1902 Encyclopedia > Petronius

Petronius (or Petronius Arbiter)
Latin author
(died 66 A.D.)

PETRONIUS. Petronius Arbiter, although excluded from the list of classical writers available for the purposes of education, is one who enjoyed a great reputation, especially in France, at a time when Latin authors were more read as literature than they are in the present day. A recent critic (Footnote 720-1) of Petronius has stated, though with evident exaggeration, that no ancient writer expect Aristotle has found so many interpreters. But there is perhaps none about whose history and era there has been so much controversy, nor in the controversy yet settled with absolute certainly. He hides himself so completely behind the mask of his fictitious personages that we learn nothing of his fortunes, position, or even of the century to which he belonged, directly from himself. He does not belong to any of the classes of "viri illustres" )poets, orators, historians, philosophers, grammarians, and rhetoricians) whose lives were written by Suetonius. Though he is mentioned by critics, commentators, and grammarians of a late date (such as Macbrobius, Servius, and Priscian), the only hint we have of anything bearing on his personal position is contained in two lines of Sidonius Apollinaris, a writer of the latter part of the 5th century A.D., who associates him with the master of Latin eloquence, Cicero, Livy, and Virgil, in the lines –

"Et te, Massiliensium per hortos
Sacri stipitis, Arbiter, colonum
Hellespontiaco parem Priapo."

If these lines are to be constructed as implying that Petronius lived and wrote his work at Marseilles, this inference could hardly be reconciled with the indirect evidence which leads to the identification of the author of the Satirae with the C. Petronius of whom Tacitus has painted so vivid a picture in the sixteenth book of the Annals (ch. 18, 19). His place of residence in his later years at least was not Marseilles but Rome. There is nothing, however, in what Tacitus says incompatible with the supposition that Marseilles was his birthplace; or perhaps the allusion might be explained by the supposition – supported by a note of Servius on Virgil, Aen., iii. 57 – that the scene in the early part of the long novel, of which two fragmentary books have been preserved, was laid at Marseilles. The chief personages of the story, as they appear in these fragments of books xv. And xvi., are evidently strangers in the towns of the south of Italy where the adventures in the town of the south of Italy where the adventures in which they share are supposed to take place. Their Greek-sounding names (Encolpius, Ascyltos, Giton, &c), and their literary training also, accord with the characteristics of the Greek colony in the 1st century A.D. The high position among Latin writers assigned by Sidonius to Petronius, and the mention of him by Macrobius in juxtaposition with Menander, when compared with the absolute silence of such writers as Quintilian, Juvenal, and Martial, who might have been expected to have taken some notice of him id he had flourished immediately before their own day, seem adverse to the generally received opinion that the Satirae was a work of the age of the fact that Petronius is not one of those writers who were capable of being turned to use in the education of an orator. The silence of Martial and Juvenal may be accidental. Even if it is to be explained on the ground of want of appreciation, this would prove nothing more than that a work so abnormal in form and substance was more highly prized by later generations than by the author’s contemporaries.

But, is we pass from these faint traces of external evidence to that afforded by the style of the book and the state of manners described in it, we are led to the inference that there is not other age to which it can be assigned on better grounds than the age of Nero. If, again, we compare the impression we form of the character, genius , and habits of the writer with the elaborate picture which Tacitus paints of a man who, so far as he plays any part in history, is merely one of the victims of an abortive conspiracy , we find ground of probability for identifying them with one another. Tacitus does not tell us he was the author of any important work, and this has been urged as conclusive on the question. But Tacitus does not think it necessary in what he tells us of Germanicus of Claudius to mention their poetical and historical works. In introducing Silius Italicus as the witness of a particular occurrence he does not add that he was the author of the poem on the Punic War. He mentions that the poetical gifts and reputation of Lucan and Seneca were among the Pharsalia of the one or the Tragedies of the other, The prominence which Tacitus gives to the portrait of Petronius points to his enjoyment of greater notoriety than was due to the part he played in history. He paints him with the keen and severe eye with which he fastens on the traits of character and the manner of life illustrative of the moral corruption of the time, but at the same time with that appreciation of intellectual power which forces him to do justice to men who in other respects were detestable. Such a work as the Satirae he could, from a moral point of view, have regarded with no other feelings than those of detestation; yet he could not have refused his admiration to the unmistakable proof it affords of easy careless power, and of a spirit, if not courageous in any good sense, yet indifferent to death, and capable of meeting calamity with Epicurean irony.

