Petronius, Satyricon


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2004


What makes you surrender your soul to the devil? Some 16th century scholars were willing to do just that, for reading a book in its entirety of which only fragments had survived: the “Satyricon”, meaning “Satyr plays”. Already the fragments whetted the appetite for more – as long as there were no moral concerns.


There is no other ancient book that is so packed with excesses: people celebrate and make love, they booze and abuse, they beat and tease. They do this in all possible variations, for the author performs on the keyboard of Latin language with virtuosity; he satirizes in high level language the most popular epic of his time, to go on by imitating the vernacular so skillfully that the Renaissance scholars believed all the Vulgar Latin expressions to be mistakes they should correct. The wealth of ideas, the humor and the linguistic diversity make this genre picture of Roman Imperial times a pleasure to read!


The fictional stories revolve around two friends called Encolpius and Ascyltus. On an odyssey through southern Italy, they move from one amorous adventure to the next. A ruthless professional speaker, an over-the-hill poet and a slutty young man who turns everybody’s head are also part of it.

The comprehensive description of a banquet tells of the pleasures of the rich in Imperial Rome. Artistically over-the-top, it nevertheless gives an idea of the then real life. The dinner turns into a game when living birds flutter from inside the boar and, in anticipation of molecular cuisine, the outer form masks the true content. It’s the same with people. The host is Trimalchio, a freed slave of incredible wealth, who bristles with stupidity and illiteracy – and even brags about both (“Learning is the best safe!”). He has no moral values whatsoever; his guiding principle is economic profit, which – in his view – wins him social recognition. In screwball comedy-style, the party ends in chaos, when Trimalchio stages his own funeral, and the brass ensemble calls the fire brigade to the arena....

Next scene: the city of Croton. Here, too, Petronius exaggerates a real grievance of his time: the consequence of childlessness in many families of the nobility. Legacy hunters are always waiting for potential victims to arrive – and yet they themselves become victims in this picaresque novel. The main characters pose as the wealthy man with an entourage but no kids and let themselves be kept. In their wills, the Crotonians inherit the – non-existent – wealth on the bizarre condition that they feed on the corpse of their benefactor.


Grotesque, vulgar, obscene – but also learned, sensitive, subtle. The author entertains, he does not moralize. His exalted exaggeration forces us to reflect. When money becomes the sole raison d’être, it makes us become amoral, pleasure-seeking and spiritually immature creatures just like Trimalchio. Is this really how we want to live?

By the way, the author Titus Petronius is presumably identical to Nero’s confidant of the same name, his “fashion adviser”. Although a notorious bon vivant, Petronius vigorously contrasted the reputation of depravity with his governorship; his rule was exemplary. Nero later forced him to commit suicide because Petronius is said to have conspired against him. This accomplished writer thus showed how to maintain and exemplify moral integrity in a time full of challenges.


Björn Schöpe

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation