Petronius - Roman Author

Petronius was a courtier under Nero and the most likely author of the Roman novel Satyricon. If he was the man identified by Tacitus as the "arbiter of elegance" who "idled into fame" by refining debauchery into a science, his full name would be Caius Petronius Arbiter, although manuscripts of the Satyricon give the name as Titus Petronius Niger. As proconsul in Bithynia and later as consul elect, Petronius gained a reputation as a capable administrator.

However, the following portrait from Tacitus’s Annals would lead one to think otherwise: "Petronius passed the day in sleep, the night in business and in life’s pleasures. As industry brought other men to prominence, so idleness bored him to fame. He was not considered a debauchee or a profligate, as with most wastrels, but a polished artist of excess".

His vices won him admission into the circle of Nero’s intimates, and the Roman emperor thought nothing elegant unless Petronius pronounced it thus. As such, he soon incurred the jealousy of Tigellinus, a rival who considered himself superior in the science of pleasure.

Tigellinus engineered Petronius’s fall by charging him with friendship with Scaevinus, who had been implicated in Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy in 61 c.e. Deprived of a chance to defend himself, most of his household was imprisoned, and an order for his detention was issued.


Under such circumstances an ancient might seek consolation in philosophy, taking comfort in the permanence of the soul, much like Socrates in Phaedo. In Nero’s Rome, of course, it was expected that the soon-to-be-deceased should flatter the emperor in his will. Petronius, however, lived out his final hours in a grand parody of heroic suicides in theater.

Without waiting for the inevitable he had a surgeon slit his vein and then bind it up again, so as to allow time for a leisurely dinner party with friends. Rather than speculating on the afterlife, he passed the evening listening to frivolous songs and light poetry.

Instead of writing a will in his final hours, Petronius supposedly detailed the abominable acts of the emperor and enumerated his catamites, whores, and innovations in perversion. This scandalous document, sealed with his ring-signet, was sent to Nero.

Some hypothesized that this last testament of Petronius was his great work the Satyricon, which they considered a roman à clef of Nero; however, this claim is rather unlikely.

The length and sophistication of what survives of the novel bespeak sustained effort. In 1420 Poggio Bracciolini discovered a Carolingian manuscript in Cologne that aimed to preserve the poems in the Satyricon, excising its salacious narrative.

Almost 200 years later another manuscript surfaced that had the opposite and complementary purpose: preserving the narrative. These two furnished the basis for the modern edition of the Satyricon.

In the Satyricon the protagonist, Encolpius, with his boy-lover Giton, stumbles from one misadventure of sexual excess, humiliation, and human folly to another. Petronius’s dissolute world admits no place for romantic love, and sex—preferably with boys or men—results only in comedy and/or degradation. Indeed, the Satyricon is the very opposite of the idealized love stories found in the ancient Greek novel.

Petronius is keenly interested in the attitudes and behaviors of the various social classes, realistically portraying them against a backdrop of Roman life in settings such as the rhetorical school, the brothel, and even a banquet—the so-called Cena Trimalchionis that detailed the menagerie of tasteless horrors on the estate of the notorious parvenu Trimalchio. This scene was a central feature of Federico Fellini’s idiosyncratic film that takes its title from the novel.

Satyricon’s social scope is equaled by the range of literary models it parodies, from Homer’s Odyssey to Virgil and Lucan, not to mention tragedy, philosophy, and even popular literature. It does not offer the reader any moral lens to enable judgment but instead offers a vision of decadent Rome without flinching from the unsavory—a work unequalled in the ancient world for its complexity, length, and unerring focus on human depravity.