The account he gives of C. Petronius is "that he spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigour and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste ('arbiter elegantiae’) in connexion with the science of luxurious living." This excited the jealously of Tigellinus, and led to his condemnation. Petronius’s death is then described, which was in keeping with his mode of life and character. He selected the slow process of opening his veins and having them bound up again, while in conversing with his friends he avoided the serious subjects natural at such a tine, and listened to their recitation of light odes and trifling verses. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from imitating the practice of others by flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, he wrote, sealed, and sent to the emperor a document which professed to give, with the names of the partners of his vices, a detailed account of the scandalous life of the court.

That this portraits, drawn with such characteristic lines, and painted in such sombre colouring, is sketched form the life in Tacitus’s most graphic manner is unquestionable. A fact confirmatory of its general truth is added by the elder Pliny (who calls him T. Petronius) who mentions that just before his death he destroyed into the hands of Nero. The question arises whether there is ground for identifying the author of the fragment which we possess under the name of Satirae with the person so minutely and faithfully described by Tacitus. Do the traits of his picture agree with that impression of himself which every writer of marked individuality unconsciously leaves on his work? Further, is there bay reason for supposing, as some have maintained, that in this fragment we possess the actual document sent to Nero? The last question may be at once dismissed. The only fragments connected by any kind of continuity which we possess to be extracts of the fifteenth and sixteenth books of a work that must have extended to a great length. It would have been impossible to have composed one-tenth part even of this fragment in the time in which Petronius is said to have composed his memorial to Nero. Those who find in the representation of the vulgar, ostentatious, illiterate, but tolerably good-natured Trimalchio a satire on Nero or Tigellinus are capable of finding any meaning they desire in any literary work of a past age.(Footnote 721-1) But at the same time it is legitimate to note that the author of the banquet of Trimalchio and of the lives of Encolpius and Giton had both the experience and the literary gifts which would enable him to describe with scathing mockery the

"Luxuriam imperii veterem noctesque Neronis,"

and that he was not one to be restrained by any prudery form describing them in their most revolting details.

On the other hand, the arguments against identifying the writer of the fragment with the original of the portrait of Tacitus, based on the silence of the historian as to his authorship, may be explained by reference to the historian’s practice in regard to the authors of other literary works. Unless these works had any bearing on the part which their authors played in history he did not feel himself called upon to mention them; and such a work as the Satirae he would have regarded as especially beneath the dignity of history, of which he had so proud a consciousness. The impression of his personality produced by the author corresponds closely with that of the Petronius of the Annals, not only in the evidence it affords of intimate familiarity with the vices of the age, but in the union of an immoral sensualism with a rich vein of cynical humour and an admirable taste, which we should expect to find in one who rose to favour by his social an convivial qualities, and who received the title of "elegantiae arbiter." The Epicurean maxims, such as --

"Vivamus dum licet esse bene,"

quoted by his actors, and the frequent introduction of short poems into their conversations, are in conformity with the opinions and tastes of one who in his last hours "audiebat referents nihil de immortalitate animae et sapientium placitis, sed levia carmina et faciles versus." Further, the name "Arbiter," by which he is mentioned in later writers, is not an ordinary Latin cognomen, but may have been bestowed on him by his contemporaries from the fact that his judgment was regarded as the criterion of good taste, and Tacitus, in the phrase he perpetuates, may have fixed this as his designation for later writers.

