Gaius Petronius Arbiter (or Titus Petronius Niger), highly refined character of Nero’s age and entourage, brilliant and genial narrator, intelligent and unagitated witness of the mounting decadence of his society and a witty spectator watching from his privileged stand the disintegration of its ideals and values, is the author of the renowned Satyricon – and, according to Fabius Planciades Fiulgentius, of two other almost totally lost writings: Albutia and Eustion.
Petronius is a remarkable observer, marvellous portrayer and a insightful analyst of human nature and life’s circumstances. In those brief and scattered chapters of his masterpiece he glides, with the utmost non-involvement through Roman everyday life, describing any sort of characters and events. Reading the Satyricon is an inexplicable intellectual journey not simply through the outskirts of ancient Naples and the Vesuvian area, but through life’s occurrences and human nature that are both timeless.
Petronius simply delivers to his readers episodes at times even grotesque, erotic, vulgar, bizarre and monstrous and thus portrays, and in his own way reveals, the misfortunes and the spirit, in one word the actual life of the majority of Imperial Rome’s population. The characters of his tale are corrupted and corrupting pedagogues, old pirates, opulent slaves, bogus intellectuals, pitiless adventurers, desperados, prostitutes. Quite an odd gallery, unquestionably… and yet the author is able to find incidents and events that will show us also a human side in almost each of them.
Like in an unorganised cheap journey the reader will see immense and richly furnished mansions, marvellously decorated gardens but meet as well muddy narrow lanes, filthy inn-keepers, third class whorehouses, smutty pick-pockets, obscene bedroom protagonists, fat drunkards, shrewd cutpurses and swindlers of any kind. People whose petty lives and miserable stories flourish from their own crude words, mischievous behaviours and continuous fights. Additionally the Satyricon contains several erotic episodes and plots, nevertheless his author keeps far from being openly vulgar: the reader may hardly find plainly rude expressions and loud naughty talking. Quite often Petronius uses witty expressions and interesting periphrasis, sometimes even neologisms – this could be in my opinion another and additional reason due to which as Tacitus refers he gained being elegantie arbiter during Nero’s Empire.
Petronius literary style is a racy one; its development and tones strongly remind me of Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”, though obviously less prolix… His verve and structure are very simple in accordance with the “Attic” parameters and quite far from any “Asian” stylish influence. His writing is zesty and vigorous, highly coloured and contaminated: it gathers from any possible dialect existing in the multiethnic “Rome” of his days, rich in idiomatic expressions and profusely drawing from the lingo, slang and street-jargon. Subsequently each character speaks his own Latin (with Greek, Syrian, Gallic influences) quite as well as he/she speaks his own mind and thus shows himself to the reader – plainly and shamelessly – just as he/she is.
Ultimately the Satyricon is a novel that speaks the truth, maybe via crude personages and odd situations, but it leaves room – or maybe hope – to what good is always possible patiently to find; a cross-section of Roman life without any reticence or fear, without any intention to criticise, censure or sermonise. A novel in truth without a real end or even a true plot; without any lesson to teach or a moral to metabolise, no cathartic experience is inducted, no preaching effect is expected. The author follows discreetly the petty stories, love affairs, swindles and wretched lives of his multifaceted personages, impeccably portrays the flaws and the vices of a collapsing empire and society.
Yet, during the depiction of these sorts of ancient Gogol’s “dead souls”, runaways or rejected members of the society, shallow people without decent goals or plans Petronius remains an imperturbable reporter. In spite of his aristocratic origin and perspective Petronius, though being a nostalgic – perhaps not really that convinced – of the good old days when the Roman spirit had not been contaminated as yet by the wave of decadence that was flowing under his senses, is not the least judgemental. His narration is quite indulgent, he describes without deploring the ignominy of his personages, never deprecates their trivial goals and vulgar behaviour nor condemns their dishonourable actions. His portraying tone resembles more a gloomy and melancholic meditative one; and his infrequent commenting descriptions sound to me more of a sad loving fatherly smile and for some reason makes me think of Terence’s (Publius Terentius Afer):
“Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto“