THE author of the Satyricon
is identified by the large
majority of scholars with Gaius Petronius,1
the courtier of Nero. There is a
long tradition in support of the identification, and the probability that it is
correct appears especially strong in the light of Tacitus's account of the character
and death of Gaius Petronius in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the
sixteenth book of the Annals. Mr. John Jackson has translated the passage as
"Petronius deserves a word in retrospect. He was a man who passed his days in sleep,
his nights in the ordinary duties and recreations of life: others had achieved
greatness by the sweat of their brows— Petronius idled into fame. Unlike
most who walk the road to ruin, he was never regarded as either debauchee or
wastrel, but rather as the finished artist in extravagance. In both word and action,
he displayed a freedom and a sort of self-abandonment which were welcomed as the
indiscretions of an unsophisticated nature. Yet, in his proconsulship of Bithynia,
and later as consul elect, he showed himself an energetic and capable administrator.
Then came the revulsion: his genuine or affected vices won him admittance into the
narrow circle of Nero's intimates, and he became the Arbiter of Elegance, whose
sanction alone divested pleasure of vulgarity and luxury of grossness.
"His success aroused the jealousy of Tigellinus against a possible rival—a
professor of voluptuousness better equipped than himself. Playing on the emperor's
lust for cruelty, to which all other lusts were secondary, he suborned a slave to
turn informer, charged Petronius with his friendship for Scaevinus, deprived him of
the opportunity of defence, and threw most of his household into prison.
“At that time, it happened, the court had migrated to Campania; and Petronius
had reached Cumae, when his detention was ordered. He disdained to await the
lingering issue of hopes and fears: still, he would not take a brusque farewell
of life. An incision was made in his veins: they were bound up under his
directions, and opened again, while he conversed with his friends—not
on the gravest of themes, nor in the key of the dying hero. He listened to no
disquisitions on the immortality of the soul or the dogmas of philosophy, but to
frivolous song and playful verses. Some of his slaves tasted of his bounty,
others of the whip. He sat down to dinner, and then drowsed a little; so that
death, if compulsory, should at least be natural. Even in his will, he broke
through the routine of suicide, and flattered neither Nero nor Tigellinus nor
any other of the mighty: instead, he described the emperor's enormities; added a
list of his catamites, his women, and his innovations in lasciviousness; then
sealed the document, sent it to Nero, and broke his signet-ring to prevent it
from being used to endanger others.”
The reflection arises at once that, given the Satyricon,
kind of book postulates this kind of author. The loose tongue, the levity, and the
love of style are common to both. If books betray their writers[p. ix]
characteristics, Gaius Petronius, as seen by Tacitus, had the imagination and
experience needed to depict the adventures of Encolpius.
There is a little evidence, still based on the primary assumption, more exact in its
bearing. The Satyricon
contains a detailed criticism of and
a poem directed against the style of a writer who must be Lucan. Gaius Petronius was
not the man to pass over the poet, epigrammatist, and courtier, in whose epoch and
circle he himself shone. He may have deplored Lucan's poetic influence, but he could
not neglect it, for Lucan was essentially the singer of his own day. No age was so
favourable as that of Nero for the introduction into a supremely scandalous tale of
a reasoned and appreciative review of the Pharsalia,
outstanding poem of the time.
The criticism of the schools of rhetoric in their effect upon education and language,
and the general style of the book in reflective and descriptive passages, point more
vaguely to a similar date of composition.
Gaius Petronius found in his work a form which allowed complete expression to the
many sides of his active and uncontrolled intellect. Its loose construction is
matched by its indifference to any but stylistic reforms; it draws no moral; it is
solely and properly occupied in presenting an aspect of things seen by a loiterer at
one particular corner of the world. What we possess of it is a fragment, or rather a
series of excerpts from the fifteenth and sixteenth books, we know not how
representative of the original whole.
Of this the best-known portion, the description of Trimalchio's dinner, was hidden
from the modern world until the middle of the seventeenth century, and was first
printed in 1664.2
It is as difficult to grasp any structural outline in the Satyricon
as it is in Tristram Shandy.
alternate with flashing rapidity between exhibitions of pedantry, attacks on
pedants, and indecency, in which Sterne is the more successful because he is the
But Petronius, so far as his plan was not entirely original, was following as model
Varro's Menippean satires, and had before him the libel of Seneca on Claudius, the
The traditional title of his work, Satyricon,
is derived from the word Satura, a medley,
and means that he was free to pass at will from subject
to subject, and from prose to verse and back: it is his achievement that the threads
of his story, broken as we hold them, yet show something of the colour and variety
of life itself. We call his book a novel, and so pay him a compliment which he alone
of Roman writers has earned.
