Tacitus writes (Annals, XVI. Chapters 17 and 18-20, A.D. 66): "Within a few days, indeed, there perished in one and the same batch, Annaeus Mela, Cerialis Anicius, Rufius Crispinus and Petronius. . . . With regard to Caius Petronius, his character and life merit a somewhat more particular attention. He passed his days in sleep, and his nights in business, or in joy and revelry. Indolence was at once his passion and his road to fame. What others did by vigor and industry, he accomplished by his love of pleasure and luxurious ease. Unlike the men who profess to understand social enjoyment, and ruin their fortunes, he led a life of expense, without profusion; an epicure, yet not a prodigal; addicted to his appetites, but with taste and judgment; a refined and elegant voluptuary. Gay and airy in his conversation, he charmed by a certain graceful negligence, the more engaging as it flowed from the natural frankness of his disposition. With all this delicacy and careless ease, he showed, when he was Governor of Bithynia, and afterwards in the year of his Consulship, that vigor of mind and softness of manners may well unite in the same person. With his love of sensuality he possessed talents for business. From his public station he returned to his usual gratifications, fond of vice, or of pleasures that bordered upon it. His gayety recommended him to the notice of the Prince. Being in favor at Court, and cherished as the companion of Nero in all his select parties, he was allowed to be the arbiter of taste and elegance. Without the sanction of Petronius nothing was exquisite, nothing rare or delicious.
"Hence the jealousy of Tigellinus, who dreaded a rival in the good graces of the Emperor almost his equal; in the science of luxury his superior. Tigellinus determined to work his downfall; and accordingly addressed himself to the cruelty of the Prince,--that master passion, to which all other affections and every motive were sure to give way. He charged Petronius with having lived in close intimacy with Scaevinus, the conspirator; and to give color to that assertion, he bribed a slave to turn informer against his master. The rest of the domestics were loaded with irons. Nor was Petronius suffered to make his defense.
"Nero at that time happened to be on one of his excursions into Campania. Petronius had followed him as far as Cumae, but was not allowed to proceed further than that place. He scorned to linger in doubt and fear, and yet was not in a hurry to leave a world which he loved. He opened his veins, and closed them again, at intervals losing a small quantity of blood, then binding up the orifice, as his own inclination prompted. He conversed during the whole time with his usual gayety, never changing his habitual manner, nor talking sentences to show his contempt of death. He listened to his friends, who endeavored to entertain him, not with grave discourses on the immortality of the soul or the moral wisdom of philosophers, but with strains of poetry and verses of a gay and natural turn. He distributed presents to some of his servants, and ordered others to be chastised. He walked out for his amusement, and even lay down to sleep. In this last scene of his life he acted with such calm tranquillity, that his death, though an act of necessity, seemed no more than the decline of nature. In his will he scorned to follow the example of others, who like himself died under the tyrant's stroke; he neither flattered the Emperor nor Tigellinus nor any of the creatures of the Court. But having written, under the fictitious names of profligate men and women, a narrative of Nero's debauchery and his new modes of vice, he had the spirit to send to the Emperor that satirical romance, sealed with his own seal,--which he took care to break, that after his death it might not be used for the destruction of any person whatever.
"Nero saw with surprise his clandestine passions and the secrets of his midnight revels laid open to the world. To whom the discovery was to be imputed still remained a doubt. Amidst his conjectures, Silia, who by her marriage with a Senator had risen into notice, occurred to his memory. This woman had often acted as procuress for the libidinous pleasures of the Prince, and lived besides in close intimacy with Petronius. Nero concluded that she had betrayed him, and for that offense ordered her into banishment, making her a sacrifice to his private resentment."
Two questions arise out of this famous passage: 1. Is Petronius (Arbiter), author of the Satyricon, the same person as the Caius Petronius here described, and spoken of by the Historian as "elegantiae arbiter" at the Court of Nero? 2. Is the existing Satyricon the "satirical romance" composed by the Emperor's victim during his dying hours and sent under seal to the tyrant?
Both points have been long and vigorously debated, but may now be taken as fairly well settled by general consent,--the answer to the first query being Yes! To the second, No!
