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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

By Petronius (c. 27–66)

IN the solemn last book of the fragmentary Annals of Tacitus, where the historian is enumerating the distinguished victims of Nero’s tyranny, he pauses for a moment before one gallant figure, of which the smiling, dauntless, almost insolent grace appears to discountenance and half confute the somber vehemence of his own righteous wrath.

  • “But about Gaius Petronius,” he says, “a word more is necessary. It had been the habit of this man to sleep in the daytime, reserving the night hours both for the duties and the delights of life. Others win fame by industry; he won his by indolence. Yet it was not as a roysterer, or a debauchee, that he was renowned, like the common herd of spendthrifts, but for being profoundly versed in the art of luxury. Free of speech, prompt in action, and ostentatiously careless of consequences, he nevertheless charmed by a complete absence of affectation. Yet when he was proconsul in Bithynia, and afterward as consul, he showed great vigor and ability in affairs. Returning then to his vices,—or to his affectation of vice,—he was received into the small circle of Nero’s intimates as ‘arbiter,’ or final authority in matters of taste. Nothing was considered truly elegant and refined until Petronius had given it his sanction. All this excited the jealousy of Tigellinus, who scented a rival, and one more accomplished than himself in the proper lore of the voluptuary. He therefore began appealing to the emperor’s cruelty, which was stronger in him than any other sentiment; accused Petronius of complicity with Scævinus, had him indicted, seized and imprisoned the greater part of his household, suborned a slave to testify against him, bought off the defense. Meanwhile Cæsar had gone into Campania; but Petronius, who was to have followed him, was arrested at Cumæ, and preferred himself to put an end to all uncertainty. Yet he showed no unseemly hurry even about taking his own life. When his veins had been once opened, he ordered them bound up again for a little and talked with his friends cheerfully and lightly,—not in the least as though wishing to impress them by his fortitude. Verses were improvised, and merry songs were sung. He was ready to listen to anything and everything except philosophical maxims and discourse on the immortality of the soul. To some of his slaves he gave largess, and to some he gave lashes. Finally he lay down upon a couch, and composed himself to sleep, as though preferring that his compulsory end should appear an accidental one. He had not, however, like many of the victims of that period, devoted his last will and testament to the adulation of Nero and Tigellinus. On the contrary, he drew up an arraignment of the Emperor, detailing all his adulteries and ingenious atrocities, and giving the names of those whom he had destroyed,—both men and women; which document he sealed and dispatched to Nero. He then broke his seal-ring, that it might bring no one else into trouble.”
  • Except for what remains of his own writing, and for casual and unimportant allusions by the elder Pliny, Macrobius, and one or two other ancient writers, this is literally all we know of Nero’s arbiter elegantiæ; but seldom have a character and a career been condensed into fewer and more telling words. The whole man is there,—as truly as in the highly elaborated recent portrait by Henryk Sienkiewicz, in ‘Quo Vadis.’ We see and know him in all his native amiability and perfect breeding, his keen insight, quiet daring, and immense reserve of power; his irresistible gayety and careless fascination. But even without the help of the stern yet candid analysis of Tacitus, we almost think we could have divined the same interesting personality from the disjointed fragments of Petronius’s own book. Even where the matter of the story it tells is coarsest, the narrator’s accent is so refined, his touch so light,—above all, his humor is at once so droll and so delightfully indulgent and humane,—that we cannot help separating the man from his work. We feel as if he had the magic art of keeping his own fine toga to some extent unsmirched by the filth amid which he treads; and as if it were quite deliberately, and with a motive not base, and even less unkindly, that he holds his artistic silver mirror up to the festering waste of common Roman nature.

    The ‘Satiricon,’ or ‘Satirorum Liber Petronii Arbitri,’ contained originally—or was apparently to have contained—some twenty books, of which we only possess parts of the fifteenth and sixteenth, and a few more disconnected passages. The species of satire was that known as Menippean, or prose interspersed with bits of verse. In the language of our day, the works would be called a novel of manners and adventure. And what manners! what adventures! Over and over again we turn away in disgust, but the irresistible accents of the narrator win us back. “Come, come,” he seems to say, “nothing human is alien! Squeamishness—pardon me!—is often a mere lack of nerve! These curious, wallowing folk are, after all, our next of kin. Do not let us commit the unpardonable vulgarity of being ashamed of our relations! And then—they are so deliciously droll!” So he pursues his theme with all the verve of Dumas père, and all but the unerring discernment and dramatic power of Shakespeare.

