Ancient laughter: Petronius

For every great writer we have there is an ocean of ephemera. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude while exposed to Mills and Boon romances, SF magazines TV series and films, pornographic novels, musical comedy lyrics, advertising jingles, graffiti poets, serious and trivial pop songs, comic books and manga, soap operas, newspapers and magazines, dime detective stories, our own or friends’ literary effusions, action movies, politicians’ speeches, stand up comedians, public service regulations, jokes, and strange information on the internet. I wonder if that’s always been the way? Literature from ancient times has only survived in fragmentary form: would it have consisted of an equal diversity of modes? Most of what we have from Greece and Rome, so called ‘classic’ literature, is noble and elevating stuff: Homer, Aeschylus, Demosthenes, Horace, Virgil and so on. But there are a few intriguing works which suggest a less respectable diversity once existed.

Humour lost in the survival stakes because it wasn’t elevated enough. Satire lost out for another reason.

Satire challenged accepted ideas and behaviour, as it does to this day. It attempts to get its audience to look at their accepted values with a new perspective, with a, usually well hidden, agenda of effecting change or remedying some wrong or avoiding some impending danger. It works well when a person’s values have been formed by a broad range of experience which gives a perspective to the values held. It fails to work when the person exposed to it has adopted a value as some kind of defense. Challenging these values can arouse fear and evoke a violent response.

One of the most intriguing survivals from Roman times is the fragmentary satirical novel known as the Satyrica of Petronius. This is in form a novel that parodies the elevated epic known in the ancient world, much as Don Quixote parodied the chivalric romances such as Amadis of Gaul. Like Don Quixote, it is much more than a parody. Unlike other works surviving from ancient times the Satyrica is full of realised and realistic characters and their dialogue. Sufficient fragments remain to suggest it was once one of the most accomplished achievements of classical literature, and perhaps a major work of fiction.

The name Satyrica is a reference to the satires of Menippus, once famous in the ancient world, but long vanished. Innovatively they mingled prose and verse forms to criticise schools of philosophy Menippus didn’t approve of (he was a Cynic). Petronius does the same, ridiculing the excesses of poets, philosophers and punks, without the moral purpose that motivated Menippus. Petronius is closer to what we call a cynic. The title also suggests a licentious satyr, known from fertility rites in ancient Greece to be associated with rampant sexuality. This has blended with what we know of Neronian Rome from writers such as Suetonius to give Petronius and his Satyrica a decadent, lubricious reputation. If we search our imaginations we’ll find our ideas of ancient Rome are largely informed by the fantasies of Cecil B De Mille. Petronius’ banquets have no naked slave girls performing lascivious dances before indulging in indiscriminate sex with the guests. Largely because in Roman times the women stayed at home. Banquets were for men.

The raunchy reputation of the Satyrica is based on the fact that the ‘hero’ is a homosexual, and part of the story concerns his relationship with his boyfriend Giton. In Petronius’ time this was perfectly acceptable, and he would have raised an ironic eyebrow to hear of our shocked fascination with the subject. Alas, his descriptions of the couples’ lovemaking are rendered in a parody (this is a book of parodies) of Greek bucolic romance, a kind of sentimental Mills and Boon then popular and which Petronius obviously thought ridiculous. So the transports of Encolpius and Giton are funny, not sexy. There are a few frank depictions of sexual practices in one of the final fragments (dealing, ironically, with impotence), but one imagines most others deleted by prudish monks, or whomever copied the manuscript in the first place.

The discovery of Petronius’ book is a fascinating one. In Renaissance Milan, in 1482, during the great rediscovery of ancient literature, a manuscript was found titled Scriptores Panegyrici Latini, copied by some nameless monk in medieval times. Included in this document were extensive fragments of the Satyrica. The document disappeared, but was found again and printed in Padua in 1664. Other fragments turned up, including the section called “Dinner with Trimalchio”. Inevitably some forgeries also turned up, but were detected. Surprisingly, the work turned out to be a genuine production of first century Rome. Intriguingly, the manuscript noted that the included passages were from the 14th, 15th and 16th books. The manuscript from which it was copied was obviously in a bad state of repair, as the final quarter of the excerpts were very short fragments.

