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C. Petro'nius Arbiter

is described by Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 16.18, 19) as the most accomplished voluptuary at the court of Nero. His days were passed in slumber, his nights in visiting and revelry. But he was no vulgar spendthrift, no dull besotted debauchee. An air of refinement pervaded all his extravagancies; with him luxury was a serious study, and he became a proficient in the science. The careless, graceful ease, assuming almost the guise of simplicity, which distinguished all his words and actions, was the delight of the fashionable world; he gained, by polished and ingenious folly, an amount of fame which others often fail to achieve by a long career of laborious virtue. At one time he proved himself capable of better things. Having been appointed governor (proconsul) of Bithynia, and subsequently elevated to the consulship, his official duties were discharged with energy and discretion. Relapsing however, into his ancient habits, he was admitted among the few chosen companions of the prince, and was regarded as director-in-chief of the imperial pleasures, the judge whose decision upon the merits of any proposed scheme of enjoyment was held as final (Neroni assntlus est ELEGANTIAE ARBI'TER, dum nibil amoenum et nmolle affluceetia putat, nisi quod ei Petronius lpprobavisset). The influence thus acquired excited the jealous suspicions of Tigellinus : Petronius was accused of having been privy to the treason of Scaevinus a slave was suborned to lodge an information, and the whole of his household was arrested. Believing that destruction was inevitable, and impatient or delay or suspense, he resolved to die as he had lived, and to excite admiration by the frivolous eccentricity of his end. Having caused his veins to be opened, he from time to time arrested the tlow of blood by the application of bandages. During the intervals he conversed with his friends, not upon the solemn themes which the occasion might have suggested, but upon the news and light gossip of the day; he bestowed rewards upon some of his slaves, and ordered others to be scourged : he lay down to sleep, and even showed himself in the public streets of Curnae, where these events took place; so that at last, when he sunk from exhaustion, his death (A. D. 66) although compulsory, appeared to be the result of natural and gradual decay. He is said to have despatched in his last moments a sealed document to the prince, taunting him with his brutal excesses (flagitia Principis * * * * * * perscripsit utque obsignata misit Neroni,) and to have broken in pieces a murrhine vessel of vast price, in order that it might not fall into the hands of the tyrant. This last anecdote has been recorded by Pliny (H. N.37.2), who, as well as Plutarch (De Adulat. et Amicit. Discrim. p. 60), give to the person in question the name of Titus Petroniius. We filnd it generally assumed that he belonged to the equestrian order, but the words of Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 16.17) would lead to an opposite inference, "Paucos quippe intra dies eodem agmine Alnnaeus Mella, Cerealis Anicius, Rufitus Crispinus ac C. Petronius cecidere. Mella et Crispinus Equites Romani dignitate senatoria." Now, since Petronius, in virtue of having been consul, must have enjoyed the diynitas senatoria, the above sentence seems to imply that Mella and Crispinus alone of the individuals mentioned were Equites Romnisni


A very singular production consisting of a prose narrative interspersed with numerous pieces of poetry, and thus resemblilng in form the Varronian Satire, has come down to us in a sadly mutilated state. In the oldest MSS. and the earliest editions it bears the title Petronii Arbitri Satyricon, and, as it now exists, is composed of a series of fragments, the continuity of the piece being frequently interrupted by blanks, and the whole forming but a very small portion of the original, which, when entire, contained at least sixteen books, and probably many nore. It is a sort of comic romance, in which the adventures of a certain Encolpius and his companions in the south of Italy, chiefly in Naples or its environs, are made a vehicle for exposing the false taste which prevailed upon all matters connected with literature and the fine arts, and for holding up to ridicule and detestation the folly, luxury, impurity, and dishonesty of all classes of the community in the age and country in which the scene is laid. A great variety of characters connected for the most part with the lower ranks of life are brought upon the stage, and support their parts with the greatest liveliness and dramatic propriety, while every page overflows with ironical wit and broad humour. Unfortunately the vices of the personages introduced are depicted with such minute fidelity that we are perpetually disgusted by the coarseness and obscenity of the descriptions. Indeed, if we can believe that such a book was ever widely circulated and generally admired, that fact alone would afford the most convincing proof of the pollution of the epoch to which it belongs. without feeling any inclination to pass too severe a sentence on the collector of so much garbage, the most expansive charity will not permit us to join with Burmann in regarding him as a very holy man (uirum sanctissimum) a model of all the austere virtues of the olden time, who filled with pious horror on beholding the monstrous corruption of his contemporaries, was irresistibly impelled to arrest, if possible, the rapid progress of their degradation by holding up the crimes which they practised to view in all the loathsomeness of their native deformity

