Written by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Petronius was one of the world’s first novelists and an important cultural figure in his day. He was influential in the Rome of Nero, but this would ultimately lead to his death.
Biography of Petronius
The chief source for the life of this fascinating character is the Roman historian Tacitus. It is most likely that his full name was Titus Petronius Niger. Based on the surviving sources it appears that he was a wealthy member of the Roman elite. Members of his class would have been expected to occupy important military and political posts. Petronius, however, was a notorious idler and lived a life dedicated to pleasure and the arts. Despite this, it appears that he served as the provincial governor of Bithynia and was even consul in 63 AD. He demonstrated a great deal of capabilities, but he soon returned to his disreputable ways.
Relationship with Nero
Yet, Petronius’ term as consul brought him to the attention of Nero. The Emperor and the Consul found that they both shared a love of the finer things, especially the arts. Nero soon admitted the ex-consul into his inner circle at Court. Petronius, a cultivated man, began to have influence on the Emperor. Nero appointed him to the unofficial position of ‘arbiter of elegance’, making his word final on all matters relating to taste and art at Court. As Petronius was becoming closer to Nero, the Emperor was living a debauched life, and becoming increasingly erratic and cruel. Many became jealous of Petronius’ close relationship with the Emperor, and it was feared that he could become too powerful at Court.
This jealousy and suspicion likely led to an event related by Tacitus. The chief of the Praetorian Guard falsely claimed that Petronius was plotting to assassinate him in 66 AD. In reality, Petronius was innocent and there was no plot. Despite their former closeness, Nero immediately had him detained at Cumae, near modern Naples. Petronius decided to kill himself to avoid torture and execution. It is reported by Tacitus that he slit his veins, and then had his slaves bind them up. This was to prolong his life and allow him time to say goodbye to friends and family. He spent the last few hours of his life gossiping with friends, listening to music, and reading his favourite poems. He had his favourite slaves and servants rewarded, while those who had not pleased him, he had punished.
According to Tacitus, Petronius then fell asleep and never awoke. Before his death, he is said to have ordered for a beautiful vase of his to be destroyed, as he knew that Nero has admired it as well. He did not want the Emperor to seize it after his death, and in this small way, he frustrated the man who had forced him to take his own life.
Despite the high drama and intrigue of his life, Petronius is best known today for his masterpiece, the Satyricon, one of the earliest examples of what could be described as a ‘novel’. Although the Satyricon is attributed to Petronius, there does exists some ambiguity over whether he really wrote it. As is common with ancient literature, much of it has been lost. We only have approximately 10% of this work, but what remains is remarkable and deeply influential.
The Satyricon narrates the adventures of three adventurers, Encolpius, his boyfriend, and his slave as they make their way through the underbelly of Roman society. It is an episodic picaresque novel, and it is believed that the intended audience was Nero and his courtiers, as the sources tell us that Nero and his intimates were fascinated by the low life of Rome. Petronius’ work is comic, satiric, and features the three anti-heroes in a series of disreputable encounters. Much of the Satyricon contains independent stories that are only loosely related to the adventures of the central characters.
The best-known section of the work that survives is the Banquet of Trimalchio (or Cena Trimalchionis in Latin). It gives a wonderful description of a party given by an ex-slave Trimalchio, who is now fabulously rich. The dinner is in Campania and is attended also by other rich former slaves. Many believe that Petronius was mocking what he perceived as the pretensions of the freedman class in Roman society. He portrays the ex-slaves as vulgar, tasteless, and hypocritical. Many commentators also believe that Petronius is satirising Nero and his vulgarity and tastelessness.
The language used in the novel is remarkably clear and beautiful, and the Latin is still admired to this day. Lovers of literature still read this episodic novel, especially the famed Banquet of Trimalchio. The work is also a priceless source of information about the social life of Rome in the First Century A.D.
The influence of The Satyricon reaches far, directly into one of the most famous and acclaimed works of literature of the twentieth century. In the figure of Trimalchio – a freed slave, trying to gain the respect of the high society he has entered into – novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald saw a prototype for the mysterious ‘new money’ figure of Jay Gatsby, from his widely celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby. In fact, one of Fitzgerald’s original titles for the novel made the comparison explicit: Trimalchio in West Egg (and elsewhere, simply, Trimalchio). Ultimately, of course, Fitzgerald went with the snappier title of The Great Gatsby, but an early version of the novel bearing that title has been published since his death. A slightly more recent work, much more directly inspired by the Satyricon, is the film adaptation by revered filmmaker Federico Fellini, known as the Fellini Satyricon.
Petronius was an important figure in the reign of Nero. He was an important courtier and an aesthete who believed that taste and beauty were more important than duty. If, as is widely believed, he was the author of the Satyricon, Petronius was one of the world’s first novelists and his work influenced the development of the genre, and artists centuries after his death.
Morton Braund, Susanna (2002) Latin literature. New York: Routledge.