Petronius

From Academic Kids

This article is about the Roman author Petronius. For other uses of the name, see Petronius (disambiguation).


Petronius (c.27-66 AD) was a Roman writer of the Neronian age; he was a noted satirist. He is identified with C. Petronius Arbiter (see below), but the manuscript text of the Satyricon calls him Titus Petronius.

His own sole surviving work, the Satyricon, a wildly exaggerated, sordid, and often obscene tale, tells us nothing directly of his fortunes, position, or even century. Some lines of Sidonius Apollinaris refer to him and are often taken to imply that he lived and wrote at Marseilles. If, however, we accept the identification of this author with the Petronius of Tacitus, Nero's courtier, we must suppose either that Marseilles was his birthplace or, as is more likely, that Sidonius refers to the novel itself and that its scene was partly laid at Marseilles. The chief personages of the story are evidently strangers in the towns of southern Italy where we find them. Their Greek-sounding names (Encolpius, Ascyltos, Giton, etc.) and literary training accord with the characteristics of the old Greek colony in the 1st century AD. The high position among Latin writers ascribed by Sidonius to Petronius, and the mention of him by Macrobius beside Menander among the humorists, when compared with the absolute silence of Quintilian, Juvenal and Martial, seem adverse to the opinion that the Satyricon was a work of the age of Nero. But Quintilian was concerned with writers who could be turned to use in the education of an orator, nor does it seem to have lain in Quintilian's personality to appreciate the rollicking, scurrilous humor of the Satyricon. The silence of Juvenal and Martial may be accidental or it is possible that a work so abnormal in form and substance was more highly prized by later generations than by the author's contemporaries.

A comparison of the impression the book gives us of the character and genius of its author with the elaborate picture of the courtier in Tacitus certainly suggests the identity of the two. Tacitus, it is true, mentions no important work as the composition of his C. Petronius; such a work as the Satyricon he may have regarded as beneath that dignity of history which he so proudly realized. The care he gives to Petronius's portrait perhaps shows that the man enjoyed greater notoriety than was due merely to the part he played in history.

"He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and 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 governorship, 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 connection with the science of luxurious living"

Tacitus goes on to say that this excited the jealousy of Tigellinus, an accusation followed, and Petronius committed suicide in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document which professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practised.

A fact confirmatory of the general truth of this graphic portrait is added by the elder Pliny, who mentions that just before his death he destroyed a valuable murrhine vase to prevent its falling into the imperial hands.

Fake quotation

The following quotation, or variants of it, is frequently attributed to Petronius:

"We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

This quotation is not by Petronius; the earliest reference to it dates only to 1970. There are references to it originating among disgruntled British occupying forces in post-1945 Germany (Petronian Society Newsletter, May 1981). The true author is unknown.

See also

Reference

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