This raises a problem. If this manuscript is a fragment of three books of a larger whole, then the original work must have been the longest ‘novel’ ever written, a tome of between 2,000 and 10,000 pages.

Some possibilities to avoid making this assumption are:
• it was unfinished by Petronius, and written out of sequence

• it was designed to appear to be a fragmentary work from the past

• the books may have been numbered arbitrarily, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

• the attrition may have referred to the containing work

• the book may have been a parodic continuation of another novel, starting chapter 13.

The size of the original work has some bearing on the author usually identified with Petronius. In first century Rome there were a few Petroniuses. We know of two, mentioned by Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny with different given names, Titus and Gaius, but both obviously the same man, a noble in the court of Nero who first attracted the snobbish regard of that Emperor, then his dislike. Nero ordered his death and Petronius committed suicide. This man had attained consular and proconsular rank, was an exceptional administrator as well as Nero’s ‘arbiter of elegance’, and must have been in his late forties when he died. Would such a man have had time to write a book the length of Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past? It took Proust all his life, and he never stirred far from his bed for all the time he was writing it. For all we know, there could have been both a Gaius Petronius and a Titus Petronius, one Nero’s arbiter, one the Satyrica‘s author. Perhaps they were brothers. All we know for sure is that the manuscript had the name ‘Petronius’ attached.

The Satyrica is extraordinary in quite a few ways other than its original length. It gives an astonishingly detailed picture of the diversity of races, classes and professions who mingled together in Rome. This picture is created not by description, but by conversation. Imagine setting a novel in modern New York or Calcutta, and sending the protagonist to art galleries, slums, political rallies, film sets, pompous literary dinners and ball games, and describing the venues entirely by the conversational styles and vocabulary of the people met on the way. William Arrowsmith, author of the first unexpurgated English translation, makes the point the book was probably designed to be read aloud. Petronius’ society was one bound by rhetoric, and so largely an oral culture, for all the sophistication the written language had achieved. Had you written a new novel, you invited your friends, and prospective publishers, to come to a party where they could hear you read it to them. So that was probably the scenario for the people who first heard the Satyrica. A skilled, very skilled, actor and mime, able to impersonate an enormous variety of accents, slangs, informal grammatical styles and foreign phrases, and with the added skill of exaggerating just a little now and then to make sure the listeners got the absurdity of it all, read it to them in what must have been quite a performance (or series of performances).

The Satyrica was a comedy, a comedy of enormous sophistication. It mocks the newly rich with expensive bad taste (the ancient Gatsbys), the fatuous pretension of the literary untalented, the romanticism of the highly sexed and the self serving obsequiousness of the sycophant. It parodies literary forms such as epic, philosophical discourse and lyric, and ridicules the pretensions of the narrator of the tall tale as well as the author, Petronius himself. It’s an ideal antidote to the frigid elevation of most surviving ancient literature. More Catch 22 than Last Days of Pompeii.

The book uses contrast and incongruity for comic effect. The hero and narrator, Encolpius, is in love with Giton, a young boy, and expresses his love in the sentimental platitudes of the worst Mills and Boon ever written. At the same time the two carry on like the most promiscuous, empty headed gays you ever came across, crossing, double crossing and deceiving each other ruthlessly and pointlessly.

The book makes much of its point by contrasting what the characters say with how they say it. Right from the opening fragment, where an unnamed speaker is criticising the rhetorician and would be poet Agamemnon about the decline of modern culture because of the emphasis in education placed on making a good effect in public speaking over understanding any deeper issues. Valid point. But the speaker unfortunately can only express himself in the frigid, hyperbolic, glorification of the good old days style his speech is criticising. And the only response he gets is Agamemnon’s defense, that teachers have to follow market trends if they want to earn a living. Then one of the hopelessly bad poems that is his stock in trade. Petronius expects his audience to be highly literate and attuned to a large diversity of styles and modes in literature. Otherwise his parodies fall flat.

