The surviving portions of the text detail the misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, and his lover, a handsome sixteen year old boy named Giton. Throughout the novel, Encolpius has a hard time keeping his lover faithful to him as he is constantly being enticed away by others. Encolpius' friend Ascyltus (who seems to have previously been in a relationship with Encolpius) is another major character. It is a rare example of a Roman novel, the only other surviving example (quite different in style and plot) being Metamorphoses written by Lucius Apuleius. It is also extremely important evidence for the reconstruction of what everyday life must have been like for the lower classes during the early Roman Empire.
The text was copied throughout the Middle Ages. In 1664 the first critical edition, which included Trimalchio’s party, was put to print, all thanks to the efforts of Pierre Petit. Soon after the Satyricon was translated to several languages and became one of the bestsellers of Western literature.
Due to the extent of the Satyricon's damage, the true intent of Petronius' novel is unknown; is it a 'satire' with a moral component, or a saytr, with no purpose but revenge for Nero's dismissal of Seneca?
The work is narrated by its central figure, Encolpius, a former gladiator. The surviving sections of the novel begin with Encolpius traveling with a companion and former lover named Ascyltos, who has joined Encolpius on numerous escapades. Encolpius' slave, a boy named Giton, is apparently at Encolpius' lodging when the story begins. (Giton is constantly referred to as "brother" throughout the novel, thereby indicating that they were lovers.)
In the first passage preserved, Encolpius is in a Greek town in Campania, perhaps Puteoli, where he is standing outside a school railing against false taste in literature, which he blames on the prevailing system of declamatory education (1-2). His adversary in this debate is Agamemnon, a sophist, who shifts the blame from the teachers to the parents (3-5). Encolpius discovers that his companion Ascyltos has left and breaks away from Agamemnon when a group of students arrive (6).
Encolpius locates Ascyltos (7-8) and then Giton (8), who claims that Ascyltos made a sexual attempt on him (9). After some conflict (9-11), the three go to the market, where they are involved in a dispute over stolen property (12-15). Returning to their lodgings, they are confronted by Quartilla, a devotee of Priapus, who condemns their attempts to pry into the cult's secrets (16-18). The companions are overpowered by Quartilla and her maids, who overpower and sexually torture them (19-21), then provide them with dinner and engage them in further sexual activity (21-26). An orgy ensues and the sequence ends with Encolpius and Quartilla exchanging kisses while they spy through a keyhole at Giton having sex with a virgin girl; and finally sleeping together (26).
This section of the Satyricon, regarded by classicists such as Conte and Rankin as emblematic of Menippian satire, takes place a day or two after the beginning of the extant story. Encolpius and companions are invited, along with Agamemnon, to a dinner at the estate of Trimalchio, a freedman of enormous wealth, who entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance. After preliminaries in the baths and halls (26-30), the guests (mostly freedmen) join their host and enter the dining room. Extravagant courses are served while Trimalchio flaunts his wealth and his pretence of learning (31-41). Trimalchio's departure to the toilet allows space for conversation among the guests (41-46). Encolpius listens to their ordinary talk about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, and about the education of their children. In his insightful depiction of everyday Roman life, Petronius delights in exposing the vulgarity and pretentiousness of the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of his age. After Trimalchio's return from the lavatory (47), the succession of courses is resumed, some of them disguised as other kinds of food or arranged to resemble certain zodiac signs. Falling into an argument with Agamemnon, a guest who secretly holds Trimalchio in disdain, Trimalchio confides to his listeners that he once saw the Sybil of Cumae, who because of her great age was suspended in a flask for eternity (48). Supernatural stories about a werewolf (62) and witches are told (63). Following a lull in the conversation, a stonemason named Habinnas arrives with his wife Scintilla (65), who compares jewellery with Trimalchio's wife Fortunata (67). Then Trimalchio sets forth his will and gives Habinnas instructions on how to build his monument when he is dead (71). Encolpius and his companions, by now wearied and disgusted, try to leave as the other guests proceed to the baths, but are prevented by a porter (72). They escape only after Trimalchio holds a mock funeral for himself. The vigiles, mistaking the sound of horns for a signal that a fire has broken out, burst into the residence (78). Using this sudden alarm as an excuse to get rid of the sophist Agamemnon, whose company Encolpius and his friends are weary of, they flee as if from a real fire (78).