The style of the work, where it does not purposely reproduce the solecisms, colloquialisms, and slang of the vulgar rich – for the most part freedmen of foreign origin – is recognized by the most competent critics as written in the purest Latin of the Silver Age. Coincidences of expression and thought with passages in the satires of Persius are not infrequent. (Footnote 722-1) The false taste in literature and expression fostered by the style of education is condemned by Persius and Petronius on the same grounds. When the latter speaks of the "mellitos verborum globulos" he may possibly have had Seneca in his ye. Again, there would have been no point in putting into the mouth of the old poet whom the adventures pick up verses on the capture of Troy and the Civil War at nay other era than that in which the Troica of Nero and the Pharsalia of Lucan were the fashionable poems. The pertinacity of the reciting poet, which is exposed with such quiet humour by Petronius, is a feature of the age, common to it with the age of Martial and Juvenal. But we learn from Tacitus that the luxury of the table, which appears so profuse and extravagant in the "dinner of Trimalchio," reached its highest pitch under Nero, and afterwards fell out of fashion (Tac., Ann., iii. 55).

The internal evidence based on the style and character of the work thus appears to favour the opinion that the book was written in the time of Nero; nor is there any one more likely to have been its author than the C. Petronius whose manner of life and whose death are so elaborately described by Tacitus.

The work, of which there have been preserved 141 sections or chapters of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps, must have been one of great originality as regards form subject matter, and mode of treatment. The name Satirae, by which it is designated in the best MSS., indicated that it claims to be the type of the original "satura" or "miscellany" to which Varro, in imitation of the Greek writer Menippus, had given the character of a medley of prose and verse composition. But, while in the title and form of the work it belonged to a familiar type, yet from another point of view it is to be regarded as the earliest extant specimen of an original and most important invention in Roman literature. We find in it indeed not only a medley of prose and verse composition, in which the former is much the most prominent element, but also much desultory matter, disquisitions on art and eloquence, stories and anecdotes, &c. But the novelty of form recognized in Petronius consists in the string of fictitious narratives by which these are kept together. The original Italian satura, superseded by the Latin comedy, had developed into the poetical satire of Lucilius and Horace, and into the miscellaneous prose and verse essays of Varro. In the hands of Petronius it assumed a new and most important phase in its development. The careless prodigal who gave his days to sleep and his nights to pleasure was so happily inspired in his devices for amusing himself as to introduce into Roman literature, and thereby transmit to modern times, the novel based on the ordinary experience (Footnote 722-2) of contemporary life, -- the precursor of such novels of adventure and character as Gil Blas and Roderick Random. There is no evidence of the existence of a regular plot in the Satirae; but we find one central figure, Encolpius, who professes to narrate his adventures, and to describe all that he saw and heard, while allowing various other personages to exhibit their peculiarities and express their opinions dramatically. From the nature of the adventures described there seems no reason why the book should not have gone on to an interminable length.

The fragment opens with the appearance of the hero, Encolpius, who seems to be an itinerant lecturer travelling with a companion named Ascyltos and a boy Giton, in a portion of a Greek town, admirable in Campania. Encolpius delivers a lecture, full of admirable sense, on the false taste in literature, resulting from the prevailing system of education, which is replied to by a rival declaimer, Agamemno, who shifts the blame from the teachers to the parents. The central personages of the story next go through a series of questionable adventures, in the course of which they are involved in a charge of robbery. A day or two after they are present at a diner given by a freeman of enormous wealth, Trimalchio, who had risen, as he boasted, "from a penny," and who entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance a number of men of his own rank, who had not been so prosperous in life. We see actually in flesh and blood specimens of those "Cappadocian knights" whom we have man pointed references in Martial and Juvenal. We witness their feats of gluttony; we listen to the ordinary talk of their guests about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, about the education of their children. We recognize in a fantastic and extravagant form the same kind of vulgarity and pretension which the satirist of all times delights to expose by pen or pencil in the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of the age. Next day Encolpius separates from his companions in a fit of jealousy, and, after two or three days’ sulking and brooding on his revenge enters a picture gallery, where he meets with an old poet, who, after talking sensibly of the decay of art and the inferiority of the painters o the age to the old masters, proceeds to recite in a public portico some verses on the capture of Troy, till his audience take to stoning him. The scene is next on board ship, where Encolpius finds he has fallen into the hands of some old enemies. They are shipwrecked, and Encolpius, Giton, and the poet get to shore in the neighbourhood of Crotona, where, with the view of attracting the attention of the inhabitants, notorious fortune-hunters, the adventures set up as men of fortune. The fragment ends with a new set of questionable adventures, in which prominent parts are played by a beautiful enchantress named Circe, a priestess of Priapus, and a certain matron who leaves them her heirs, but attached a condition to the inheritance which even Encolpius might have shrank from fulfilling. (Footnote 722-3)