Fragments of a story
The book as we have it opens with a fragment showing the ‘hero’ Encolpius, and his lover Giton and ex-lover and now competitor Ascyltus apparently drifting down the coast of southern Italy and somewhere near Naples, perhaps Cumae, an ancient Greek settlement and the home of the oracular Sybil (and the place of death of the Arbiter Petronius). These three appear to be Greek adventurers trying to get by by sponging on gullible Romans whenever possible. The Romans were always a bit suspicious of Greeks. As the existing fragment opens Encolpius and Ascyltus are making out as bogus rhetoricians, teachers of public speaking, and have left their new jobs to hear a visiting professor, Agamemnon, debate in the forum. On the way home they get lost, throw off sundry rapists and pimps, escape from a brothel, and, back at their inn, decide to separate, go their separate ways. Then comes a scene where Ascylyus breaks into Encolpius’ room and finds him making vigorous love to Giton, and the two (once again) fight.

There is another fragment that shows the recurring motif of the book. Encolpius and his friends have stolen some money, secured it in the lining of a tunic, then had the tunic stolen from them in turn. They find it, try and get it back from the man who had stolen it, almost get arrested for the theft of a cloak they had also stolen, and flee, this time with the tunic containing their money. It was a close thing. The scene is as manic as a Charlie Chaplin short. Encolpius, like Chaplin’s tramp, is devious and dishonest to his cost, because everyone he meets is far more devious and dishonest than he is. He constantly loses. Yet nothing sinks him for long, and he soon has another scheme of deceit.

Another group of fragments may come from an episode which could be called, “A Dinner with Quartilla”. Not enough survives to be sure, but this might have been a set piece satirising the absurdities of superstitious Roman religious practice, in this case based on the worship of the fertility god Priapus. Many ancient statues of Priapus survive, portraying him with an enormous phallus bigger than he is, and placed in gardens to bless the fertility of the plants. The cult came from the area of Byzantium and the Black Sea and was magical in its rites, with a full complement of what would have appeared hocus pocus to Romans, whose state cults were much more dignified. Quartilla is a priestess in this cult, and Encoplius has somehow offended the god during the dinner (probably by trying to steal something) and been punished with impotence. There is another fragmentary scene involving a crime against Priapus at the end of the book which might belong with this section, in which Encolpius is punished for a time with impotence.

The next section is the famous “Dinner with Trimalchio”, five or six times the length of the Quartilla section and maybe a complete chapter, the only surviving one. The figure of the self serving, sycophantic bludger after a free meal was a common theme in ancient satire, appearing in poems by Horace, Martial and Juvenal as well, so Encolpius and his friends are in this tradition as they hop from meal to meal, commenting on what they see. Here the target is ostentatious bad taste. Typical of the irony which which the book abounds is that each inappropriately elaborate object, artwork or dinner course is described exactly by the easily impressed Encolpius, and the chapter is itself an exercise in descriptive bad taste. Trimalchio is an ex slave who now is a billionaire, and wants everyone to know it. His guests are there just to marvel at the scale of his expenditure. The chapter reveals just how dependent on language the Satyrica is for its effects, a translator’s nightmare: Latinists are delighted with this chapter, for it is the only surviving example of the popular speech of ordinary, working class people and slaves in ancient Rome, full of simple proverbs, swear words and loose grammatical constructions, slang and puns. The point of much of the humour is the diners’ ignorance and lack of taste, so you could say the humour is discriminatory, yet funny, perhaps like Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Encoplius’ description of the diners and their talk is not, despite the hopes of Latin scholars, realistic, but a parody. Slaves and freedmen sometimes made it to the top of the pile in ancient Rome, and were laughed at and secretly envied. The premise here is of a roomfull of millionaire slaves and ex slaves, and the satire is exaggerated, then exaggerated again to ludicrous proportions.

