Out of all the forms of critique, satire has been regarded as the most effective in providing insights into the collective psyche of society. Being the object of this albeit humorous practice is a devastating process – no one enjoys having their vices or follies magnified for comedic effect. However, this kind of discourse has been useful in revealing the issues in society’s power structures, values and tastes.

“The Works of Titus Petronius Arbiter…” (the full title is quite extensive) is an early English translation of the Satyricon, printed in London in 1712 and of which we now have a digitised copy in Monash Collections Online. Although disputed, a consensus has been reached that the Satyricon was originally written in the 1st century AD and is an important literary text for a variety of reasons:

  • As a work that moves outside the bounds and considerations of contemporary plot devices, it is an early example of the modern literary form known as a novel (believe it or not, fiction used to not really be worth writing down).
  • It is the second most fully preserved Roman novel, despite quite a lot of it is still missing.
  • The evidence of how colloquial Latin was used at the time is considered to be historically valuable.
  • If it is not the first example, it is a piece of Menippean Satire- which attacks the mental attitudes of society through parody and humour, rather than specific individuals.
  • The author transcended the classical rules of ancient literature with dissolute allusions and detailed descriptions that have become a valuable tool to better comprehend Roman society at that time.

Like the date, the author of the Satyricon has been disputed over time. However, the author is usually considered to be Titus Petronius Arbiter, originally named Titus Petronius Niger but also said to be Gaius Petronius Arbiter – a high ranking Roman courtier during the time of Nero. Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder described him as the ‘judge of elegance’ (arbiter elegantiarum), which resulted in the addition of ‘Arbiter’ to his name, it being part of his courtier title. Petronius devoted the latter part of his life to pleasure, a lifestyle that was attacked by the stoic philosopher Seneca, and became one of Nero’s chosen intimates. Tacitus noted Petronius’ frank and free speech, vigour and capacity for affairs in his official positions as governor of the Asian province of Bithynia and as consul (the first magistrate of Rome) before his connection with ‘the science of luxurious living’.

As a foil to the usual preference of Greco-Roman poetry and prose, Petronius makes everyday Roman life the focus of this work. Instead of distancing the work from the Common Era and being in deep contemplation of historic events, this work moves away from statements and self-important seriousness that Petronius purported to find both false and unconvincing.

As previously mentioned, the Satyricon has not been preserved in its entirety; what has survived are excerpts from the middle of the overarching narrative. These vignettes, or tales within tales, can either be seen as disruptions to the narrative continuity or studied as standalone narratives. Many have tried to ‘round out’ these narratives with literary additions over time, but with little long term success and credibility.

A few of these tales include ‘Widow of Ephesus’, which highlights the hypocrisy of public reputation when held up to someone’s private life. There are many adventures of Encolpius (Latin for ‘groin’ or ‘crotch’), a former Gladiator and con man traveling through a decadent society with Ascyltos (‘unperturbed’), his friend and love rival of the young slave boy Giton (‘cuddles’). However, Encolpius is eventually taken hostage by Quartilla (‘little fourth’), a wealthy priestess and lustful older woman.

Another major character is Trimalchio (from the Greek tris, which translates to ‘three-times’ or ‘very’, and the Semitic meleekh or ‘king’), a vulgar, excessive and wealthy former slave who hosts an ostentatious dinner for an aristocratic and well-educated party. It is supposed that this narrative is actually a satire of Nero and his court of the time. Whether or not this is the case, Trimalchio has struck an ongoing cord with the literary world with T.S Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Oscar Wilde all drawing inspiration for the character in their work. Australian artists Norman Lindsey also completed a series of 100 etchings to illustrate a series of 20th century translations of the Satyricon.

The preface does much to address the validity of Petronius as a social commentator and states that his key extravagance was ‘that his wit loved to indulge itself with a liberty of writing’ and thought it ‘most proper to inspire the horror of vice’.  The addition of ‘The Charms of Liberty’ by a politically-minded Duke of Devonshire is an interesting companion piece offering context for the audience of the time.

Due to the age of the item, digitising this book proved to be challenging. The Digitisation Centre has recently acquired a cradle for our high quality Zeutschel scanner, so we were able to work through the pages without putting undue pressure on the spine. It also meant that we were able to capture all of the text easily, as the binding was inconsistent making the text margins variable. Without this equipment capturing such a beautiful and important literary item electronically would not have been possible.

 

About the author: Writer Clare Presser is a staff member within the Digitisation and Research Repository team at Monash University Library.