Petronius's novel shares with life the quality of moving ceaselessly without knowing
why. It differs from most existences in being very seldom dull. An anonymous writer
of the eighteenth century, making Observations on the Greek and Roman Classics in a
Series of Letters to a Young Nobleman,3
the opinion that: “You will in no Writer, my dear Lord, meet with so much true
delicacy of thought, in none with purer language.” This judgment is[p. xi]
meant for the age of Smollett and Fielding; but there is no question
of the justice of the later remark:“You will be charmed with the ease, and you
will be surprised with the variety of his characters.”
These characters are one and all the product of a period in history when the primary
aim of the ripest civilization in the world was money-making. It was this aim which
drew Trimalchio from his unknown birthplace in Asia Minor to the glitter and luxury
and unnatural passion of a South Italian town. He differs from the minor personages
who crowd his dining-room only in the enormous success with which he has plied the
arts of prostitution, seduction, flattery and fraud. The persons in whom the action
of the novel centres, Encolpius, the mouthpiece of the author, Ascyltos, and Giton,
are there by the kindness of Agamemnon, a parasite teacher of the rhetoric which ate
swiftly into the heart of Latin language and thought. Giton lives by his charms,
Ascyltos is hardly more than a foil to Encolpius, a quarrelsome and lecherous butt.
That part of the novel which deals with Trimalchio's dinner introduces a crowd of
characters, and gives the most vivid picture extant in classical literature of the
life of the small town. The pulsating energy of greed is felt in it everywhere. Men
become millionaires with American rapidity, and enjoy that condition as hazardously
in Cumae as in Wall Street. The shoulders of one who wallows in Trimalchio's
cushions are still sore with carrying firewood for sale; another, perhaps the first
undertaker who made a fortune out of extravagant funerals, a gourmet and
spendthrift, sits there composing lies to baffle his hungry creditors. Trimalchio
towers above them by[p. xii]
reason of his more stable fortunes and his
colossal impudence. He can afford to delegate the conduct of his business, to grow a
little negligent, even—for his accounts are six months in
arrear—to care for the life of the spirit.
He believes, of course, in astrology; he sings excerpts out of tune from the last
musical play, and takes phrases from the lips of the comic star whom Nero delights
to honour. He has two4
libraries, one of Greek, one of Latin books, and
mythology courses through his brain in incorrigible confusion.
His fellow townsmen and guests, whom he insults, do not aspire to these heights.
Dama, Seleucus, and Phileros are rich merely in the common coin of everyday talk, in
the proverbial wisdom which seems to gather strength and brightness from being
constantly exchanged. “A hot drink is as good as an
overcoat”—“Flies have their virtues, we are nothing but
bubbles”—“An old love pinches like a
crab”—“It is easy when everything goes fair and
square.” In these phrases and their like literature speaks to us for once in
the tones we know in England through Justice Shallow or Joseph Poorgrass. Nearly all
warm themselves with this fatuous talk of riches and drink and deaths, but one man,
Ganymede, a shrewd Asiatic immigrant like Trimalchio himself, blows cold on their
sentimentality with his searching talk of bread-prices in Cumae, rising pitilessly
through drought and the operation of a ring of bakers in league with officials. He
tells us in brilliant phrases of the starving poor, of the decay of religion, of
lost pride in using good flour. Then Echion, an old[p. xiii]
overwhelms him with a flood of suburban chatter about games, and children, and
chickens, and the material blessings of education. But Ganymede is the sole
character in Petronius's novel who brings to light the reverse side of Trimalchio's
splendour. A system of local government which showers honours upon vulgarity, and
allows Trimalchio his bath, his improved sanitation, his host of servants, his house
with so many doors that no guest may go in and out by the same one, is invariably
true to type in leaving poor men to die in the streets. The very existence of
poverty becomes dim for Trimalchio, half unreal, so that he can jest at Agamemnon
for taking as the theme of a set speech the eternal quarrel of rich and poor.
Between rich and poor in Cumae the one link is commerce in vice. Trimalchio finds
Fortunata the chorus-girl standing for sale in the open market, and calls her up to
be the partner of his sterile and unmeaning prodigality. She has learnt all the
painful lessons of the slums; she will not grace Trimalchio's table until dinner is
over, and she has seen the plate safely collected from his guests, and the broken
meats apportioned to his slaves; she knows the sting of jealousy, and the solace of
intoxication or tears; normally she rules him, as Petruchio ruled Katharine, with
loud assertion and tempest of words. The only other woman present at the dinner,
Scintilla, the wife of Trimalchio's friend Habinnas, a monumental mason, is more
drunken and unseemly, and leaves behind her a less sharp taste of character.