The Introductory Notice to Petronius, in the noble "Collection des Auteurs Latins," edited by M. Nisard, sums up the controversy thus: "Is Petronius, here mentioned by Tacitus, the Author of the Satyricon, and are we to regard this work as being the testamentary document addressed to Nero of which the Historian speaks?" These two questions so long and eagerly disputed, may be looked upon as decided by this time. The Consular, the favorite of Nero, the "arbiter of taste and elegance" at the Imperial Court, is generally acknowledged to be our Petronius Arbiter; whose book, diversified as it is with "strains of poetry and verses of a gay and natural turn," with its tone of good company and its easy-going Epicurean morality, is so much in keeping with the cheerful, uncomplaining death of the pleasure-loving courtier who understood his master's little peculiarities, and had, like Trimalchio, adopted for his motto, "Vivamus, dum licet esse,"--"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." At any rate in our own opinion, this first point is finally and definitely decided.
"Can this satire (The Satyricon) be the testament of irony and hate which the victim sent to his executioner? To this further question we answer No!--and our personal conviction on the point is shared by the most weighty authorities. We will limit ourselves here to one or two observations. According to Tacitus, Petronius had already caused his veins to be opened, when he started to recapitulate the series of Nero's debaucheries in this deposition. The document therefore must necessarily have been brief; whereas the work we possess, too extensive as it stands to have been composed by a dying man, was originally of much greater length, for it seems proved by the titles affixed to the Manuscripts that nearly nine-tenths of the whole is lost. Besides, Petronius had expressly limited his statement to an account of Nero's secret debaucheries, with no further disguise beyond the use of fictitious names,--'under the names of profligate men and women.' Lastly the extremely varied character of the Work is diametrically opposed to a view, making it out to have been a personal libel, a piece of abuse that only stops short of giving the actual name of the individual pilloried."
What is known of Petronius himself, the man Petronius?--Granting an affirmative answer may be given to question 1, something; but even then not much.
His name was Caius Petronius; he was a Roman Eques or Knight, born at Massilia (Marseilles). Even these initial points are not quite firmly established; Pliny and Plutarch speak of Titus Petronius, and the facts of his being an Eques and his birth at Marseilles rest on conjectural evidence. He was successively Proconsul of Bithynia, and Consul, in both which high offices he showed integrity, energy and ability.
He was in high favor at the Court of Nero, where he devoted his undoubted talents and genial wit to the amusement of the Prince, the systematic cultivation of an elegant and luxurious idleness and the elaboration of a refined profligacy. He won the title among his fellow courtiers of "arbiter elegantiae," a nickname that with time appears to have grown into a sort of surname, posterity knowing him universally as Petronius Arbiter.
Eventually he incurred the jealousy and enmity of Nero's all-powerful Minister, Tigellinus, who contrived his ruin. Informed against for conspiracy, or at any rate association with conspirators, he voluntarily opened his veins. Displaying much fortitude and a fine indifference, he died calmly and composedly, spending his last hours in merry conversation with his friends, the recitation of light-hearted verses and the composition of a candid and circumstantial account of the Emperor's debaucheries, which he sent under seal to his Master as his dying bequest.
Pliny (1) and Plutarch (2) add further touch, that previous to his death he broke to pieces a Murrhine vase of priceless value, which was amongst his possessions, to prevent its falling into the tyrant's hands.
As to his great work, the so-called Satyricon, its characteristics and place in literature, we cannot do better than quote from what Professor Ramsey says of it in the "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography": "A very singular production, consisting of a prose narrative interspersed with numerous pieces of poetry, and thus resembling in form the Varronian Satire, has come down to us in a sadly mutilated state. In the oldest MSS. and the earliest editions it bears the title Petronii Arbitri Saturicon, and as it now exists, is composed of a series of fragments, the continuity of the piece being frequently interrupted by blanks, and the whole forming but a very small portion of the original, which, when entire, contained at least sixteen books, and probably many more. It is a sort of comic romance, in which the adventures of a certain Encolpius and his companions in the south of Italy, chiefly in Naples or its environs, are made a vehicle for exposing the false taste which prevailed upon all matters connected with literature and the fine arts, and for holding up to ridicule and detestation the folly, luxury and dishonesty of all classes of the community in the age and country in which the scene is laid. A great variety of characters connected for the most part with the lower ranks of life are brought upon the stage, and support their parts with the greatest liveliness and dramatic propriety, while every page overflows with ironical wit and broad humor. Unfortunately the vices of the personages introduced are depicted with such minute fidelity that we are perpetually disgusted by the coarseness and obscenity of the descriptions. Indeed, if we can believe that such a book was ever widely circulated and generally admired, that fact alone would afford the most convincing proof of the pollution of the epoch to which it belongs. . . .
