Authors: Petronius

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Roman narrative writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Satyricon, c. 60 (The Satyricon, 1694)


Plutarch, probably by a slip, referred to Gaius Petronius (puh-TROH-nee-uhs) Arbiter as Titus Petronius, but Tacitus in his annals for 66 c.e. tells of the death of Gaius Petronius, a brilliant, cynical man of pleasure who was as famous for his idleness as most people are for their industry. This Petronius was a man of culture, noted for his frankness. Tacitus also cites his political experiences, first as a proconsul of Bithynia and later as a consul and administrator. When Petronius abandoned diplomacy and returned to the licentiousness of Nero’s court, he became the emperor’s Arbiter Elegantiae, the arbiter of elegance and master of the court revels.{$I[AN]9810000090}{$I[A]Petronius}{$S[A]Arbiter, Gaius Petronius;Petronius}{$S[A]Gaius Petronius Arbiter;Petronius}{$I[geo]ROMAN EMPIRE;Petronius}{$I[tim]0020 c.e.;Petronius}

Envy brought about his death. The emperor’s previous favorite, Tigellinus, forced a slave to testify that Petronius had plotted with the traitor Scaevinus, and soldiers were sent to place Petronius under house arrest at Cumae. Disgraced and politically suspect, Petronius cut his veins in such a way that his death would seem natural, and during his last hours he spoke and sang with his companions. In his will, instead of lauding the emperor, as was customary, he attacked Nero’s unnatural vices, describing them so accurately that the emperor searched among his courtiers for an informer. His suspicions finally fell on a companion of his revels, Silia, the wife of a senator, and she was executed.

There is no positive proof that this is the Petronius who wrote The Satyricon. However, the medley of ribaldry, anecdotes, and cynical philosophy and moralizing is just what Nero’s favorite might have written, a supposition strengthened by the fact that a first century grammarian referred to the author as “Arbiter.”

Whoever wrote The Satyricon (of which only the 146 chapters of books 15 and 16 remain extant), it was this writer who invented the narrative formula involving a central character, in this case Encolpius, and two friends. It was necessary to forget courtly speech and put into the mouths of his characters the Latin of the marketplace, with its wealth of slang, puns, and obscenities. The result is a remarkable picture of the ordinary Roman citizen. Thanks to its popularity among ancient compilers, at least some of the work’s many episodes were preserved for later ages. The work continues to offer entertainment on every level, from the outrageously scabrous in human conduct to delicate and refined judgment in literature and art.

BibliographyColton, R. E. “The Story of ‘The Widow of Ephesus’ in Petronius and La Fontaine.” Classical Journal 71 (1975): 35-52. Examines the influence of Petronius’s short fiction upon Jean de La Fontaine. Considers the degree to which La Fontaine, in his version of the story “The Widow of Ephesus,” suppressed unpleasant details found in Petronius’s original, added new elements, and used more refined language than that found in the Roman version of the story.Conte, Gian Biagio. The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius’ “Satyricon.” Translated by Elaine Fantham. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Offers a good discussion and analysis of the seminal work.Corbett, Philip B. Petronius. New York: Twayne, 1970. A general and easily accessible introduction touching upon nearly every aspect of Petronius’s work and his literary style. Also contains a useful bibliography.Kimball, Jean. “An Ambiguous Faithlessness: Molly Bloom and the Widow of Ephesus.” James Joyce Quarterly 31 (Summer, 1994): 455-472. Examines the influence of Otto Rank’s 1913 psychoanalytic interpretation of the tale of the “Widow of Ephesus” on Joyce’s Ulysses; discusses the faithfulness of the wife, the triangle of characters, and the motif of the hanged man.McMahon, J. M. “A Petronian Parody at Sat. 14.2-14.3.” Mnemosyne 50 (February, 1997): 77-81. Suggests that one way Petronius incorporated contemporary philosophical issues into the Satyricon was through the parody of popular Cynic philosophy. Discusses Petronius’s familiarity with the exponents of Cynic philosophy and how he used them as targets of parody.Sandy, G. N. “Petronius and the Tradition of the Interpolated Narrative.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 101 (1970): 463-476. Examines the ways in which Petronius’s interpolated short fiction allowed the author to develop a perspective toward his larger narrative. Explores how the style of Petronius’s short fiction serves as an indication of the narrator’s character and the imaginary audience’s interests.Slater, Niall W. Reading Petronius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A good general introduction to The Satyricon and its place in Roman satire.Sullivan, J. P. “The Satyricon” of Petronius: A Literary Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. An excellent general study on Petronius, examining every aspect of the author’s work, including his use of humor, satire, and sexuality. Also contains a reconstruction of the lost parts of The Satyricon. Sullivan considers the question of the novel’s authorship and includes an exhaustive bibliography. Concludes that The Satyricon is not sufficiently concerned with morality to be a true satire.Walsh, P. G. The Roman Novel. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Traces the history and style of the Roman novel, giving particular attention to The Satyricon and Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. Also includes a lengthy bibliography containing a section devoted entirely to
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