Encolpius returns with his companions to the inn but, having drunk too much wine, passes out while Ascyltos takes advantage of the situation and seduces Giton (79). On the next day, Encolpius wakes to find his lover and Ascyltos in bed together naked. Encolpius quarrels with Ascyltos and the two agree to part, but Encolpius is shocked when Giton decides to stay with Ascyltos (80). After two or three days spent in separate lodgings sulking and brooding on his revenge, Encolpius sets out with a sword to take his revenge, but is disarmed by a soldier he encounters in the street (81-82).
After entering a picture gallery, he meets with an old poet, Eumolpus. The two exchange complaints about their misfortunes (83-84), and Eumolpus tells how, when he pursued an affair with a boy in Pergamon while employed as his tutor, the youth got the better of him (85-87). After talking about the decay of art and the inferiority of the painters and writers of the age to the old masters (88), Eumolpus illustrates a picture of the capture of Troy by some verses on that theme (89). This ends in those who are walking in the adjoining colonnade driving Eumolpus out with stones (90). Encolpius invites Eumolpus to dinner. As he returns home, Encolpius encounters Giton who begs him to take him back as his lover. Encolpius finally forgives him (91). Eumolpus arrives from the baths and reveals that a man there (evidently Ascyltos) was looking for someone called Giton (92). Encolpius decides not to reveal Giton's identity, but he and the poet fall into rivalry over the boy (93-94). This leads to a fight between Eumolpus and the other residents of the insula (95-96), which is broken up by the manager Bargates. Then Ascyltos arrives with a municipal slave to search for Giton, who hides under a bed at Encolpius' request (97). Eumolpus threatens to reveal him but after much negotiation ends up reconciled to Encolpius and Giton (98).
In the next scene preserved, Encolpius and his friends board a ship, along with Eumolpus' hired servant, later named as Corax (99). Encolpius belatedly discovers that the captain is an old enemy, Lichas of Tarentum. Also on board is a woman called Tryphaena, by whom Giton does not want to be discovered (100-101). Despite their attempt to disguise themselves as Eumolpus' slaves (103), Encolpius and Giton are identified (105). Eumolpus speaks in their defence (107), but it is only after fighting breaks out (108) that peace is agreed (109). To maintain good feelings, Eumolpus tells the story of a widow of Ephesus. At first she planned to starve herself to death in her husband's tomb, but she was seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses, and when one of these was stolen she offered the corpse of her husband as a replacement (110-112).
The ship is wrecked in a storm (114). Encolpius, Giton and Eumolpus get to shore safely (as apparently does Corax), but Lichas is washed ashore drowned (115). The companions learn they are in the neighbourhood of Crotona, and that the inhabitants are notorious legacy-hunters (116). Eumolpus proposes taking advantage of this, and it is agreed that he will pose as a childless, sickly man of wealth, and the others as his slaves (117). As they travel to the city, Eumolpus lectures on the need for elevated content in poetry (118), which he illustrates with a poem of almost 300 lines on the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey (119-124). When they arrive in Crotona, the legacy-hunters prove hospitable.
When the text resumes, the companions have apparently been in Crotona for some time (125). A maid named Chrysis flirts with Encolpius and brings to him her beautiful mistress Circe, who asks him for sex. However, his attempts are prevented by impotence (126-128). Circe and Encolpius exchange letters, and he seeks a cure by sleeping without Giton (129-130). When he next meets Circe, she brings with her an elderly enchantress called Proselenos, who attempts a magical cure (131). Nonetheless, he fails again to make love, as Circe has Chrysis and him flogged (132).
Encolpius is tempted to sever the offending organ, but prays to Priapus at his temple for healing (133). Proselenos and the priestess Oenothea arrive. Oenothea, who is also a sorceress, claims she can provide the cure desired by Encolpius and begins cooking (134-135). While the women are temporarily absent, Encolpius is attacked by the temple's sacred geese and kills one of them. Oenothea is horrified, but Encolpius pacifies her with an offer of money (136-137). Then, Oenothea tears open the breast of the goose, and uses its liver to foretell Encolpius's future (137). That accomplished, the priestess reveals a "leather dildo," and the women apply various irritants to him, which they use to prepare Encolpius for anal penetration (138). Encolpius flees from Oenothea and her assistants. In the following chapters, Chrysis herself falls in love with Encolpius (138-139).