The longest and most important section is generally known as the Supper of Trimalchio, presenting us with a detailed and very amusing account of a fantastic banquet, such as the most luxurious and extravagant gourmands of the empire were wont to exhibit on their tables. Next in interest is the well-known tale of the Ephesian Matron, which here appears for the first time among the popular fictions of the Western world, although current from a very early period in the remote regions of the East. In the middle ages it was circulated in the "Seven Wise Masters," the oldest collection of Oriental stories, and has been introduced by Jeremy Taylor into his "Holy Dying," in the chapter "On the Contingencies of Death, &c." The longest of the effusions in verse is descriptive poem on the Civil Wars, extending to 295 hexameter lines, affording a good example of that declamatory tone of which the Pharsalia is the type. We have also sixty-five iambic trimeters, depicting the capture of Troy (Troiae Halosis,) and besides these several shorter morsels are interspersed spersed replete with grace and beauty.

A reat number of conflicting opinions have been formed by scholars with regard gard to the author of the Satyricon. Many have confidently maintaid that he must be identified with the Caius (or Titus) Petronius, of whose career we have given a sketch above, and this view of the question, after having been to a certain extent abandoned, has been revived and supported with great earnestness and learning by Studer in the Rheinisches Museum. By Ignarra he is supposed to be the Petronius Turpilianus who was consul A. D. 61. [TURPILIANUS.] Hadrianus Valesius places him under the Antonines; his brother Henricus Valesius and Sambucus under Gallienus. Niebuhr, led away by ingenious but most fanciful inferences derived from a metrical epitaph, discovered in the vicinity of Naples, imagines that he lived under Alexander Severus; Statilius would bring him down as low as the age of Constantine the Great ; while Burmann holds that he flourished under Tiberius, Caius, and Claudius, and thinks it probable that he may have seen the last days of Augustus. The greater number of these hypotheses are mere flimsy conjectures, unsupported by any thing that deserves to be called evidence, and altogether unworthy of serious examination or discussion; but the first, although too often ignorantly assumed as a self-evident and unquestionable fact, is deserving of some attention, both because it has been more widely adopted than any of the others, and because it appeals with confidence to an array of proofs hoth external and internal, which may be reduced to the following propositions :--

1 . We can trace the origin of the name Arbiter to the expression "elegantiae arbiter" in Tacitus. 2. When the historian states that Petronius in his dying moments despatched a writing to Nero exposing the infamy of the emperor's life, he evidently refers to the work of which we now possess the fragments. 3. Nero and his minions are held up to scorn under the guise of Trimalchio and his retainers. 4. The language bears the stamp of the best age of Latinity, and cannot have proceeded from any writer of the second or third century. Upon these we may observe :--

1. Tacitus certainly does not use Arbiter as a proper name, but merely as the term best suited to express the meaning he wished to convey, while Pliny and Plutarch who speak of the same Petronius, give no hint that he was distinguished by any such designation. On the other hand, it may be urged that although the name of Petronius is by no means uncommon in the annals of the empire, the cognomen of Arbiter is never found attached to it in inscriptions or in documents of any description, which renders it probable that the word may be regarded as a title or epithet introduced by some grammarian or copyist for the purpose of marking out the individual described by Tacitus, and separating the author of the Satyricon from all other Petronii.

2. Tacitus, to whom alone we are indebted for precise information regarding the Petronius put to death by Nero. says not one word of his having possessed any talent for literature; and with respect to the sentence quoted above, upon which so much stress has been laid, no one who reads it with care, and without being wedded to a preconceived opinion, can for a moment believe that the words denote any thing except a short epistle filled with direct reproaches, composed almiost in the agonies of death to satisfy a craving for revenge. Indeed it is difficult to understand how expressions so little ambiguous could have been interpreted by any scholar to signify an elaborate and a voluminous work of fiction.

3. The idea that Nero is shadowed forth under the form of Triimalchio is absolutely preposterous. Trilmalchio is in reality the representative of a class of persons who existed in considerable numbers after the downfal of the republic. He is depicted as a freedman of overgrown wealth, far advanced in years, inflated with vulgar purse-pride and ostentation, coarse in manners and conversation, uneducated and ignorant, but eager to display an imperfect smattering of ill-digested learning, and thus constantly rendering himself ridiculous by innumerable blunders, ruled by a clever bustling wife, who had acquired complete dominion over him by studying his weaknesses, greedy of flattery, inclined to be overbearing and tyrannical, but not devoid of a sort of rough good-nature--a series of characteristics in which it is certainly impossible to discern one trace of Nero. The notion of Burnmann that Claudius was the prototype of Trimalchio, although not so glaringly absurd, is equally untenable.

