Petronius (Gaius Petronius) (27–66) poet. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

Petronius lived during the time of the Roman Empire
and served as Emperor Nero’s adviser in matters
of luxury and extravagance.His sophistication
in sensual pleasure even earned him the title arbiter
elegantiae; TACITUS in his Annals refers to
Petronius as a sensualist “who made luxury a fine
art.”Petronius managed to combine his official duties
with a chaotic lifestyle, sleeping during the day
and living during the night, but his life ended tragically
when he was betrayed by a rival and dismissed
by Nero. As a result, he committed suicide,
which Tacitus described as the ultimate act of refined
For contemporary readers, Petronius is famous
for his Satyricon, a brilliant satire of excesses in
Nero’s Rome.Although only fragments of this work
survive, enough of the text remains to provide evidence
of Petronius’s satirical talent and in-depth
knowledge of Roman society at the height of the
empire’s prosperity. He demonstrates a thorough
knowledge of the language and sociology not only
of the Roman elite but also of the lower classes.
The Satyricon also is the best existing evidence
of the prominence of homosexuality in the Roman
Empire, which Petronius describes in a vivid, lively
manner. The main character of the work is Encolpius,
a student whose name, according to some
translators, means “crotch.” Encolpius offends the
god Priapus, and as a result he is forced to undergo
a sequence of painful but generally comic misadventures,
mostly of a sexual nature. The world of
the Satyricon resembles a sexual carnival, where
gender and orientation are easily interchangeable.
This work unambiguously articulates a very specific
philosophy, which was, according to the author,
widespread among the Roman Empire’s elite.
According to this philosophy, the only real sin consists
in denying one’s sexual appetites. To do so is
considered blatant hypocrisy and is punished, generally
through comic ridicule. This view on morality
is explicitly expressed in the paired tales of the
Widow of Ephesus and of the Boy of Pergamon.
Written in A.D. 61 and first printed in 1664, the
Satyricon has since become a prototype for a number
of novels about homosexuality. The first English
translation was published in Paris in 1902
and attributed to Sebastian Melmoth, a wellknown
pseudonym of Oscar Wilde.Contemporary
works using the legacy of the Satyricon include
John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Daniel Curzon’s
The Misadventures of Tim McPick (1975), and Luis
Zapata’s Adonis Garcia (1979). In these novels, as
in the Satyricon, travel is portrayed as a license or
venue for sexual experimentation and indulgence.
The film version of Petronius’s masterpiece was
produced by Federico Fellini in 1968. Though the
film succeeds in capturing Satyricon’s grotesquerie
and powerful homoeroticism, it loses most of
Petronius’s humor.
Petronius is remembered as much for the content
of his Satyricon as for his elegant prose and
verse, including even the colloquialisms and common
language of some of its characters. The
Satyricon is the earliest example of the picaresque
novel in European literature.
An English Version of a Work by Petronius
The Satyricon. Translated by P. G.Walsh. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Works about Petronius
Conte, Gian Biagio. The Hidden Author: An Interpretation
of Petronius’ Satyricon. Translated by Elaine
Fantham. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Courtney, Edward. A Companion to Petronius. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2001.