"The longest and most important section is generally known as the Supper of Trimalchio, presenting us with a detailed and very amusing account of a fantastic banquet, such as the most luxurious and extravagant gourmands of the empire were wont to exhibit on their tables. Next in interest is the well-known tale of the Ephesian Matron, which here appears for the first time among the popular fictions of the Western world, although current from a very early period in the remote regions of the East. . . . The longest of the effusions in verse is a descriptive poem on the Civil Wars, extending to 295 hexameter lines, affording a good example of that declamatory tone of which the Pharsalia is the type. We have also 65 iambic trimeters, depicting the capture of Troy (Troiae Halosis), and besides these several shorter morsels are interspersed replete with grace and beauty."
Teuffel in his masterly "History of Roman Literature" is brief, but to the point, in what he says of the Satyricon: "To Nero's time belongs also the character-novel of Petronius Arbiter, no doubt the same Petronius whom Nero (A.D. 66) compelled to kill himself. Originally a large work in at least 20 books, with accounts of various adventures supposed to have taken place during a journey, it now consists of a heap of fragments, the most considerable of which is the Cena Trimalchionis, being the description of a feast given by a rich and uneducated upstart. Though steeped in obscenity, this novel is not only highly important for the history of manners and language, especially the plebeian speech, but it is also a work of art in its way, full of spirit, fine insight into human nature, wit of a high order and genial humor. In its form it is a satira Menippea, in which the metrical pieces interspersed contain chiefly parodies of certain fashions of taste."
"The narrator and hero of the romance," Nisard writes in his Preliminary Notice to "Petronius," "is a sort of Guzman d'Alfarache, a young profligate, over head and ears in debt, without either fortune, or family, and reduced, with all his brilliant qualitites, to live from hand to mouth by dint of a series of more or less hazardous expedients. The pictures he draws with such a bold and lifelike touch change and shift without plan or purpose, following each other with the same abrupt inconsequence we observe in real life; and we are strongly tempted to conclude Petronius has largely depicted in them the actual phases of his own, that of a self-made adventurer, appropriating as his own with extraordinary success the tone of persiflage and the ironical outlook on existence of a man of high birth and station. With equal ease he sounds the most contradictory notes. Verse and prose, precepts of rhetoric and of ethics, scenes of profligate indulgence, comic descriptions of a feast where luxury is carried to ludicrous extremes, anecdotes told in the happiest manner, notably the world-famous tale of the Ephesian Matron, epic poetry even, love letters and love talk breathing a refined, almost chivalric, spirit,--such is the strange fabric of this drama, at once passionate, derisive, fanfaronading, tragic and burlesque, where the grand style and the most graceful narrative tread on the heels of provincial patois and popular saws. . . .
"Petronius' book belongs essentially to the class of Satirae Menippeae, of which Varro had given the first example in the works he composed in imitation of the Greek Menippus, and of which Seneca's Apocolocyntosis is another capital instance."
All critics agree upon the excellence of the Satyricon as a work of art, though many take exception to the grossness of the subject matter. Indeed there can be no two opinions as to the brilliancy and refinement of our Author's style generally; while the vivid picturesqueness of the narrative on the one hand, and the perfect adaptation of the language to the rank and idiosyncrasy of the interlocutors on the other, are particularly noteworthy. "The very criticisms which have been launched against Petronius are mingled with admiring panegyric which a due regard for truth has forced from his assailants; and in the mouth of an enemy, praise counts for much more than blame. Even the barbarisms and vulgarities of expressions that at times seem to disfigure his style, are in the eyes of Menage the perfection of art and appropriateness; he puts them only in the mouths of servants and debuachees devoid of any touch of refinement. Note on the other hand with what elegance he makes his well-born characters speak. Petronius assigns to each one of his actors the language most suited to him. This is a merit precious in direct ratio to its rarity; the shadows with which a skillful painter darkens his canvas, only serve to bring out in more startling relief the beauties of the picture. Justus Lipsius epigrammatically styles him auctor purissimae impuritatis." (Heguin de Guerle.)
