The world according to Petronius Arbiter…

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

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Emotions and feelings in Virgil

Virgil, a rather complex personality, described by both his contemporaries and scholars as a quiet, silent and absorbed soul, not interested in any present glory or actual success. His poetry is absolutely uplifting as he could transform into beautiful verses anything he could rhyme about and enrich his poems with incredibly deep and detailed analysis of psychological aspects of both characters and situations. He could thus achieve the minutia of each portrayal of events and personages with such an elegance and style very difficult to find in Latin literature and perhaps even in modern times.

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None of his characters is definitely positive or negative: he was able to depict the inner side of each of them and could find and describe even contradictory aspects of a personality, which is what normally constitutes and characterises the multi-facets nature of human beings. Like king Mezentius, a rather shady character of Aeneid, who shows feelings like paternal love and sympathy and remorse when he finds out that his son Lausus has been slain by Aeneas, and also already foresees his own end:

At Lausum socii exanimem super arma ferebant
flentes, ingentem atque ingenti volnere victum.
Agnovit longe gemitum praesaga mali mens:
canitiem multo deformat pulvere et ambas
ad caelum tendit palmas et corpore inhaeret.
`Tantane me tenuit vivendi, nate, voluptas,
ut pro me hostili paterer succedere dextrae,
quem genui? Tuane haec genitor per volnera servor,
morte tua vivens? Heu, nunc misero mihi demum
exitium infelix, nunc alte volnus adactum!
Idem ego, nate, tuum maculavi crimine nomen,
pulsus ob invidiam solio sceptrisque paternis.
Debueram patriae poenas odiisque meorum:
omnis per mortis animam sontem ipse dedissem!
Nunc vivo neque adhuc homines lucemque relinquo.
Sed linquam.’

O’er his broad shield still gush’d the yawning wound,
And drew a bloody trail along the ground.
Far off he heard their cries, far off divin’d
The dire event, with a foreboding mind.
With dust he sprinkled first his hoary head;
Then both his lifted hands to heav’n he spread;
Last, the dear corpse embracing, thus he said:
“What joys, alas! could this frail being give,
That I have been so covetous to live?
To see my son, and such a son, resign
His life, a ransom for preserving mine!
And am I then preserv’d, and art thou lost?
How much too dear has that redemption cost!
‘T is now my bitter banishment I feel:
This is a wound too deep for time to heal.
My guilt thy growing virtues did defame;
My blackness blotted thy unblemish’d name.
Chas’d from a throne, abandon’d, and exil’d
For foul misdeeds, were punishments too mild:
I ow’d my people these, and, from their hate,
With less resentment could have borne my fate.
And yet I live, and yet sustain the sight
Of hated men, and of more hated light:
But will not long.

The king’s spirit is now abated by the pain of his wounds and the grief of his recent loss as he speaks tender words of wisdom even to Rhaebus, his horse, before charging his final assault:

Simul hoc dicens attollit in aegrum
se femur et, quamvis dolor alto volnere tardet,
haud deiectus equum duci iubet. Hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat; bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. Adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
`Rhaebe, diu, res siqua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. Aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.’
Dixit et exceptus tergo consueta locavit
membra manusque ambas iaculis oneravit acutis,
aere caput fulgens cristaque hirsutus equina.
Sic cursum in medios rapidus dedit: aestuat ingens
uno in corde pudor mixtoque insania luctu,
et furiis agitatus amor et conscia virtus.


With that he rais’d from ground
His fainting limbs, that stagger’d with his wound;
Yet, with a mind resolv’d, and unappall’d
With pains or perils, for his courser call’d
Well-mouth’d, well-manag’d, whom himself did dress
With daily care, and mounted with success;
His aid in arms, his ornament in peace.
Soothing his courage with a gentle stroke,
The steed seem’d sensible, while thus he spoke:
“O Rhoebus, we have liv’d too long for me-
If life and long were terms that could agree!
This day thou either shalt bring back the head
And bloody trophies of the Trojan dead;
This day thou either shalt revenge my woe,
For murther’d Lausus, on his cruel foe;
Or, if inexorable fate deny
Our conquest, with thy conquer’d master die:
For, after such a lord, rest secure,
Thou wilt no foreign reins, or Trojan load endure.”
He said; and straight th’ officious courser kneels,
To take his wonted weight. His hands he fills
With pointed jav’lins; on his head he lac’d
His glitt’ring helm, which terribly was grac’d
With waving horsehair, nodding from afar;
Then spurr’d his thund’ring steed amidst the war.