An aging legacy-huntress called Philomela places her son and daughter with Eumolpus, ostensibly for education. Eumolpus makes love to the daughter, although because of his pretence of ill health he requires the help of Corax. Encolpius reveals that he has somehow been cured of his impotence (140). He warns Eumolpus that, because the wealth he claims to have has not appeared, the patience of the legacy-hunters is running out. Eumolpus' will is read to the legacy-hunters, who apparently now believe he is dead, and they learn they can inherit only if they consume his body. In the final passage preserved, historical examples of cannibalism are cited (141).
Although interrupted by frequent gaps, 141 sections of consecutive narrative have been preserved. These can be compiled into the length of a longer novella. Speculation as to the size of the original puts it somewhere on the order of a work of thousands of pages, and reference points for length range from Tom Jones to In Search of Lost Time.
Statements in the extant narrative allows the reconstruction of some events that must have taken place earlier in the work. Encolpius and Giton have had contact with Lichas and Tryphaena. Both seem to have been lovers of Tryphaena (113) at a cost to her reputation (106). Lichas' identification of Encolpius by examining his groin (105) implies that they have also had sexual relations. Lichas' wife has been seduced (106) and his ship robbed (113). Encolpius states at one point, "I escaped the law, cheated the arena, killed a host" (81). The second of these claims can be connected with an insult by Ascyltos (9), which may indicate that Encolpius escaped from fighting as a gladiator because the arena collapsed, although the text at that point is uncertain.
A number of fragments of Petronius' work are preserved in other authors. Servius cites Petronius as his source for a custom at Massilia of allowing a poor man, during times of plague, to volunteer to serve as a scapegoat, receiving support for a year at public expense and then being expelled. Sidonius Apollinaris refers to "Arbiter", by which he apparently means Petronius' narrator Encolpius, as a worshipper of the "sacred stake" of Priapus in the gardens of Massilia. It has been proposed that Encolpius' wanderings in the Satyricon began after he offered himself as the scapegoat and was ritually expelled. Other fragments may relate to a trial scene.
Also, among the poems ascribed to Petronius is an oracle predicting travels to the Danube and to Egypt. Edward Courtney notes that the prominence of Egypt in the ancient Greek novels might make it plausible for Petronius to have set an episode there, but expresses some doubt about the oracle's relevance to Encolpius' travels, "since we have no reason to suppose that Encolpius reached the Danube or the far north, and we cannot suggest any reason why he should have.
The date of the Satyricon was the subject of significant controversy in nineteenth and twentieth-century scholarship, with dates proposed as varied as the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD. However, a general consensus on this issue now exists. A dramatic date under Nero is indicated by the work's social background and in particular by references to named popular entertainers. Evidence has been found in the author's style and literary concerns that this was also the period at which he was writing. Except where the Satyricon imitates colloquial language (e.g., in the speeches of the freedmen at Trimalchio's dinner), its style is in line with the literary prose of the period. Eumolpus' poem on the Civil War and the remarks with which he prefaces it (118-124) are generally understood as a response to the Pharsalia of the Neronian poet Lucan. Similarly, Eumolpus' poem on the capture of Troy (89) has been related to Nero's Troica and to the tragedies of Seneca the Younger, and parody of Seneca's Epistles has been detected in the moralising remarks of characters in the Satyricon. There is disagreement about the value of some individual arguments but, according to S. J. Harrison, "almost all scholars now support a Neronian date" for the work.
The manuscripts of the Satyricon ascribe the work to a "Petronius Arbiter", while a number of ancient authors (Macrobius, Sidonius Apollinaris, Marius Victorinus, Diomedes and Jerome) refer to the author as "Arbiter". Probably the name Arbiter is derived from Tacitus' reference to a courtier named Petronius as Nero's arbiter elegantiae or fashion adviser (Annals 16.18.2). That the author is the same as this courtier is disputed. Many modern scholars accept the identification, pointing to a perceived similarity of character between the two, and to possible references in the Satyricon to affairs at the Neronian court. However, others consider this conclusion "beyond conclusive proof". For Jean Dutourd the real Petronius, author of the Satyricon, could have been a citizen unrelated to Nero’s court.
