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Titus Petronius and his Satyricon; a caricature of the Roman Empire at the time of Emperor Nero


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Titus Petronius, called Arbiter (born around 14 AD, died 66 AD), also known by the probably inaccurate names Gaius Petronius, Gaius Petronius Arbiter or Publius Petronius Niger, sometimes also Petron, was a Roman politician and the author of the satirical novel Satyricon. Around this time, Nero included him among his few confidants and gave him the role of "arbiter of refined taste" (arbiter elegantiae). This is likely to have later given rise to the epithet "arbiter". Contemporary and early sources make the first name Titus seem certain. The earliest witness to the praenomen "Titus" is Petronius' contemporary Pliny the Elder. Plutarch, however, explicitly calls him "Titos". Harry Schnur (Petron: Satyricon. A Roman picaresque novel. Translated and explained by Harry C. Schnur) claims that "Gaius" is merely an erroneous addition by the Tacitus editor Joseph Justus Scaliger, but the "C." is found in all manuscripts. Petronius probably came from the line of Petronii without a cognomen. Petronius probably came from the line of Petronii without a cognomen and is possibly a son of the augur Publius Petronius. The identification with the suffect consul of the year 62 AD, Publius Petronius Niger, which is sometimes advocated in more recent research, is hardly tenable. In the 13th century, the form "Petronius Affranius" appears, strangely distorted by a confusion with the Togate poet Lucius Afranius.

Little more is known about the life of Titus Petronius than what Tacitus is able to tell us in his Analen (16, 18-19). His work at least testifies to his first-class education, talent and skill. He probably spent the period from 29 to 35 AD in Asia with his father. He must therefore have visited and known the cities of Ephesus, Pergamon and Troy mentioned in the Satyricon himself.

If Tacitus is to be believed, Petronius spent the day sleeping and the night doing business. However, he was not regarded by his contemporaries as a spendthrift, even though he indulged in idleness at great expense, but as an educated connoisseur of fine pleasures. His often casual remarks were not held against him, but were seen as an expression of his sincerity. However, celebrated idleness was only one facet of Petronius - and perhaps not even as authentic as reported. As proconsul in Bithynia, he proved that he was also able to take energetic action as an official of Rome - just as he did later, probably around 60 AD, as consul.

Nero is also famous and infamous for his eccentric behavior, his artistic ambitions and his lavish lifestyle. He shaped an era in which moral and religious values no longer played a role. The wealthy upper classes were only concerned with their personal advantage, their lifestyle was unbridled and dissolute. In 65 AD, Calpurnius Piso attempted to overthrow the emperor. However, this so-called Pisonian conspiracy failed, resulting in numerous executions and forced suicides. Petronius and Seneca were also forced to take their own lives.

Tacitus also handed down a description of Petronius' death to posterity: According to it, Petronius himself celebrates his suicide, transforming it into an aesthetic event. He spends his last hours at a cheerful celebration with friends and has his wrists opened and re-tied several times. He also took revenge on Nero even after his death: it was customary for Nero's victims, who had to commit suicide at his behest, to remember the emperor in their wills. Petronius also wrote a letter that was handed over to the emperor after his death - but it was not a will, but a detailed description of Nero's sexual excesses, with the names of all his partners.

 

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Petronius is most famous for his satirical novel Satyricon. Although the novel, of which only larger parts have survived, including the Cena Trimalchionis ("The Banquet of Trimalchio"), is not (directly) mentioned in contemporary sources, the question of its author is now considered to be settled. Of the numerous allusions to persons and events, none is younger than the Nero period (54/68 AD). It is no longer possible to determine exactly when the Satyricon was written. Today it is assumed that Petronius wrote the work in 65 AD, shortly before his death. With the title Satyricon, Petronius made a connection to the satyrs, lustful animal figures from Greek mythology who usually appear in the entourage of the fertility god Dionysus. At the same time, the Latin word "satura" (satire) also resonates.

Individual fragments are scattered among many writers and grammarians of antiquity, mostly out of linguistic interest. The work as we know it today has survived in four different sources, each of which comprises only a part of the entire text. The oldest of these sources is a manuscript from the second half of the ninth century. The "Banquet of Trimalchio" was only discovered in a library in Dalmatia in 1650. The revealing, almost obscene depictions in the Satyricon often caused offense in the centuries that followed. This may be one reason why the text, in contrast to other literary works of antiquity, has only survived in fragments.

Although "Trimalchio's Banquet" was compulsory reading for us at school at the time, I have read the work several times in translation (and then also reasonably well in the original) - and I still enjoy reading it today. In addition - I confess - I was fascinated by the film Quo Vadis in my youth, including the role of Titus Petronius and the typical role of the Roman aristocrat in the illustrious tradition of Lucullus and Maecenas.