Virgil is mainly known for his epic poem Aeneid that emulates both Iliad and Odyssey: Aeneas running away from Troy travels as Odysseus looking for a new place to settle down and to found a new country (Rome) by defeating the Latin indigenous leaded by Turnus King of the Rutuli – a typical Homeric Iliad character. Therefore by chanting the Roman origins and representing the highest example of Latin Epos the poem gained him fame and a tranquil life during Augustus Empire within Mecenate intellectual and literary circle. Naturally somehow he had to recognise this “gift” by using – fortunately with some discretion – also apologetic themes and encomiastic tones towards the Empire within his opus that soon was considered and became a regime poem. As when Aeneas meets his father in the otherworld and the old king explains to him his extraordinary mission: to found Rome which will be renowned for its warfare ability and its political expansion, leaving to the old Greek civilisation the heights of fine arts and sciences:

excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
credo equidem, uiuos ducent de marmore uultus,
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
hae tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

However, within and beside his epic production, there are personages and lines that I personally find particularly meaningful and rich of insightful messages like the words pronounced by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, showing her sublime sweetness and kind-heart for Aeneas and his people – in just one line:

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.

[I’m not unwonted to bad times and occurrences, thus I’ve learnt to aid those in distress.]

I truly think that Virgil was able to find as Hugo von Hofmannstal’s Lord Philipp Chandos was as well trying to:

“…unter all den ärmlichen und plumpen Gegeständen einer bäurishen Lebensweise nach jenem einem sucht, dessen unscheibare Form, dessen von niemand beachtetes Daliegen oder –lehnen, dessen stumme Wesenheit zur Quelle jenes rätselhaften, wortlosen, schrankenlosen Entzückens warden kann”.

[…among all those poor and clumsy objects of country life, only the one that with his non evident shape, whose unwilling tossing or placing, whose mute essence is able to spring that mysterious, silent, boundless exaltation]

As I think few others can be more suggestive and romantic than these lines from Virgil’s first ecloga, which sound so modern, so Lakist or Leopardian:

Hic tamen hanc mecum poteras requiescere noctem
fronde super viridi. sunt nobis mitia poma,
castaneae molles et pressi copia lactis,
et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

[Please stay and rest with me tonight
on the green leaves, I’ve got ripe apples
sweet chestnuts and plenty of cheese,
See already in the distance the smoky cottages’ chimneys,
and taller the shadows are coming down from the mounts.]

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I am today more than ever certain that it takes very little to a true poet to create an atmosphere. Maybe a true artist’s secret is, as Hugo von Hofmannstal brilliantly pointed out:

“Oder als könnten wir in ein neues, ahnungsvolles Verhältnis zum ganzen Dasein treten, wenn wir anfingen, mit dem Herzen zu denken

[We could get into a new, meaningful relationship with the entire universe if we started thinking with our heart]

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Bacchae, Euripides’ last gift

In Greek ancient history 406 B.C. is remembered for the battle of Arginusae and the consequent fretly taken death sentence issued against six Athenian generals who, albeit having won the combat, did not rescue the crews of some ships hit during the fight – allegedly because of the adverse weather conditions; a brutal and unreasonable episode that symbolises a remarkable change, the descending fate of the Attic overestimated supremacy and consequently the early days of the sunset of the ancient Greek civilisation. In my opinion though, the year 406 B.C. coincidentally marks one of the most important events of antiquity, impacting the future development of the western thought, as both Aeschylus and Euripides died and with them the Attic tragedy.

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The death of Euripides, a true and profound thinker, an incredibly deep analyser of human nature, capable to discover the anxieties of man’s soul, an acute and often obscure witness of the changing times, coincides perhaps with the beginning of our own era. The dawn of a new function attributed to drama – and, maybe, art in general – the birth of a new theatre conceived and considered as pure aesthetic experience, just like a seeming Spiegel of life. What is represented on stage is not aiming at any profound touching, conversion or reflection but to mere pleasure: art as aesthetic per se.

Yet in 405 B.C. Euripides’ echo still lingers on his contemporaries in a tragedy represented abroad, in Amphipolis, where he had found refuge under the protection of King Archelaus: Bacchae.