The Satyricon is considered one of the gems of Western literature, and may be the earliest extant work classifiable as a novel, although some would give that honour to Chariton's Callirhoe. Unlike Fellini’s film discussed below, the caricature of the Satyricon does not deform the everyday life of the Roman people. Petronius uses real names for all his characters, most of them laypeople, who talk about the theatre of ancient Rome, the amphitheatre (of which the most famous was the Colloseum) and the circus with the same enthusiasm of today’s fans of football and other team sports. If there is parody in the Satyricon it is not about the main characters—Encolpius, Giton and Ascyltos—but of the described social reality, and the literary genres of certain famous poets and writers, Homer, Plato, Virgil and Cicero included. Petronius’ realism has a Greek antecedent in Aristophanes, who also abandoned the epical tone to focus on ordinary subjects. The Satyricon was widely read in the first centuries of the Common Era. Through poetry and philosophy, Greco-Roman literature had pretended to distance itself from everyday life, or to contemplate it loftily as in history or oratory. Petronius rebelled against this trend: “Nihil est hominum inepta persuasione falsius nec ficta severitate ineptius” (“There is nothing about man more false than his foolish convictions and there is nothing more stupid than hypocrite severity” —section 132).
The name “satyricon” implies that the work belongs to the type to which Varro, imitating the Greek Menippus, had given the character of a medley of prose and verse composition. But the string of fictitious narrative by which the medley is held together is something quite new in Roman literature. The author was happily inspired in his devices for amusing himself and thereby transmit to modern times a text based on the ordinary experience of contemporary life; the precursor of such novels as Gil Blas and The Adventures of Roderick Random.
The incomplete form in which the Satyricon survives has tantalized many readers, and between 1692 and the present several writers have attempted to round the story out. In certain cases, following a well-known conceit of historical fiction, these invented supplements have been claimed to derive from newly discovered manuscripts, a claim that may appear all the more plausible since the real fragments actually came from two different medieval sources and were only brought together by 16th and 17th century editors.
The claims have been exposed by modern scholarship, even 21st century apocryphal supplements.
In the process of coming up with the title of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald had considered several titles for his book including "Trimalchio" and "Trimalchio in West Egg;" Fitzgerald characterizes Gatsby as Trimalchio in the novel, notably in the first paragraph of Chapter VII: "It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night--and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over. (pp 119, 2003 Scribners Trade Paperback edition)."
An early version of the novel, still titled "Trimalchio" is still in print by the Cambridge University Press.
T S Eliot's seminal poem of cultural disintegration The Waste Land is prefaced by a verbatim quotation out of Trimalchio's account of visiting the Cumaean Sibyl, a supposedly immortal prophetess whose counsel was once sought on all matters of grave importance, but whose grotto by Neronian times had become just another site of local interest along with all the usual Mediterranean tourist traps:
A series of 100 etchings illustrating the Satyricon was made by the Australian artist Norman Lindsay. These were included in several 20th century translations, including, eventually, one by the artist's son Jack Lindsay.
In 1969 Federico Fellini made a film, Fellini Satyricon, that was loosely based upon the book. The film is deliberately fragmented and surreal though the androgynous Giton (Max Born) gives the graphic picture of Petronius’ character. Among the chief narrative changes Fellini makes to the Satyricon text is the addition of a hermaphroditic priestess, who does not exist in the Petronian version. In Fellini's adaptation, the fact that Ascyltos abducts this hermaphrodite, who later dies a miserable death in a desert landscape, is posed as an ill-omened event, and leads to the death of Ascyltos later in the film (none of which is to be found in the Petronian version). Other additions Fellini makes in his filmic adaptation: the appearance of a minotaur in a labyrinth (who first tries to club Encolpius to death, and then attempts to kiss him), and the appearance of a nymphomaniac whose husband hires Ascyltos to enter her caravan and have sex with her.
The year before another film had already been made, hence the addition of the name Fellini to the title.
Ciao Federico - Fellini directs Satyricon, shot by Gideon Bachman, is a making-of feature.
Over a span of more than three centuries the Satyricon has frequently been translated into English, often in limited editions. The translations are as follows. The online versions, like the originals on which they are based, often incorporate spurious supplements which are not part of the real Satyricon.