 

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The Satyricon of Petronius is a so-called prosimetrum: a text written partly in prose and partly in verse. Numerous other text forms, narratives and references to other texts are interspersed with the actual plot: riddles, ghost stories, quotations from poets, references to fables, etc. As already written, only fragments of Petronius' masterful work have survived. In addition to large parts of the plot, the textual context is sometimes missing from the existing material. The text is therefore characterized by numerous gaps and allusions to events in lost chapters. This makes reading the text a little tedious at times, because the context of the text is missing. Only the central episode, Trimalchio's banquet, which was also published as a separate text, is reasonably complete and self-contained. Petronius uses all stylistic levels in this work, from the Latin high language to the vulgar expressions of the common people. Through the adventures of the first-person narrator Encolpius, Petronius takes a satirical look at the society of the time of Nero. A central theme is the depiction of sexual debauchery.

The world is under the rule of Priapus, the god of fertility - at least that is how it appears to Encolpius, who lives in the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Nero. Enkolpius loves the boy Giton and lives with him. Unfortunately, he is not undisturbed: he constantly has reason to be jealous. Together, Encolpius and Giton experience hair-raising adventures and get to know a whole host of bizarre characters: the priestess Quartilla, who takes her service to Priapus all too literally, the nouveau riche Trimalchio, who stages his own funeral at a banquet and inadvertently calls the fire department into action, or the impoverished poet Eumolpus, whose poetry repeatedly puts his life in danger. When Enkolpius falls out of favor with the fertility god, he has a problem - and Viagra didn't exist back then ... In Satyricon, the novel by the Roman politician and writer Petronius, the world of antiquity becomes colorful and lively again. Sometimes coarse, sometimes with subtle irony, Petronius depicts the nouveau riche and slaves, the villas, baths and brothels and takes aim at the weaknesses of his fellow human beings, which also seem quite familiar to us.

The text sparkles with all kinds of humor; the spectrum ranges from crude jokes and obscenities to subtle ironic allusions that are often barely recognizable to today's readers. The work is neither to be understood as a moralizing morality tale nor as mere pornography. With his distanced, light-hearted undertone, Petronius deliberately leaves the reader in the dark about his own point of view. The driving force behind all actions is sexual desire and greed. Moral ideals, religious norms or legal regulations play no role. The characters in the novel all want just one thing and, in doing so, move beyond all - at least contemporary - boundaries of taste.

In his eccentric lifestyle, the nouveau riche spendthrift Trimalchio bears a resemblance to Emperor Nero. There are also allusions to the ruler of the time in other passages. Petronius satirizes other literary works of antiquity with his text: Encolpius, like Odysseus or Aeneas, has to endure numerous adventures and falls prey to the revenge of a god. But this god is the fertility god Priapus of all people - and Encolpius is subsequently an anti-hero stricken with impotence.

 

I would like to leave you with two numismatic references on the subject. In keeping with the theme, a coin with a reference to Priapus and, of course, a coin from the time of Petronius - his ruler Nero. And of course Nero with a lyre - even if it seems as if Petronius despised Nero's arts in the end. And now the curtain falls again, my performance has come to an end, the curtain falls, if you liked it, applaud.

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ROMAN REPUBLIC. Q. Titius, 90 BC.
AR Denarius (3.95 gm). Diademed head of Mutinus Titinius (Priapus) / Pegasus flying. Titia.1. Cr.341/1

 

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Nero. AD 54-68. Æ As (24mm, 5.59 g, 6h).
Rome mint. Struck circa AD 64. Radiate head right / Apollo Citharoedus advancing right, playing lyre; I in exergue. RIC I 211

 

 

I would be delighted if you would pay homage to the master of good taste with your examples of coins.

  • Coins of the Emperor Nero
  • Coins that pay homage to art! Do you have coins with instruments?
  • Coins with the depiction of Priapus
  • Coins depicting idleness
  • Coins depicting exuberant celebrations (Dionysus, Bonus Eventus and others)
  • Or whatever you think would fit the theme

 

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I have already turned off the computer so I can't add any coin. But this post reminded me of the 'Quo Vadis' movie from 2001. It's a Polish film based on the famous Sienkiewicz book. It was an overall decent movie, but the actors playing both Nero and Petronius were really good, with Bogusław Linda doing a pretty stellar job adding both the fun and the studied decadence of the witty aristocrat to the deeply dramatic character that is Sienkiewicz's Petronius. I watched it in theater back then, but it's often on tv in Europe around Easter time for the obvious reasons.

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I haven't seen the movie Quo Vadis, but I read the book. Excellent one. 

I have a few coins with musical instruments (one of my favorite themes), like this Hadrian semis

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Apollo playing the lyre himself 

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I really like this pseudo autonomous from Apameia with Marsyas playing double flute (aulos)

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I am pretty happy with my Nero denarius, even if the reverse is toasted. 

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And welcome to the board, by the way, impressive first post. 

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Welcome to the forum @Titus Petronius That was a well put together first post. It made great reading.

I have a worn Nero and Apollo with his lyre

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Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty 54-68 AD AE As, Lugdunum mint. 66 AD. IMP NERO CAESAR AVG P MAX TR P PP, bare head right, globe at point of bust / S-C to left and right of Victory flying left, holding shield inscribed SPQR. RIC 543; BMC 381; WCN 593; Cohen 302
28.5mm, 10.01gr

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