Trimalchio's dinner breaks up with a false alarm of fire, and the infamous heroes of
the story give Agamemnon the slip. Trimalchio vanishes, and with his loss[p. xiv]
the story becomes fragmentary once more, and declines in interest
almost as much as in decency. Its attraction lies in the verse and criticism put
into the mouth of Eumolpus, a debased poet whom Encolpius meets in a picture
gallery. With him the adventures of the trio continue. There is a lodging-house
brawl, a voyage where they find themselves in the hands of old enemies, the ship's
captain Lichas, whose wife Hedyle they appear to have led astray, and Tryphaena, a
peripatetic courtesan who takes the Mediterranean coast for her province, and has
some unexplained claim on Giton's affections. They settle these disputes only to be
involved in a shipwreck and cast ashore at Croton, where they grow fat on their
pretension to be men of fortune, and disappear from sight, Encolpius after a
disgraceful series of vain encounters with a woman named Circe, and Eumolpus after a
scene where he bequeaths his body to be eaten by his heirs.
Coherence almost fails long before the end: the episode in which Encolpius kills a
goose, the sacred bird of Priapus, gives a hint, but no more, that the wrath of
Priapus was the thread on which the wholeSatyricon
strung. But the life of the later portions of the novel lies in the critical and
poetical fragments scattered through it. These show Petronius at his best as a lord
of language, a great critic, an intelligent enthusiast for the traditions of
classical poetry and oratory. The love of style which was stronger in him even than
his interest in manners doubly enriches his work. It brings ready to his pen the
proverbs with their misleading hints of modernity,5
the debased syntax and abuse of gender, which fell from
lips daily, but is reproduced here alone in its
and side by side with these mirrored vulgarisms the gravity of
the attack on professional rhetoric with which the novel begins, and the weight of
the teacher's defence, that the parent will have education set to a tune of his own
calling; Eumolpus's brilliant exposition of the supremacy of the poet's task over
that of the rhetorician or historian; the curious, violent, epic fragment by which
he upholds his doctrine.
Petronius employed a pause in literary invention and production in assimilating and
expressing a view upon the makers7
poems, prose, pictures, philosophies, and statues, who preceded him, and thereby
deepened his interpretation of contemporary life. His cynicism, his continual
backward look at the splendours and severities of earlier art and other morals, are
the inevitable outcome of this self-education.
By far the most genuine and pathetic expressions of his weariness are the poems which
one is glad to be able to attribute to him. The best of them speak of quiet country
and seaside, of love deeper than desire and founded on the durable grace of mind as
well as the loveliness of the flesh, of simplicity and escape from Court.8
He knew the antidote to the fevered life which burnt him up. His book is befouled
with obscenity, and, like obscenity itself, is ceasing by degrees to be part of a
gentleman's education. But he will always be read as a critic; he tells admirable
stories of werewolves and faithless widows;9
he is one of the very few novelists who
can distil common talk to their purpose without destroying its flavour. The
translator dulls his brilliance, and must leave whole pages in the decent obscurity
of Latin: he is fortunate if he adds a few to those who know something of Petronius
beyond his name and the worst of his reputation.
The thanks of the editors and the translator are due to Messrs. Weidmann of Berlin,
who have generously placed at their disposal a copyright text of theSatyricon,
the epoch-making work of the late Professor
Mr. H. E. Butler, Professor of Latin in the University of London, is responsible for
the selection of critical notes from Buecheler's editio
the Introduction to and text of the poems, and the Bibliography: the
translator is indebted to him and to the editors for invaluable assistance in
attempting to meet the difficulties which a rendering of Petronius continues to
THE TEXT OF PETRONIUS
The sources for the text of Petronius fall into three groups.
(1) The codex Leidensis
(Q61) written by Scaliger and the
editions of the de Tournes (Tornaesius) 1575 and Pithou (Pithoeus) 1577. These are
our authorities for the fuller collection of excerpts. This source is known as L.
(2) A number of MSS. of which codex Bernensis
(357) of the
10th century is typical. This group is our authority for the abridged collection of
excerpts and is known collectively as O.
(3) The codex Traguriensis
(Paris 7989) of the 15th century,
which, save for a very few brief excerpts in L and O, is our sole authority for the
This MS. was discovered in 1650 at
Trau in Dalmatia. It is known as H.
The text was not put on a scientific basis till the appearance of Buecheler's Editio maior
In the Apparatus Criticus the source of the most important corrections is stated, and
followed by the reading given by Buecheler in his editio
as the probable reading of the archetype or as the oldest reading
available. The sources from which the different portions of the text are derived are
indicated by the letters in the margin of the text.
L = codex Scaligeranus, and editions of Tornaesius and Pithoeus.