The first thing to strike us is the brilliancy and liveliness of the book--fragmentary as is the condition in which it has come down to us--as a Novel of Adventure. The reader is hurried on, his interest forever on the stretch, from episode to episode of the exciting, and more often than not scandalous, adventures of the disreputable band of light-hearted gentlemen of the road, whose leader is that most audacious and irresponsible of amiable scamps, Encolpius, the narrator of the moving tale. With the exception of the six chapters devoted to describing the glories and absurdities of Trimalchio's Feast, which form a long episode apart, and a most entertaining one, the action never pauses. From lecture-room to house of ill fame, from country mansion to country tavern, from the market for stolen goods in a city slum to the Chapel of Priapus, from a harlot's palace to a rich parvenu's table, from Picture Gallery to the public baths, from ship and shipwreck to a luxurious life of imposture in a wealthy provincial town, we are hurried along in breathless haste. The pace is tremendous, but the road bristles with hairbreadth escapes and stirring incidents, and is never for one instant dull or tame. Probably the nearest parallel in other literatures is the so-called picaresque romances of Spain, of which Don Pablo de Segovia; Lazarillo de Tormes; and, if we regard it of Spanish origin, the incomparable Gil Blas de Santillana, may be taken as typical examples.
A mere Novel of Adventure then? Not so! The Satyricon is this; but it is a great deal besides. It abounds in clear-sighted and instructive apercus on education, literature and art, and contemporary deficiencies in these domains; its prose is interspersed with many brilliant fragments of verse, mostly parodies and burlesques, some ludicrous, some beautiful. Over and above its merits as a tale, it is a copious literary miscellany, over-flowing with wit and wisdom, drollery and sarcasm.
Last but not least, this work of fine, if irregular, genius contains probably the most lifelike and discriminating character painting in the realm of everyday life to be found in all the range of ancient literature. To appreciate this, it is only necessary to name three or four of the principal dramatis personae:--
Encolpius, the gay, unprincipled profligate, but never altogether worthless, narrator of the story;
Ascyltos, his comrade and rival, as immoral and good for nothing as the other, but without his redeeming touch of gentlemanliness and "honor among thieves";
Giton, the minion, changeable and capricious, with his pretty face and wheedling ways;
Tryphaena, the beautiful wanton, who "travels the world for her pleasures";
Lichas, the overbearing and vindictive merchant and Sea-captain; Quartilla, the lascivious and unscrupulous votary of Priapus; Circe, the lovely "femme incomprise" of Croton; and finally, the never to be forgotten Eumolpus, the mad poet, the disreputable and starving pedant, at once "childlike and bland" with an ineffable naivete of simple conceit, and frankly given up to the pursuit of the most abominable immoralities, now bolting from the shower of stones his ineradicable propensity for reciting his own poetry has provoked, now composing immortal verse, calm amid the horrors of storm and wreck and utterly oblivious of impending death.
Another point, the admirably clever adaptation of the language to the social position and character of the persons speaking, merits a word or two more. While both the general narrative, and the conversation of the educated dramatis personae, Eumolpus for instance, are marked by a high degree of correctness of diction and elegance of phrase, the talk of such characters as Trimalchio and his freedmen friends, Habinnas and the rest, and other uneducated or half-educated persons, is full not merely of vulgarisms and popular words, but of positive blunders and downright bad grammar. These mistakes of course are intentional, and it is only another proof of the lack of humor and want of common sense that often marked the industrious and meritorious scholars, particularly German scholars, of the old school, that some commentators have actually gone out of their way to correct these errors in the text of Petronius. There are hundreds of them; two or three examples must suffice here. Libra rubricata says Trimalchio (Ch. VII.--xlvi), meaning libros rubricatos, "lawbooks," and vetuo "I forbid," while his guests indulge in such glaring solecisms as malus fatus, exhortavit, naufragarunt. The whole of Chapter VII., where Trimalchio's guests converse freely with one another in the temporary absence of their host, and afterwards Trimalchio harangues the company on various subjects, is full of these diverting "bulls."