Bacchae is to be considered the very last message of an exhausted and old Euripides, misapprehended and undervalued by his generation, and discomforted by the events he had witnessed and by being misunderstood when he so generously had tried to give us clues to interpret our human condition, to enlighten us by tossing us a key to endure the sense of life. Euripides acknowledges the precariousness and uncertainty of being and firmly admonishes all those that are either unaware or disregard their status of being human and consequently frail and not at all faultless. He condemns the spreading excess of self-confidence of mankind and consequently discourages those ambitions that overestimate human abilities, both as individuals and even worse when gathered in a crowd; the same crowd that had sentenced to death the generals of Arginusae, and the very same assembly that will shortly afterwards sentence to death Socrates.

In Bacchae, Dionysus, arrives in Thebe in disguise, in order to affirm his questioned status of God and to prevent the sacrilegious abolition his rituals and ceremonies:

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land
Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semele,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,
I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan
Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side
I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,
The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great
Faint wreaths of fire undying–as the hate
Dies not, that Hera held for Semele
.

Dionysus allows himself to be captured and chained by King Pentheus who is determined to stop the God’s lascivious cult in his πολις, notwithstanding the admonishing wise words of Teiresias, that sounds like a preach coming from Euripides himself:

ταν λβ τις τν λγων νρ σοφς
καλς φορμς, ο μγ ργον ε λγειν·
σ δ ετροχον μν γλσσαν ς φρονν χεις,
ν τος λγοισι δ οκ νεισ σοι φρνες.
θρσει δ δυνατς κα λγειν οἷός τ νρ
κακς πολτης γγνεται νον οκ χων.

[Good words my son, come easily, when he
That speaks is wise, and speaks but for the right.
Else come they never! Swift are thine, and bright
As though with thought, yet have no thought at all]

Pentheus saturated by his over-confidence also doubts about Dionysus divine origins, and therefore he blasphemously dares to ill-treat him and at times he even mocks him:

Marry, a fair shape for a woman’s eye,
Sir stranger! And thou seek’st no more, I ween!
Long curls, withal! That shows thou ne’er hast been
A wrestler!–down both cheeks so softly tossed
And winsome! And a white skin! It hath cost
Thee pains, to please thy damsels with this white
And red of cheeks that never face the light!
(omissis…)
First, shear that delicate curl that dangles there.

The punishment of Pentheus’ arrogance and overriding self-confidence undergoes a long gestation, a stratagem used surely to enhance the taste of vengeance of Dionysus – who plays like the cat with the mouse – but mainly this ploy is used by the author to divulge how useless can be any human design and planning if one ponders and realises how many are the uncontrollable variables that characterise any event and action in our life. To add drama Dionysus prefers to have Pentheus own mother, Agave, to unintentionally perform his revenge: during the Baccahe ritual the God induces Pentheus to disguise himself in woman attire and spy the forbidden lubricous ceremony: the poor semi-unconscious mother slays Pentheus thinking he is a lion and triumphantly will show her son’s head. Dionysus will lead the epilogue explaining and stating his supremacy and how feeble and disillusioned humans can be.

Wise words are spoken by Euripides who borrows again old Teiresias’ voice and perfectly stigmatised the human limits that should never be forgotten:

οδν σοφιζμεσθα τοσι δαμοσιν.
πατρους παραδοχς, ς θ μλικας χρν
κεκτμεθ, οδες ατ καταβαλε λγος,
οδ ε δι κρων τ σοφν ηρηται φρενν.
ρε τις ς τ γρας οκ ασχνομαι,
μλλων χορεειν κρτα κισσσας μν;
ο γρ διρηχ θες, οτε τν νον
ε χρ χορεειν οτε τν γερατερον,
λλ ξ πντων βολεται τιμς χειν
κοινς, διαριθμν δ οδν αξεσθαι θλει

[Or prove our wit on Heaven’s high mysteries?
Not thou and I! That heritage sublime
Our sires have left us, wisdom old as time,
No word of man, how deep soe’er his thought
And won of subtlest toil, may bring to naught.
Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,
To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs;
What recks it? Seeing the God no line hath told
To mark what man shall dance, or young or old;
But craves his honours from mortality
All, no man marked apart; and great shall be!]

Thus Euripides opens the gates to the beginning of a rather inglorious age – which perhaps is still ours –where actual values, sense of balance and true dimensions have become inhuman, out of reach, and steady refuge in the past cannot be answer. The unleashed overconfidence in human possibilities is of course the key of progress and has undoubtedly brought many technical and medical achievements, nevertheless it is undeniable that has also contaminated the human relationship with the environment and continuously impacts several – if not all – the actual aspects that pertain to the sense of living itself. Euripides unquestionably performed a comprehensive analysis and achieved a bright and lucid precocious diagnosis of both the essence and the discomforts of being, but unfortunately he left us without any therapy…

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