O = MSS. containing abridged excerpts of which cod. Bernensis may be regarded as
H = codex Traguriensis, our sole source for theCena
NOTE. A great number of minor corrections and alternative readings are, owing to the
demands of space, omitted from the critical notes.
MOST IMPORTANT EDITIONS: I. PREVIOUS TO DISCOVERY OF Cena
1482 Editio Princeps.
Scriptores Panegyrici Latini,
containing (1) Pliny the
(2) Ten other panegyrics by various
authors on diverse emperors. (3) The Agricola
(4)Petronii arbitri satyrici fragmenta: quae extant.
Printed by Antonius Zarotus at Milan; the date is approximate.
1565 The edition of Johannes Sambucus, who made use of an old MS. of his own, and
added a certain amount not previously printed. Antwerp (Chr. Plantin).
1575 The edition of Jean de Tournes (Tornaesius) based (among other sources) on codex
Cuiacianus, afterwards used by Scaliger. Lyons (J. Tornaesius).
1577 The edition of P. Pithou (Pithoeus) based on three MSS. now lost. Paris (M.
1583 The edition of Ian. Dousa with notes. Leyden (Io. Paetsius).
1610 The edition of Melchior Goldastus with notes. Frankfort (Io. Bringerfor I. Th.
II. SUBSEQUENT TO DISCOVERY OF Cena Trimalchionis.
i. Editions of Cena.
1664 Petronii Fragmentum Traguriense.
Padua (P. Frambotti).
ex Petronii Satirico,
with introduction and notes by Jo.
Caius Telebomenus (Jacobus Mentelius). Paris (E. Martin).
1665 Petronii Fragmentum
with notes by Io. Scheffer. Upsala
1666 Petronii Fragmentum
ed. Th. Reinesius. Leipzig (Chr.
Michael for Sigism. Coerner).
ii. Complete Editions.
1669 The edition of M. Hadrianides. Amsterdam (J. Blaeu).
1709 The edition of P. Burmann with copious notes. Utrecht (Guil. van de Water). This
is the last complete commentary.
1862 The editio maior
of F. Buecheler. Berlin (Weidmann).
1862 The editio minor
of the same: 4th edition on which this
text is based 1904: 5th edition revised by W. Heraeus 1911.
iii. Modern Editions of Cena.
1891 Cena Trimalchionis
with German notes and translations by
L. Friedlaender. Leipzig (Hirzel). Second edition 1906.
1902 Cena Trimalchionis
with English notes by W. E. Waters.
Boston (B. H. Sanborn).
1905 Cena Trimalchionis
with English notes and translation by
W. D. Lowe. Cambridge (Deighton Bell).
1905 Cena Trimalchionis
with English notes and translation by
M. J. Ryan. London (Walter Scott Publishing Co.).
iv. The Bellum Civile.
1911 The Bellum Civile
of Petronius, with English notes and
translation by Florence T. Baldwin. New York (Columbia University Press).
1694 The Satyr of Petronius by Mr. Burnaby. London (S. Briscoe).
1736 The Works of Petronius by Mr. Addison. London (J. Watts).
1854 and 1880 Petronius by W. K. Kelly. London (Bohn and G. Bell & Sons).
1898 Trimalchio's Dinner. H. T. Peck. New York (Dodd, Mead and Co.).
THE POEMS ATTRIBUTED TO PETRONIUS.
Poetae Latini Minores,
vol. 4. Baehrens (Teubner Series).
THE MSS. OF PETRONIUS.
1863 The MSS. of the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter described and collated by Charles
Beck. Cambridge MSS. (Riverside Press).
CRITICISMS AND APPRECIATIONS OF PETRONIUS.
1856 The Age of Petronius by Charles Beck. Cambridge, Mass. (Metcalf).
1875 L'Opposition sous les Césars by Gaston Boissier (Un Roman de moeurs
sous Néron). Paris (Hachette).
1892 Etude sur Pétrone by A. Collignon. Paris (Hachette).
1898 Studies in Frankness by C. Whibley (p. 27). London (Heinemann).
1902 Pétrone by E. Thomas. Paris (Fontemoing).
1903 Roman Society from Nero to M. Aurelius by S. Dill (pp. 120–137).
1905 Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero by B. Henderson (pp. 291–4).
1909 Post-Augustan Poetry by H. E. Butler (p. 125). Oxford (Clarendon Press).
1910 The Bibliography of Petronius by S. GaseleeLondon (East and Blades).10
In 1692, fragments, forged by a Frenchman named Nodot, were printed in the edition
published by Leers, at Rotterdam.
In 1800 another forgery appeared. The author was a Spaniard named Joseph Marchena.
Fragmentum Petronii ex bibl. Sti. Gall. gallice vertit ac
notis perpetuis illustravit Lallemandus, S. Theologiae Doctor,