Review: The Satyricon by Petronius
Posted on November 5, 2010
by Adam Burgess
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The Satyricon by Petronius
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
Okay, this is not your grandfather’s classical Roman literature, unless your grandfather was a horny old homosexual (well, perhaps bisexual or pansexual), with a particular penchant for teenage boys and/or eunuchs. That being said, Petronius’s satirical version of classical Roman life is a breath of hilariously fresh air! The work was written in the 1st C A.D., and it gives a brilliant and incomparable first-hand look into the life of the lower and middle-classes at this time. It seems to me to be both a general satire of politics and society at the time, as well as a chastisement of Emperor Nero, for having exiled the great tragedian, Seneca (source inspiration for Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others). The translation, too, brings the old Latin work into clear focus, allowing any contemporary reader relatively easy access. Petronius gives us much of what we would expect to find in a work inspired by Homer, Cicero, and the gang – two or three rag-tag characters, humbled by the gods, set off on ridiculous quests and challenges, all the while trying to prove themselves, find love (or at least fulfill their desires), and indulge in great food and lots of alcohol. The major differences, though, are that the story line obviously pokes fun at the brilliant nature of the epic hymns, and the impossible feats those ancient heroes accomplished. And, rather than our “hero” risking his life to champion and woo a Danae or Venus, he fights tooth and nail for the attention and protection of his 16 year old male lover. Throw in lots of hilarious poetry, some great mythological tales (“fictional” and historical), and a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the rich and powerful, and we have one entertaining and oddly romantic story on our hands.
3 – Characters well developed.
The main characters, Encolpius (narrator), Giton (his young lover), and Eumolpus are all interesting in their own way, though a bit flat. Encolpius, as the narrator, has more development than the rest, and his interactions with Giton, Ascyltus, Circe, Tryphaena, and Lichas (some of the cast of minor characters – all of whom are love-interests of/for Encolpius) are interesting and fun to witness. As much of this work has been lost (only portions are extant – and they have been combined here into broken novella form), the characters do not get as much history or development as I think they originally had in the full work, which is assumed to have been approximately 500-1000 pages long. Still, the glimpses that we get of these characters in action is enough to entertain and to allow the reader to engage with their story without being bored or distracted by all of the missing breaks – in fact, the situations and interactions are so interesting, that I found myself angry to have been stopped mid-scene by missing segments!
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
The mixture of prose (this is probably the first extant example of the current form of the “novel” in Western literature) with song and poetry creates a wonderful reading experience, particularly as it was done so well. Reading an ancient tale in novel form makes the story much more accessible for the modern reader, but the style and the many hints at ancient poetry and song/story-telling allow the reader to sink back into the time period too. Also, there is one lengthy poem called “The Civil War” (about 12 pages long) which reminds the reader of the time period and the tradition of verbal story-telling. It was just enough, for me, to enjoy the epic narrative without feeling overwhelmed (as with most of the works which inspired this one) by verse.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What makes this novel so great is really a combination of elements: 1st) that it is an ancient text written in prose, rather than verse, and in a way which, ultimately would become the “standard” for novelization in Western literature; 2nd) the honest account of social interaction and sexuality in this time period, most of which has been lost to history; 3rd) the genius satire, executed in a way that is both funny and somehow serious. Petronius obviously has a bone to pick with the political powers that be, and with the moral justices – he seems disturbed by those who are “in charge” and by the way they enact their trials and verdicts.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Classical Roman, Classical Greek, Ancient History, Alternative Roman, GLBT, Gay Classics, Satire, Mythology
“Nothing is falser than people’s preconceptions and ready-made opinions; nothing is sillier than their sham morality.” (P. 152)
“I loathe the vulgar crowd, and shun it.” (P. 128)
“What good are the laws where Money is king, / where the poor are always wrong, / and even the mockers who scoff at the times / will sell the truth for a song? / The courts are an auction where justice is sold; / the judge who presides bangs a gavel of gold.” (P. 29)
Category: Ancient Roman, Book Review, Classical Roman, Classics, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, Historical Fiction, Mythology, Petronius, Satire