From time to time I’ll be presenting here some examples from the literature of the Classic period, so that you get acquainted with the language, style, and culture of the times, and can compare them with the present.
Today: SATYRICON of Petronius Arbiter.
I was asked about the details of the love of boys that I can’t delve into. There is, however, a novel from the age of the Roman Empire, around 50CE, which (among other matters) deals with this topic. The language remains decent; pornography does not make an appearance.1
The book is titled Satyricon and it was written by a member of the imperial government, a courtier we can say with some probability served under the emperor Nero. Its author, Gaius Petronius Arbiter [also commonly referred to as “Titus Petronius”], was however later compelled, on the order of the Emperor, to take his own life by sitting in a warm bath and slicing open his arteries, so that he should bind them closed and reopen them again and again, in order to demonstrate in the manner of the Stoics that he had no fear of death, even standing directly before it. His book is interesting in many respects for studying the lives and cultures of the Classic period, even when much of it may be presented with conscious irony and satirically over-emphasized.
It deals with two young men, students by the name of Encolpius and Ascyltos, who undertake all manner of adventure in the cosmopolitan globe-spanning Empire of Rome. At the center of this framing device of a travelogue is a romantic imbroglio between the two over their youthful beloved Giton (“age approximately 16 years, curly-headed, cuddly manner, beautiful appearance” it reads in a missing-persons flyer), whom each wishes to keep only for himself.
At the center of the surviving text—of the estimated 18 volumes only two remain, and these only fragmentary—we find an opulent feast, in which every stop is pulled in every art in Roman cuisine, indulgence, entertainment, seduction, and persiflage. The wealthy host, Trimalchio, is an arriviste with a large estate who entertains his guests somewhat involuntarily, with his extremely limited intellect and meager speaking abilities. Meanwhile such an abundance is served up that even today’s luxury binging would be unable to keep place.
In the book are glimpses into the hierarchy of master and slave, we find erotic banter of even a lesbian nature, an ironic tale of the love of boys, and that in the thermal baths that afternoon a young man, on account of his proud manhood, was immediately supplied of his desire for a lover. Encolpius, the central player in the events, comments on the feast and its occurrences ironically, and paints a humorous image again and again, as an educated contemporary.
In between are thorough descriptions of the delicacies served, apparently from all corners of the gods’ green earth. The more distant, exotic, and novel, the better.
Mixed within the events is also, as a conscious antithesis from the author, the story of Ephesus’ widow, who nevertheless only satirizes the Stoic comportment:
Such did not however come to pass. A young soldier seduced her in that very catacomb for one, eventually more, amorous tête-à-têtes. A corpse was even desecrated, and the new lover was exposed thereby to mortal danger:
“The Gods forbid,” she cried, “I should at one and the same time look on the corpses of two men, both most dear to me. I had rather hang a dead man on the cross than kill a living.”2
Thus ends the story-within-a-story.
At the end of the festivities in Trimalchio’s villa, the guests eventually, in the pale light of morning, take their leave to the already completed mausoleum of their host in order to celebrate mock funerary rites of the imagined deceased: at the cemetery they weep and wail for all to hear.
All the protagonists distinguish themselves in the course of the novel’s fragments by their debauched morals and unscrupulousness. Œnothea, an old sorceress (and priestess to Priapus, the god with a generous manhood), who must, may, should, and desires to submit to men as well as women, is to heal Encolpius of his impotence—apparently the main problem of both the protagonist and the novel. Thaumaturgic half-gods, a hermaphrodite incarnate, are stolen from their temple (in the later Fellini cinematic treatment) and put to death; beauty and sexual desire save Encolpius’ life nevertheless, again and again.
In this illuminating book from the first century of the Christian era, out of the turbulent age of Nero’s reign (the city was ablaze and the emperor accompanied this “drama” with the harp in any case) one also finds self-accusation and critical doubt. At some point in the midst of this hours-long overindulgence arrives a guest by the name of Seleucus from a burial, and decries complains, in the face of the wild goings-on surrounding him:
“Alas! alas! what are we but blown bladders on two legs? We’re not worth as much as flies; they are some use, but we’re no better than bubbles.”3
At the finale waits for us a ship at the ready, set to bear us out of this depraved world into a better future in Africa. However, even on this passage await further amorous adventures and mortal dangers, for us and our heroes.
The book ends with the consumption of a corpse. The deceased had in fact prescribed this very thing, should one seek to inherit his estate. In the meanwhile Encolpius—our hero tormented once more by the god Priapus, even though his unloved lover had decided for him in the end—laments, after a break in the text, the death of his unloved lover in a shipwreck on the sea-coast:
This, now, is a very existential and bitter lament of a young man, to whom apparently half the world, with all its riches and luxury and pleasures, stands open. However, Petronius’ ideological disorientation, along with that of his age, is clear. All is satirized, lampooned, taken unseriously. The two fiercely combating leading schools of the age, Hedonism and Stoicism, or also the faith in science among the followers of Aristotle, are questioned just as much as rapacious profit-seeking, oversized stupidity, and luxury without measure among contemporaries. We are furthermore surrounded by fortune-telling, superstition, witches, and hoodlums great and small. Yet every now and then the burlesque adventures of an almost inconsolable despondency breaks through in the reading, an existential despair that would not be amiss even in our present age of overstocked refrigerators and clever distractions and empty hearts.
The Italian director Federico Fellini, set this novel in a haunting and courageous film in 1969, although his eponymous treatment, in its mysterious and oftentimes garishly overdone manner rather in the direction of a fascinating caricature and reflection of a late antiquity that is also one of our present age.
Likewise noteworthy is Fellini’s thesis, which he discovered in classical literature studies and made famous there, which he built into the film of his own volition as well: a country villa is overtaken in the chaos of war and consigned to ruin. The lord of the manor and his lady, both the perfect image of Stoic living in every way, releases his slaves to their freedom in a festive rite of departure. Then he goes into his bath, where his wife stabs herself before his eyes, hands him the dagger with the following words on her dying lips: “take it, Paetus, it doesn’t hurt (“Pæte, non dolet”). But what you will do anguishes me.”
1I shall refer here to two translations of Satyricon. For one, the somewhat dusty and sedately effective pioneering version from Konrad Müller and Wilhel Ehlers (Satyrica, German-Latin, Artemis-Verlag, 1983), and for the other the noteworthy collection Roman Satires with further Classic texts in the (DDR) version from Werner Krenkel (Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin, 1984). [NB: these are both German translations; we use here the English translation of the Panurge Press of 1930, attributed to Oscar Wilde in an earlier edition, here to “Alfred Allinson”].
2Ibid., Chapter 13.
3Ibid., Chapter 7.
4Ibid., Chapter 14.