Another fragment introduces Eumolpus, who may have been a major character in the novel. In a setting that includes references to works by artists who represent a vanished dimension of ancient life in Greece and Rome, such as that of the painters Zeuxis, Protogenes and Apelles and the sculptors Lysippus, Myron and Phidias, we are presented with Eumolpus’ attempt to emulate Homer, a mock epic on “The Fall of Troy”. This pastiche effectively skewers the faults of Silver Age Latin, its dependence on and crushing acknowledgment of the past, shallowness, and surrender to sentiment. Eumolpus deflates his own pretensions by telling the story of his time as a tutor to a pretty young boy, whom he seduces, but whose ardour excels his own and exposes his inadequacies, as lover, mentor and – poet.

The text begins to get more and more fragmentary from this point. Another section sees Encolpius and Giton, their relationship described as usual with the greatest exaggeration of melodramatic platitudes, going on a voyage with the poet Eumolpus. Captain of the ship is the merchant Lichas; he is escorting Tryphaena, a rich aristocrat, sent into exile for some unknown crime. Both these characters have some link with Encolpius. He seems to have both been Lichas’ lover, and seduced his wife, in a lost episode of the book, and Giton may have once been a slave of Tryphaena and escaped. After their discovery on board the ship as stowaways, Encolpius and his friends are reconciled to Lichas, and all listen to a tale by Eumolpus after the feast, the famous story of the “Widow from Ephesus”. This confirms the Satyrica as a miscellany of several literary forms, including parody (The epic “Fall of Troy”); farce (Trimalchio); folk tale (“Widow of Ephesus”) and Greek romance (the continuing adventures of Encolpius). The “Widow from Ephesus” episode suggests there may have been more such tales in the complete work, which would make it similar in construction to the Thousand Nights and One Night tales from India and Arabia.

(The “Widow from Ephesus” story points out one thing little mentioned in connection with the punishment of crucifixion: that the punishment included the criminal’s body being denied burial and burial rites, thus effectively denying them an afterlife, forcing them in fact to become a ghost. This has some relevance to study of the death of Jesus).

The reunion with Lichas is followed by a sudden shipwreck, and Encolpius, Giton and Eumolpus are thrown overboard. They come to shore and find themselves near the town of Croton, where, they are told, the fashionable industry is legacy hunting. Encolpius finds the body of Lichas washed ashore, and indulges in a parodic funeral elegy on him, covering such platitudes as the mutability of fate, the shortsightedness of human hopes and fears, and the inevitability of death. Nothing was sacred to Petronius. Eumolpus then launches into a lengthy epic poem on the Civil War which apparently is a close parody of Lucan’s Pharsalia, now little read. Lucan was a contemporary of Petronius and also incurred the disfavour of Nero. The trio then decide to pose as a wealthy merchant and his entourage and see what they can cheat the legacy hunters of Croton out of.

Another fragment follows in which Encolpius is suddenly afflicted with impotence as a result of offending the god Priapus. He mourns his lot with histrionic bouts of comic despair, and is finally cured by the priestess Oenothea. This episode is placed between two scenes set in Croton among the legacy hunters. It may not belong there, as there is another scene where Encolpius has offended the god Priapus earlier in the book. Perhaps an early compiler placed all the unidentifiable fragments at the end of the manuscript. Here also are several short poems which presumably mocked contemporary poems; we cannot appreciate the point of Petronius’ humour here, as both his entire book, and the poems he is satirising have not survived. The humour is in the elegant language of reproach being addressed to Encolpius’ penus.

One brief scene ends the book. Eumolpus is running out of time in his attempt to defraud the legacy hunters of Croton. Where is the fortune they expect to inherit by supporting him in what they believe his last illness, the legacy hunters are beginning to ask. Eumolpus stages his own funeral to distract them. A provision of his will is that to inherit his imaginary fortune the legatees must eat his body. The text fades out with a comical justification of cannibalism.