What, then, maybe said to be the purpose of the book, and what is its ethical and literary value? It can hardly be called a satire in the ordinary, and certainly not in the Roman sense of the word. There is no trance of any purpose of exposing vice with any wish to correct it. If we can suppose the author to have been animated by any other motive than the desire to amuse himself it might be that if convincing himself that the world in general was as bad as he was himself. Juvenal and Swift are justly regarded as among the very greatest of satirists and their estimate of human nature is perhaps nearly as unfavourable as that of Petronius; but their attitude towards human degradation is not one of complacent amusement but if indignant condemnation,. They too, like Petronius, take pleasure in describing things most repugnant to all sense of delicacy with the coarsest realism, but theirs is the realism of disgust, not, like that of Petronius, a realism of sympathy. It might have been thought difficult to sink lower in the cynical tolerance of immortality than Martial occasionally has sunk. But there is all the difference in the world between Martial and Petronius. Martial does not gloat over the vices of which he writes with cynical frankness. He is perfectly aware that they are vices, and that the reproach of them is the worst that can be cast on any one. But further, Martial, with all his faults, is, in his affection, his tastes, his relations to others, essentially human, friendly, generous, true. There is perhaps not a single sentence in Petronius which implies any knowledge of or sympathy with the existence of affection, conscience, or honour, or even the most elementary goodness of heart, or of that amount of mutual confidence which is necessary to keep a band of brigands or a circle of swindlers together. In estimating such a work, which in its spirit not less than in its form and its literary execution is essentially abnormal, it is necessary to bear in mind that it has reached us in so fragmentary and mutilated a shape that we mat altogether have missed the key to it, and that it may have been intended by its author to be a sustained satire, written in a vein of reserved and powerful irony, of the type realized in our modern Jonathan Wild or Barry London. But, if this is not the explanation, we must fall back on the more obvious but still difficult solution that, in the entire divorce of intellectual power and insight from any element of right human feeling, the work is an exceptional phenomenon in literature. From an ethical and human point of view it is valuable only as a gauge of the degradation in which mush of Roman society was sunk in the age when Persius wrote his satires -- a work more pervaded by a spirit of moral purity than any other in Latin literature – and Christianity made its first converts in Rome.

But, as a work of original power, of humorous representation, of literary invention an art, the fragment deserved all the admiration which it has received. We recognize the "arbiter elegantiae" in the admirable sense of the remarks scattered through it on education on art on poetry and on eloquence . Though a better critic than a poet, yet he can write verse not only with good taste and simplicity, rare among the poets of that age, but with a true felling of nature, as, for instance, in his description of a grove of plane-tress, cypresses, and pines --

"Has inter ludebat aquis errantibus amnis
Spumens et querulo vexabat rore lapillos."