From the philologist's point of view the book is particularly valuable as containing almost our only specimens of the Roman popular, country speech,--the lingua Romana rusticana, so all important as the link between literary Latin and the Romance languages of modern Europe. Two or three examples again must suffice: minutus populus, exactly the modern French "le menu peuple," urceatim plovebat, "it rained in bucketfuls," non est miscix, "he's no shirker," bono filo est, "he has good stuff in him." It is also a storehouse of popular saws and sayings, sometimes of a fine, vigorous outspokenness, not to say coarseness of expression, such as: caldum meiire et frigidum potare, "to piss hot and drink cold"; sudor per bifurcam volabat, "the sweat was pouring down between my legs"; lassus tanquam caballus in clivo, "as tired as a carthorse at a hill."
"In addition to the corruptions in the text," says Professor Ramsay, "which are so numerous and hopeless as to render whole sentences unintelligible, there are doubtless a multitude of strange words and of phrases not elsewhere to be found; but this circumstance need excite no surprise when we remember the various topics which fall under discussion, and the singular personages grouped together on the scene. The most remarkable and startling peculiarities may be considered as the phraseology appropriate to the characters by whom they are uttered, the language of ordinary conversation, the familiar slang in everyday use among the hybrid population of Campania, closely resembling in all probability the dialect of the Atellan farces. On the other hand, wherever the author may be supposed to be speaking in his own person, we are deeply impressed by the extreme felicity of the style, which, far from bearing marks of decrepitude or decay, is redolent of spirit, elasticity, and vigorous freshness."
As to the text, the following remarks by Professor Ramsay, give a complete statement which it is impossible to improve upon. "Many attempts," he writes, "have been made to account for the strangely mutilated condition in which the piece has been transmitted to modern times. It has been suggested by some that the blanks were caused by the scruples of pious transcribers, who omitted those parts which were most licentious; while others have not hesitated to declare their conviction that the worst passages were studiously selected. Without meaning to advocate this last hypothesis--and we can scarcely believe that Burmann was in earnest when he propounded it--it is clear that the first explanation is altogether unsatisfactory, for it appears to be impossible that what was passed over could have been more offensive than much of what was retained. According to another theory, what we now possess must be regarded as striking and favorite extracts, copied out into the common-place book of some scholar in the Middle Ages; a supposition applicable to the Supper of Trimalchio and the longer poetical essays, but which fails for the numerous short and abrupt fragments breaking off in the middle of a sentence. The most simple solution of the difficulty seems to be the true one. The existing MS. proceeded, in all likelihood, from two or three archetypes, which may have been so much damaged by neglect that large portions were rendered illegible, while whole leaves and sections may have been torn out or otherwise destroyed.
"The Editio Princeps of the fragments of Petronius was printed at Venice, by Bernardinus de Vitalibus, 1499; and the second at Leipzig, by Jacobus Thanner, in 1500; but these editions, and those which followed for upwards of a hundred and fifty years, exhibited much less than we now possess. For, about the middle of the seventeenth century, an individual who assumed the designation of Martinus Statilius, although his real name was Petrus Petitus, found a MS. at Traun in Dalmatia, containing nearly entire the Supper of Trimalchio, which was wanting in all former copies. This was published separately at Padua, in a very incorrect state, in 1664, without the knowledge of the discoverer, again by Petitus himself at Paris, in the same year, and immediately gave rise to a fierce controversy, in which the most learned men of that day took a share, one party receiving it without suspicion as a genuine relic of antiquity, while their opponents, with great vehemence, contended that it was spurious. The strife was not quelled until the year 1669, when the MS. was dispatched from the Library of the proprietor, Nicolaus Cippius, at Traun, to Rome, where, having been narrowly scrutinized by the most competent judges, it was finally pronounced to be at least three hundred years old, and, since no forgery of such a nature could have been executed at that epoch, the skeptics were compelled reluctantly to admit that their doubts were ill founded. The title of the Codex, commonly known as the Codex Traguriensis, was Petronii Arbitri Satyri Fragmenta ex libro quinto decimo et sexto decimo, and then follow the words 'Num alio genere furiarum,' etc.