4. The assertion regarding the language is frequently met by a flat contradiction, and Reinesius has gone so far as to stigmnatise it as a farrago of Grecisms, Gallicisms, Hebraicisms, and barbarous idioms, such as we might expect to find in the worst writers of the worst period. This critic, however, and those who have embraced his sentiments appear to have contemplated the subject from a false point of view. In addition to the corruptions in the text which are so numerous and hopeless as to render whole sentences unintelligible, there are doubtless a multitude of strange words and of phrases not elsewhere to be found; but this circumstance need excite no surprise when we remember the various topics which fall under discussion, and the singular personages grouped together on the scene. The most remarkable and startling peculiarities may be considered as the phraseology appropriate to the characters by whom they are uttered, the language of ordinary conversation, the familiar slang in every-day use among the hybrid population of Campania, closely resembling, in all probability, the dialect of the Atellan farces. On the other hand, wherever the author may be supposed to be speaking in his own person, we are deeply impressed by the extreme felicity of the style, which, far frorm bearing marks of decrepitude or decay, is redolent of spirit, elasticity, and vigorous freshness.

Our author is twice quoted by Terentianus Maurus, once under the name of Arbiter, and once as Petronais ; and if it were certain, as some have insisted, that Terentianus was contemporary with Domitian, one portion of the problem before us might be regarded as solved, but, unfortunately, the age of the grammarian is as much a matter of controversy as that of the novelist. Again, a very close resemnlblance has been detected between certain expressions in Martial and Statius, and three passages in the Satyricon. Two of these, it is true, are not found in the extant copies, but are adduced incidentally by St. Jerome and Fulgentius; but even if we admit that there is no mistake or confusion in regard to these citations, we can form no conclusion from such a fact, for it is impossible to demonstrate whether Petronius copied from Martial and Statius, or Martial and Statius from Petronius, or whether they may not have borrowed from common sources without reference to each other. (Petron. Satyr. 119; Mart. 13.62; Hieron. Ep. 130.100.19; Mart. 2.12; Fulgent. Mythol. v.; Stat. Theb. 3.661.) In like manner the testimonies of Macrobius (Somn. Sup. 1.2), Servius (Ad Virg. Aen. xii.), Lydus (De Magist. 1.41), Priscian, Diomedes, Victorinus, Isidorus, and Sidonius Apollinaris (Carm. 23.155), lead to no result. The latter, indeed, when eniumerating some of the brightest lights of Roman literature, places "Arbiter" immediately before Ovid, the Senecas, and Martial; but it is evident that he does not adopt any sort of chronological order, for Tacitus in his list takes precedence of the above, and at the commencement of his catalogue Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Terence, Plautus, and Varro follow in succession. Upon this passage, which is very obscurely worded, rests the assertion, admitted without comment by many of the historians of Latin literature, that Petronius was a native of Marseilles.

If we sift with impartiality the whole of the evidence produced, and analyse with care the pleadings of the contending parties, we shall feel disposed to decide that, while upon the one hand there are no proofs nor even probabilities which can justify us in pronouncing that the author of the Satyricon is the same person with the Petronius of Tacitus, so on the other hand there is good reason to believe that the miscellany in question belongs to the first century, or that, at all events, it is not later than the reign of Hadrian, although we cannot pretend to fix a narrower limit, nor to hazard a conjecture as to the individual by whom it was composed. In addition to the considerations already indicated, which support this view of the question, it will be observed that the lamentations over the decline of correct taste in eloquence, poetry, and the fine arts, and the invectives against the destructive influence exercised upon the minds of the young by the system of education then in fashion, and especially by the teachers of declamation, could proceed only from one who had witnessed the introduction, or at least the full development of that system, and would have been completely out of place at an epoch when the vices here exposed had become sanctioned by universal practice, and had long ceased to excite animadversion or suspicion. Many attempts have been made to account for the strangely mutilated condition in which the piece has been transmitted to modern times. It has been suggested by some that the blanks were caused by the scruples of pious transcribers, who omitted those parts which were most licentious; while others have not hesitated to declare their conviction that the worst passages were studiously selected. Without meaning to advocate this last hypothesis-and we can scarcely conceive that Burmann was in earnest when he propounded it--it is clear that the first explanation is altogether unsatisfactory, for it appears to be impossible that what was passed over could have been more offensive than much of what was retained. According to another theory, what we now possess must be regarded as striking and favourite extracts, copied out into the common-place book of some scholar in the middle ages; a supposition applicable to the Supper of Trimalchio and the longer poetical essays, but which fails for the numerous short and abrupt fragments breaking off in the middle of a sentence. The most simple solution of the difficulty seems to be the true one. The existing MSS. proceeded, in all likelihood, from two or three archetypes which may have been so much damaged by neglect, that large portions were rendered illegible, while whole leaves and sections may have been torn out or otherwise destroyed.