    The freedman Eucolpius is relating his adventures, and those of his friend Ascyltos, by sea and land. They appear, when we abruptly make their acquaintance, already to have traveled far and seen much. In the fifth century we come upon traces of them at Marseilles, in the writings of a no less worthy author than Sidonius Apollinaris,—but just where we pick them up they are living by their abundant wits among the semi-Greek cities of southern Italy; chiefly perhaps at Cumæ. The best and most complete episode they have to offer us is that of a stupendous feast, given by an enormously rich and ignorant parvenu named Trimalchio. The invitations have been so general that our two ne’er-do-weels find it easy to be included. The clumsy ceremonial and sumptuous hideosity of the house of entertainment are minutely and conscientiously described,—the costly serving of impossible viands, the persons of the host and of his wife Fortunata, with the ineffably queer contrast between their naïve grossness and their æsthetic affectations, their good temper and bad taste. Then we have the motley assemblage of guests, who, when Trimalchio leaves the table for a few minutes, all break out into uproarious talk. They have had just wine enough to reveal themselves without stint or shame. Two, a trifle more maudlin than the rest, solemnly discuss the folly and danger of too frequent baths. A morose old fellow interrupts them to bemoan the degeneracy of the times, the frightful decay of religion,—above all, the high cost of living. He will tell anybody who will listen to him, how cheap bread used to be, and how big the loaves when a certain Safinius was Ædile. After Trimalchio comes back, he makes a pompous attempt at turning the conversation to higher themes. He has heard that literature and art are the proper things to discuss at banquets, and he calls attention to the splendor of his own table ware, and repeats what they used to tell him at school about Homer. His elderly spouse, Fortunata, who has had a little too much wine since she joined the company at dessert, now obliges them with a dance; after which the fun becomes fast and furious, and unutterable anecdotes are in order. Trimalchio himself tells a ghost story; then, lapsing into a sentimental mood, he begins to recite his own last will and testament, and is so overcome by the generosity of his own posthumous provisions that he bursts into tears, and blubbers out an epitaph which begins, “Here lies Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio, the new Mæcenas,” and closes with the touching words, “He left thirty million sesterces, and never attended a course of Philosophy. Stranger, go thou and do likewise!”

    The wit, spirit, and dramatic life of the whole scene are wonderful; the satire on the high life of the day and its frantic luxury is audacious and merciless. So hearty, infectious, and in the main, wholesome a laugh is not to be found elsewhere in all the Latin classics; not even in Horace, or Terence, or the gayest letters of Cicero. If, as appears likely enough, Tigellinus himself was glanced at in the demurely detailed solecisms and ineptitudes of Trimalchio at table, we really cannot wonder that Petronius’s life was forfeit. All other and graver injuries would be light to a man of that description, beside the doom of being made supremely and eternally ridiculous.

    Each one of the heterogeneous mob at Trimalchio’s table is made to speak his own proper and inevitable dialect. Eucolpius, the hero, talks the cultivated Latin of his day—the Latin of a man who also knows Greek. But rustic and otherwise vulgar idioms come naturally to the lips of other guests; and there is a spice of racy old Roman slang—of the sort, no doubt, over which Cicero and his friend Papirius Pætus used to chuckle in their soixantaine, and which diverted them as the most polished Greek epigram could not do.

    The friends manage to slip away during the emotion occasioned by Trimalchio’s epitaph, and resume their vagrant life. Presently they have a furious quarrel, and after they have parted company, Eucolpius, while wandering disconsolately through a richly frescoed portico in a certain seaside town, falls in with a fat and unappreciated poet named Eumolpus, who is also a great connoisseur in art, and explains the paintings. These two join fortunes in their turn, and finally arrive together at Cortona, “the most ancient town in Italy,” the manners and customs of whose citizens are described with an elaborate irony, of which, amusing as it is, we suspect that we do not appreciate quite all the delicate malice. Eumolpus, who has written long poems, both on the ‘Capture of Troy’ and the ‘Civil War,’ is lavish of recitations from these neglected masterpieces: and his poetry is by no means bad; though in the midst of its most serious and dignified passages, the reader is liable to be irresistibly tickled by a sly touch of irreverent Virgilian parody.

    The MS. of the ‘Cena Trimalchionis’ was first discovered in a convent at Trau in Dalmatia, in 1650, and published at Padua four years later. It has been several times translated; and considering the obvious affinities between Petronius and the more polished representatives of “l’esprit Gaulois,” one would have expected the French translations to be the best of all. But the most noteworthy and complete of these, by Héguin de Guerle of the Academy of Lyons, is weakened by excessive diffuseness; and is not to be compared in point, pith, and color, with a German version by Heinrich Merkens, published—strange to say, without any paraphernalia of notes or parade of scholarship—at Jena in 1876.

    Besides the fragments of the ‘Satiricon,’ there are a good many others, both in prose and verse,—some of the latter very charming,—which are attributed with reasonable if not absolute certainty to Petronius Arbiter. One thinks at times with an impatience bordering on exasperation of all the lost books of the ‘Satiricon,’ and of what they might have told us concerning the habits and humors of the dead and gone Romans; but the rigid moralist will be apt to consider that what we have is enough.