"Stimulated, it would appear, by the interest excited during the progress of this discussion, and by the favor with which the new acquisition was now universally regarded by scholars, a certain Francis Nodot published at Rotterdam, in 1693, what professed to be the Satyricon of Petronius complete, taken, it was said, from a MS. found at Belgrade, when that city was captured in 1688, a MS. which Nodot declared had been presented to him by a Frenchman high in the Imperial service. The fate of this volume was soon decided. The imposture was so palpable that few could be found to advocate the pretensions put forth on its behalf, and it was soon given up by all. It is sometimes, however, printed along with the genuine text, but in a different type, so as to prevent the possibility of mistake. Besides this, a pretended fragment, said to have been obtained from the monastery of St. Gall, was printed in 1800, with notes and a French translation by Lallemand, but it seems to have deceived nobody."
In the present version the portions of the narrative derived from this alleged Belgrade MS. are not specially distinguished from the genuine text; this is done advisedly, in order not to interrupt the continuity of the story. This does not of course for a moment imply that these interpolations are regarded as other than spurious, but as they are both amusing reading in themselves as well as admirable imitations of our Author's style, and supply obvious lacunae in the plot, making the whole book more interesting and coherent, they have been retained as an integral part of the work.
We append three or four extracts bearing upon Petronius and the Satyricon, and interesting either on account of the source from which they come, the quaintness of their expression, or the weight of their authority.
From the "Age of Petronius," by Charles Beck, 1856: "Among the small number of Latin writers of prose fiction, Petronius, the author of the Satyricon, occupies a prominent place. . . . As to this book, the quality of its language and style and the nature of its contents constitute it one of the most interesting and important relics of Roman lierature, antiquities and history.
"The work, at least the portion which has come down to us, contains the adventures of a dissipated, unprincipled, but clever, cultivated and well-informed young man, Encolpius, the hero himself being the narrator. The book opens with a discussion on the defects of the existing system of education, in which the shortcomings of both teachers and parents are pointed out. Next follows a scene in the Forum, in which the hero and his companion, Ascyltos, are concerned, and which exhibits some of the abuses connected with judicial proceedings. After a brief and passing mention of the vices and hypocrisy of the priests, the highly interesting portion containing an account of the banquet of Trimalchio follows. This is succeeded by the account of the acquaintance which the hero, disappointed and dispirited by the faithless conduct of his companion, forms with a philosopher, Eumolpus, who besides discussing some subjects relating to art, especially painting, and to literature, gives an account of his infamous proceedings in corrupting the son of a family in whose house he had been hospitably received. The hero accepts the invitation of the philosopher to accompany him on an excursion to Tarentum. The account of the voyage, of the discovery made by Encolpius that he is on board a vessel owned by a person whose vengeance he had just ground to apprehend, of his fruitless attempt to escape detection, of the reconciliation of the hostile parties, and of the destruction of the vessel and the greater portion of the passengers by shipwreck, is full of interest. The hero and his immediate companions, being the only persons that escaped death, make their way to Croton, where Eumolpus, by representing himself as the owner of valuable and extensive possessions in Africa, works so upon the avarice and cupidity of the inhabitants, who are described as a set of legacy-hunters by profession, that he meets with the most hospitable reception. An intrigue of the hero with a beautiful lady of the city occupies a large part of this section of the story. The book closes with an account of the measures which Eumolpus takes for the purpose of avoiding the detection of his fraud, by working anew upon the avarice of his hosts. The close is abrupt as the beginning had been; the book is incomplete in both parts; the end, as well as the beginning, is wanting.
"That the author of this work was a man of genius is unquestionable. The narrative of the events of the story is simple,--exciting, without exhausting, the interest of the reader, the description of customs, chiefly those of the middle classes of society, is invaluable to the antiquarian, and the importance of the work in this respect can scarcely be overrated; the personages introduced into the story are drawn with such a clearness of perception of their characteristics, and such an accuracy of portraiture, extending to the very peculiarities of the language used by each, that they appear to live and breathe and move before our eyes."
From John Dunlop's History of Fiction: "The most celebrated fable of ancient Rome is the work of Petronius Arbiter, perhaps the most remarkable fiction which has dishonored the literature of any nation. It is the only fable of that period now extant, but is a strong proof of the monstrous corruption of the times in which such a production could be tolerated, though no doubt writings of bad moral tendency might be circulated before the invention of printing, without arguing the depravity they would have evinced, if presented to the world subsequent to that period.