And in some of his shorter pieces he anticipates the terseness and elegance of Martial. The long fragment on the Civil War not seem to be written so much with the view of parodying as of entering into rivalry with the poem of Lucan, but he has caught the tone and style of the author whom he censures. In the epigram extemporized by Trimalchio late on in the banquet,

"Quod non expectes, ex transverso fit --
Et supra nos Fortuna negotia curat,
Quare da nobis vina Falerna, puer,"

we have probably a more deliberate parody of the style of verses produced by the illiterate aspirants to be in the fashion of the day. We might conjecture that the chief gift t which Petronius owed his social and his literary success was that of humorous mimicry, in which the most intellectual and at he same time sensual among the Romans – as, for instance, Sulla – took a great delight. The man who could described the dinner of Trimalchio and mimic the talk and peculiarities of the various gusts with such humorous zest was just the man to keep the table in a roar during the prolonged revels in the palace of Nero. If the old "vexata quaestio" of the distinction between wit and humour were to be revived, the critic who could determine by analysis what is the essence of the talent of Martial on the one hand and of Petronius on the other would go very near to solving it. He would have, however, to abandon the theory that humour is more essentially humane and sympathetic than wit. Petronius is perhaps the most strictly humorous among Latin writers, and humour is in him combined with the rarer gift of conceiving and representing character. In Trimalchio and his various guests, in the old port, in the cultivated, depraved, and moody Encolpius, in the Chrysis, Quartilla, Polyaenis, &c., we recognized in living examples the play of those various appetites, passions, and tendencies which satirists deal with an abstract qualities. Another gift he possesses in a high degree, which just have availed him in society as well as in literature, -- the gift of story-telling; and some of the stories which first appear in the Satirae -- e.g., that of the Matron of Ephesus – have enjoyed a great reputation in later times. His style, too, is that of one who must have been an excellent talker, who could talk sense when sense was wanted, who could have discusses questions of taste and literature with the most cultivated men of any time as well as amused the most dissolute society of any time in their most reckless revels. One phase of his .. often quoted, by many who have never come upon it in its original context, "Horatii curiosa felicitas."

Perhaps next after a day spent in the ruins of Pompeii nothing else makes us fell so near the actual daily life of the Roman world in all its pretty details in the 1st century A.D. as this fragment of Petronius. Another obvious observation that is suggested by it is that of the superiority of the novel over any other form of literature for the purpose of literary reproducing the common place experience of actual life in every age. Opinions may differ as to the value or interest of the literal reproduction of the customs and manners of such an age as that of Nero.

Compared with the amount of attention which was given to Petronius both by scholars and men of letters in the 17th and 18th centuries, comparatively little has been done for him in recent times. The only good critical edition of the fragments is that of Büchler. An interesting chapter is devoted to him in M. Gaston Boissier’s Opposition sous l’empire. For those who wish to read him in a modern translation, the French version by M.H. De Guerle is the one to be recommended. (W. Y. S.)


(720-1) J.N.M. De Guerle, Recherches Sceptiques sur le Satyricon.

(721-1) The supposition of M. Gaston Boissier that the individual satirized is Pallas, the freedman of Claudius, is much more probable.

(722-1) E.g., compare Persius, ii. 9, 10 –

" O si
Ebulliat patruus, praeclarum funus, et O si
Sub rastro crepet argenti mihi seria dextro Hercule" --

with Satirae 88, "Alius domum promittit, si propinquum divitem extulerit, alius si thesaurum effoderit," &c. The "ebulliat patruus" may be compared with a phrase is the dinner of Trimalchio, "homo bellus tam bonus chrysanthus animam ebulliit." Persius has the phrase"Dives erat Curibus quantum non milvus oberrat," which is a close parallel to Petr., 37, "fundos habet qua milvi volant." Again, with Persius and Petronius use the rare word "baro," which occurs only two or three times elsewhere.

(722-2) In this respect the work of Petronius seems to have differed from the Greek romances.

(722-3) Omnes qui in testamento meo legata habent, praeter libertos meos, hac conditione percipient quae dedi, si corpus meum in partes conciderint et astante populo comederint (141).

The above article was written by: William Young Sellar, M.A.; late Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford; Professor of Greek at St Andrews University, 1857-63; Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh, 1863-90; author of The Roman Poets of the Republic, The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age, and Horace and the Elegaic Poets.

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