A unique work
The Satyrica is an extraordinary book, for its time, or any time. It’s a miscellany, a kind of collection of material, threaded together by the adventures of Encolpius. His action packed narrative, unlike any other narrative of antiquity, is non stop. He steals, is stolen from, is beaten, propositioned, seduces, lies and cheats, cons, imposes, quarrels, fights, runs away, one furiously paced scene following another. One imagines Petronius reading Longus and thinking, “Get real!”. Interposed in this low life melodrama are the satires so called, elaborate spoofs on the newly rich, the pretentiously poetic and the superstitious. Many parodies are to be found in the surviving fragments, many of which we lose the point because so much literature hasn’t survived. But to imagine a writer with the skill to imitate, to humorous effect, almost all the literary forms of his day is astounding. There must have been few who heard or read this work when it was complete who could have had the ability to appreciate its entire achievement.

In all the fragments we read today lies the impression we absorb of the author. Whether Petronius or another, there is no mistaking the supremely ironic, detached nature of his viewpoint. This was an author with an encyclopediac knowledge of his culture and an extraordinary technical proficiency able to imitate its forms in both prose and poetry, a man surely with few illusions and a strong sense of the absurd in human behaviour, typically Roman in his earthy realism and with more than a casual link to Plautus. From his day to ours there have been those who have found him congenial and somehow contemporary no matter what century in which they lived. Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and all who have translated his words have found the nature of this author attractive. One can imagine Petronius’ influence on Cervantes, Rabelais and Laurence Sterne, and from there on Joyce and many experimental writers of modern times.

The fragmentary nature of the surviving text is a poignant reminder of all that we have lost from the past. The Satyrica will always be a mystery.

I’ve read and enjoyed several translations of the Satyrica:
William Burnaby, 1694 (reprinted 1914 by Chapman and Dodd with an introduction by CK Scott Moncrieff).

An opening excerpt on the poor education of rhetoricians (politicians and lawyers) in Burnaby’s translation reads: “Yet even this might pass for tolerable, did it put young beginners in the least way to well speaking. Whereas now, what with the inordinate swelling of Matter, and the empty ratling of Words, they only gain this, that when they come to appear in public, they think themselves in another world. And therefore I look on the young fry of Collegiates as likely to make the most hopeful blockheads, because they neither hear nor see anything that is in use among men…”

An anonymous translation of 1902 (reprinted in the 30s, n.d. by The Fortune Press London) with material not by Petronius included to give the text continuity.

“Even such extravagancies might be borne, if they really served to guide beginners into the way of eloquence; but all pupils gain by these high flown themes, these empty sounding phrases, is this, that on entering the forum they imagine themselves transported into a new and strange world. This is the reason, in my opinion, why young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither hear nor see one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life…”

William Arrowsmith 1960 (Mentor New York). Unexpurgated edition.

“No one would mind this claptrap if only it put our students on the road to real eloquence. But what with all these sham heroics and this stilted bombast you stuff their heads with, by the time your students set foot in court, they talk as though they were living in another world. No, I tell you, we don’t educate our children at school: we stultify them and then send them out into the world half baked. And why? Because we keep them utterly ignorant of real life. The common experience is something they never see or hear…”

JP Sullivan 1969 (Penguin).

“We could put up with even this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I’m sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of use in everyday life…”

Petronius is being ironic in this passage (as so often in his book). He is making a valid point. But he is also poking fun at the speaker, who has been educated the same way as he is criticising, and whose speech has the same faults he dislikes. The speech itself is an example of what it is talking about. Right from the start, nothing is what it seems, and the reader is invited to treat all the characters, and what they say, with considerable detachment.

Monty Python (I think) have a sketch on the British class system. They give examples of upper, middle and lower classes. Everything they say is strictly accurate. Yet they succeed in pointing out the absurdities of that system. That is what Petronius does here, in this passage. Of all the translations I have referred, only the Arrowsmith is exaggerated enough to suggest the faults of the speaker’s style while conveying the points of his discourse. My preference is still for Arrowsmith’s translation.

Petronius has always been contemporary. Today he’s as contemporary as rap and standup comedy. A bit shocking but funny as hell.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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