"The work of Petronius is in the form of a satire, and, according to some commentators, is directed against the vices of the court of Nero, who is thought to be delineated under the names of Trimalchio and Agamemnon,--an opinion which has been justly ridiculed by Voltaire. The satire is written in a manner which was first introduced by Varro; verses are intermixed with prose, and jests with serious remark. It has much the air of a romance, both in the incidents and their disposition; but the story is too well known, and too scandalous, to be particularly detailed.
"The scene is laid in Magna Graecia; Encolpius is the chief character in the work, and the narrator of events;--he commences by a lamentation on the decline of eloquence, and while listening to the reply of Agamemnon, a professor of oratory, he loses his companion, Ascyltos. Wandering through the town in search of him, he is finally conducted by an old woman to a retirement where the incidents that occur are analogous to the scene. The subsequent adventures,--the feast of Trimalchio,--the defection and return of Giton,--the amour of Eumolpus in Bithynia,--the voyage in the vessel of Lichas,--the passion and disappointment of Circe,--all these follow each other without much art of arrangement, an apparent defect which may arise from the mutilated form in which the satire has descended to us.
"The style of Petronius has been much applauded for its elegance,--it certainly possesses considerable naivete and grace, and is by much too fine a veil for so deformed a body."
From Addison's Preface to his Translation of Petronius: "'Petronius,' says that judicious critic, Mons. St. Evremond, 'is to be admired throughout, for the purity of his style and the delicacy of his sentiments; but that which more surprises me, is his great easiness in giving us ingenuously all sorts of Characters. Terence is perhaps the only author of Antiquity that enters best into the nature of persons. But still this fault I find in him, that he has too little variety; his whole talent being confined in making servants and old men, a covetous father and a debauched son, a slave and an intriguer, to speak properly, according to their several characters. So far, and no farther, the capacity of Terence reaches. You must not expect from him either gallantry or passion, either thoughts or the discourse of a gentleman. Petronius, who had a universal wit, hits upon the genius of all professions, and adapts himself, as he pleases, to a thousand different natures. If he introduces a Declaimer, he assumes his air and his style so well, that one could say he had used to declaim all his life. Nothing expresses more naturally the constant disorders of a debauched life than these everlasting quarrels of Encolpius and Ascyltos about Giton.
"Is not Quartilla an admirable portrait of a prostitute woman? Does not the marriage of young Giton and innocent Pannychis give us the image of a complete wantonness?
"All that a sot ridiculously magnificent in banquets, a vain affecter of niceness, and an impertinent, are able to do, you have at the Feast of Trimalchio.
"Eumolpus shows us Nero's extravagant folly for the Theater, and his vanity in reciting his own poems; and you may observe, as you run over so many noble verses, of which he makes an ill use, that an excellent poet may be a very ill man. . . . The infirmity he has of making verses out of season, even at death's door; his fluentness in repeating his compositions in all places and at all times, answers his most ridiculous setting out, where he characteristically tells him, "I am a Poet, and I hope, of no ordinary genius.' . . .
"There is nothing so natural as the character of Chrysis, and none of our confidantes come near her. Not to mention her first conversation with Polyaenus,--what she tells him of her mistress, upon the affront she received, has an inimitable simplicity. But nobody, besides Petronius, could have described Circe, so beautiful, so voluptuous, and so polite. Enothea, the Priestess of Priapus, ravishes me with the miracles she promises, with her enchantments, her sacrifices, her sorrow for the death of the consecrated goose, and the manner in which she is pacified when Polyaenus makes her a present, with which she might purchase a goose and gods too, if she thought fit.
"Philumena, that complaisant lady, is no less entertaining, who after she had cullied several men out of their estates, in the flower of her beauty, now being old and by consequence unfit for pleasures, endeavored to keep up this noble trade by the means of her children, whom she took every opportunity to introduce with a thousand fine discourses to old men, who had no heirs of their own.
"In a word, there is no part of Nature, no profession, which Petronius doth not admirably paint. He is a Poet, an Orator, a Philosopher, and much more besides, at his pleasure."