The Editio Princeps of the fragments of Petronius was printed at Venice, by Bernardinus de Vitalibus, 4to. 1499; and the second at Leipzig, by Jacobus Thanner, in 1500; but these editions, and those which followed for upwards of a hundred and fifty years, exhibited much less than we now possess. For, about the middle of the seventeenth century, an individual who assumed the designation of Martinus Statilius, although his real name was Petrus Petitus, found a MS. at Traun in Dalmatia, containing, nearly entire, the Supper of Triimalchio, which was wanting in all former copies. This was published separately at Padua, in a very incorrect state (8vo. 1664), without the knowledge of the discoverer, again by Petitus himself (8vo. Paris, 1664), and immediately gave rise to a fierce controversy, in which the most learned men of that day took a share, one party receiving it without suspicion as a genuine relic of antiquity, while their opponents with great vehemenllce contended that it was spurious. The strife was not quelled until the year 1669, when the MS. was despatched from the library of the proprietor, Nicolaus Cippius, at Traun, to Rome, where, having been narrowly scrutinised by the most competent judges, it was finally pronounced to be at least three hundred years old, since no forgery of such a nature could have been executed at that epoch, the sceptics were compelled reluctantly to admit that their doubts were ill founded. The title of the Codex, commonly known as the Codex Traquriensis, was Petronii Arbitri Satyri Fragmenta ex litro quinto decimo et sexto decimo, and then follow the words "Num alio genere furiarum," &c. Stimulated, it would appear, by the interest excited during the progress of this discussion, and by the favour with which the new acquisition was now universally regarded, a certain Francis Nodot published at Rotterdam (12mo. 1693) what professed to be the Satyricon of Petronius complete, taken, it was said, from a MS. found at Belgrade when that city was captured in 1688, a MS. which Nodot declared had been presented to him by a Frenchman high in the imperial service. The fate of this volume was soon decided. The imposture was so palpable that few could be found to advocate the pretensions put forth on its behalf, and it was soon given up by all. It is sometimes, however, printed along with the genuine text, but in a different type, so as to prevent the possibility of mistake. Besides this, a pretended fragment, said to have been obtained from the monastery of St. Gall, was printed in 1800, with notes and a French translation by Lallemand, but it seems to have deceived nobody.

The best edition which has yet appeared, which is so comprehensive as entirely to supersede all its predecessors, is that of Petrus Burmannus, 4to. Traj. ad Rhen. 1709; and again much enlarged and improved, 2 vol. 4to. Amst. 1743. It embraces a vast mass of annotations, prolegomena and dissertations, collected from the writings of different critics. Those who may prefer an impression of more moderate size, will find the edition of Antonius, 8vo. Lips. 1781, correct and serviceable.

Poems ascribed to Petronius

We find in the Latin Anthology, and subjoined to all the larger editions of the Satyricon, a number of short poems bearing the name of Petronius. These have been collected from a great variety of different sources, and are the work of many different hands, it being very doubtful whether any of them ought to be ascribed to Petronius Arbiter.

Further Information

The numerous biographies, dissertations, &c. by Sambucus, Gyraldus, Goldastus, Solichius, Gonsalius de Salas, Valesius, &c., collected in the edition of Burmann. Among more modern authorities, we may specify Cataldo Janelli, Codex Perottin Neapol. 181, vol. ii. p. cxxiii.; Dunlop, History of Fiction, cap. ii.; Niebuhr, Klein. Historisch. Schrift. vol. i. p. 337, and Lectures edited by Schmitz, vol. ii. p. 325; Orelli, Corpus Inscrip. Lut. No. 1175; Weichert, Poetarum Lat. Reliq. p. 440; Meyer, Antholog. Lat. vol. i. p. lxxiii.; Wellauer, in Jahn's Jahrbb. Suppl. Band, x. p. 194; and especially Studer, in Rheinisches Munseum, Neue Folge, vol. 2.1. p. 50, 2.2. p. 202, and Ritter, in the same work, vol. 2.4. p. 561.


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hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.17
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.18
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.19
    • Statius, Thebias, 3
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.62
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 2.12
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