; for the band of the same name, see Satyricon (band).
Written around 60 CE, the tale is a mixture of prose and poetry detailing the misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, his friend Ascyltus, and Giton, their attendant and love object. The Roman worship of Priapus is the topic of its tales of the orgies and debauchery of Nero's time, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual.
Of the work itself there have been preserved 141 sections of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps. Speculation as to the size of the original puts it somewhere on the order of a work of thousands of pages, and reference points for length range from Tom Jones to In Search of Lost Time. What has survived at present can compiled into the length of a longer novella. The name Satyricon implies that it belongs to the type to which Varro, imitating the Greek Menippus, had given the character of a medley of prose and verse composition. But the string of fictitious narrative by which the medley is held together is something quite new in Roman literature. This careless prodigal was so happily inspired in his devices for amusing himself as to introduce to Rome and thereby transmit to modern times the novel based on the ordinary experience of contemporary life--the precursor of such novels as Gil Blas and Roderick Random. There is no evidence of the existence of a regular plot in the fragments, but we find one central figure, Encolpius, who professes to narrate his adventures and describe all that he saw and heard, whilst allowing various other personages to exhibit their peculiarities and express their opinions dramatically.
The fragment opens with the appearance of the hero, Encolpius, who seems to be an itinerant lecturer travelling with a companion named Ascyltos and a slave boy Giton, in a portico of a Greek town, in Campania. An admirable lecture on the false taste in literature, resulting from the prevailing system of education, is replied to by a rival declaimer, Agamemnon, who shifts the blame from the teachers to the parents. The central personages of the story next go through a series of questionable adventures, in the course of which they are involved in a charge of robbery. A day or two after they are present at a dinner given by a freedman of enormous wealth, Trimalchio, who entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance a number of men of his own rank but less prosperous. We listen to the ordinary talk of the guests about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, about the education of their children. We recognize in an extravagant form the same kind of vulgarity and pretension which the satirist of all times delights to expose in the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of the age. Next day Encolpius separates from his companions in a fit of jealousy, and, after two or three days' sulking and brooding on his revenge, enters a picture gallery, where he meets with an old poet, who, after talking sensibly on the decay of art and the inferiority of the painters of the age to the old masters, proceeds to illustrate a picture of the capture of Troy by some verses on that theme. This ends in those who are walking in the adjoining colonnade driving him out with stones.
The scene is next on board ship, where Encolpius finds he has fallen into the hands of some old enemies. They are shipwrecked, and Encolpius, Giton and the old poet get to shore in the neighbourhood of Crotona, where, as the inhabitants are notorious fortune-hunters, the adventurers set up as men of fortune. The fragment ends with a new set of questionable adventures, in which prominent parts are played by a beautiful enchantress named Circe, a priestess of Priapus, and a certain matron who leaves them her heirs, but attaches a condition to the inheritance which even Encolpius might have shrunk from fulfilling.
If we can suppose the author of this work to have been animated by any other motive than the desire to amuse himself, it might be that of convincing himself that the world in general was as bad as he was himself. Juvenal and Swift are justly regarded as among the very greatest of satirists, and their estimate of human nature is perhaps nearly as unfavourable as that of Petronius; but their attitude towards human degradation is not one of complacent amusement; their realism is the realism of disgust, not, like that of Petronius, a realism of sympathy. Martial does not gloat over the vices of which he writes with cynical frankness. He is perfectly aware that they are vices, and that the reproach of them is the worst that can be cast on any one. And, further, Martial, with all his faults, is, in his affections, his tastes, his relations to others, essentially human, friendly, generous, true. There is perhaps not a single sentence in Petronius which implies any knowledge of or sympathy with the existence of affection, conscience or honour, or even the most elementary goodness of heart.
Do the traits of this picture agree with that impression of himself which the author of the Satyricon has left upon his work? That we possess therein part of the document sent to Nero is an impossible theory. Our fragments profess to be extracts from the fifteenth and sixteenth books of the Satyricon: Petronius could not have composed one-tenth even of what we have in the time in which he is said to have composed his memorial to Nero. We may be sure too that the latter was very frank in its language, and treated Nero with far greater severity than the Banquet treats Trimalchio. On the other hand, it is clear that the creator of Trimalchio, Encolpius and Giton had the experience, the inclinations and the literary gifts which would enable him to describe with forcible mockery the debaucheries of Nero. And the impression of his personality does in another respect correspond closely with the Petronius of the Annals -- in the union of immoral sensualism with a rich vein of cynical humour and admirable taste.
The style of the work, where it does not purposely reproduce the solecisms and colloquialisms of the vulgar rich, is of the purest Latin of the Silver ages. Nor would there be any point in the verses on the capture of Troy and the Civil War at any other era than that in which Nero's Troica and Lucan's Pharsalia were fashionable poems. The reciting poet indeed is a feature of a later age also, as we learn from Martial and Juvenal. But we know from Tacitus that the luxury of the table, so conspicuous in Trimalchio's Banquet, fell out of fashion after Nero (Ann. 3. 55).
For the whole question of possible predecessors and Petronius's relation to the extant Greek romances see W Schmid, "Der griechische Roman" in Jahrbücher far das klass. Altertum, etc. (1904). One would certainly have expected the realistic tendency which appears in the New Comedy, the Characters of Theophrastus and the Mimes, to have borne this fruit before the first century of our era.
An early mention of a werewolf tale appears in chapter 62.
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