Lastly Teufel, writing of the Satyricon in Pauly's Encyclopedia, says: "The whole plan of the work is that of a novel; two freedmen, Encolpius and Ascyltos, are enamored of a boy Giton, and the adventures which have their origin in this circumstance, and which they encounter severally, the acquaintances which they make (for instance of Trimalchio and Eumolpus), form the contents at least of that portion of the book which has come down to us. But the book contains in this dress of a narrative, descriptions of manners, partly of single places (for example of Croton), partly of certain classes (for example of Trimalchio, a rich upstart, who apes the manners of a refined man of the world, but exposes himself most ridiculously, of Encolpius, a good-natured, cowardly and licentious Greek, of Eumolpus, a vain and tasteless poet, and at the same time a thoroughly demoralized preacher of virtue), all drawn with masterly truthfulness even to the minutest detail. The tone is humorous throughout; the dramatis personae act and speak, even in the most offensive circumstances, with an openness, unconcern and self-satisfaction, as if they had the most undoubted right to be and think as they do; at the same time, a vein of gentle irony pervades the whole, which indicates the author's moral independence and higher standpoint, as well as his sincere gratification at the amusing and filthy scenes which he describes; he accompanies his heroes at every step with a smile on his lips and a low laugh. The work belongs therefore, by its contents as well as its tone, to the department of satire, resembling in tone Horace, in form the Minippean satire.
"For not only does the language occasionally pass over from prose to verse (limping iambs and trochees), but entire poems of greater extent are interwoven (Troiae Halosis and Bellum Civile), which are usually put in the mouth of Eumolpus, and which always have a satirical object, sometimes a double one, as in the case with the Bellum Civile, which ridicules Lucan, as well as his opponents personified by Eumolpus, the writer with genuine humor placing himself above both, and dealing against both his blows with impartial justice. The language is always suited to the character of the persons speaking, elegant in Encolpius, bombastic in Trimalchio. The language put in the mouth of the last is for us an invaluable specimen of the lingua Romana rustica, as it obtained in that part of Italy where the scene is laid,--in Campania, and especially Naples. In conformity with the originally Greek character of this region, the language of Trimalchio and his companions is full of Greek words and Grecisms of the boldest kind (such as coupling the neuter plural with the verb in the singular). Characteristic of the local dialect are the many archaisms, compounds not known in the written language, the frequent solecisms, the many proverbial and extravagant expressions, the numerous oaths and curses."
A brilliant passage from Emile Thomas' remarkable study of Petronius and contemporary Roman society, entitled, "Petrone: L'Envers de la Societe Romaine" (Paris, 1902), may fitly sum up the situation. "This romance," he writes, "such delightful and at the same time such difficult reading, a work at once exquisite and repulsive, gives us by virtue of its defects no less than of its merits a fairly adequate representation of the under-side of Roman civilization. Would it not be a gain, and a great one, for the systematic history of morals and literature at Rome to restore this work to its proper place? and is not this place pretty well identical, barring of course the difference of field and form, with that reserved in Greek Art for the vases, statuettes and pottery of Tanagra, and of the periods before and after Tanagra; in one word, whatever allows us to comprehend, or at least get a glimpse of, the Ancient world under the aspects of its everyday life? Everybody knows how successful has been the revolution, and how fruitful in results, which has been brought about under our own eyes in these departments of Greek History and Archeology.
"Well! here (in Petronius) we have among the authors of Rome a veritable genre painter, of a sort to take the place for us, at any rate in part, of the graceful vase-paintings of Antiquity, as well as of the grotesques of Greek art.
"From yet another aspect, not a few points of resemblance may be detected between Petronius and the lighter literary productions, novels, tales, burlesque narratives, vers de societe, and even journals, of the last two Centuries. Our Author is refined, not to say blase, but none the less inquisitive, full both of sagacity and passion, always exact, and above and beyond all else, a supreme master of style. Laying aside all false delicacy, let us hear what he has to tell us of the daily routine, of the outward aspect, and even of the hidden secrets, of Roman existence. Nowhere else has human life been lived on an ampler scale; no other people, no other society, has ever displayed so much variety, so many contrasts, such heights of grandeur and such depths of degradation."
ALFRED R. ALLINSON.