Chances are, unless you majored in ancient literature or had a really nerdy English teacher in high school, you haven’t heard of the Satyricon of Petronius. But it’s a juicy little discovery.
Considered one of the first novels ever written, the Satyricon was composed around the turn of the I century AD by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, an intriguing figure if there ever was one. Petronius lived in Rome during the reign of Nero, a time known for its sensual opulence and debauchery. During his reign Nero named Petronius elegantiae arbiter, “judge of elegance”, a title that is rather unclear but suggests that Petronius was responsible for Nero’s entertainment.
In general Nero is somewhat responsible for much of the culture we now attribute with the ancient societies: he funded theatres and museums, encouraged athletic games and built himself a huge, ornate palace. However his reign is remembered even more for his exuberant nature, bloodthirsty dealings with opponents (he executed his mother, murdered his brother and ordered the sucide of his teacher) and brutal abuse of power (he allegedly started the fire that burnt much of Rome to a crisp, clearing land for his beloved palace and sporting arenas).
No matter what was going on outside the palace walls, life inside was ridiculously extravagant, which is where and why Petronius acquired the seat in court he did. His position at the palace and Nero’s outlandish court encouraged his writing the Satyricon, a work primarily created for Nero’s entertainment.
Today Petronius may have been seen as… well… a Charlie Sheen sort of character: he lived for pleasure, spoke in a bold and unabashed way that some found highly offensive and others found admirable and entertaining. He was considered a voluptuary, one who devoted their life completely to seeking out all things sexual and sensual. His job in the senate meant that day and night were one in the same to him — he arranged dinners and parties, baths and sporting games, and made sure all who celebrated in court saw the incredible wealth of Nero’s reign.
This was all fodder for the subjects in the Satyricon.
The Satyricon is a satirical story, meaning it presents the plot and characters in seriousness but is mocking them by telling the ridiculousness of their tale. It follows the main character Encolpius, his friend Ascyltos and their slave boy Giton. The original entirety of the Satyricon has been lost over the centuries, but the remaining stories can be pieced together in such a way that gives an incredible insight into ancient Roman culture, especially in regards to the lower classes, language and escort trade.
Before the time that Petronius wrote his epic piece historians gather that the Roman women were rather prudish, having the law encouraging young marriage and procreation: an unmarried man over 25-years old was unable to enjoy the same rights as his married counterparts, and legal incentives were given for men who had three legitimate children before that age were given extra privileges. This both ensured that the population of Rome would increase and gave Roman woman a powerful position in regards to chastity and matriarchy.
This view came as a result from a century of incredible sexuality that grew to the point that it so shocked and appalled the general population, creating strict laws on the dress and demeanor of women and the laws that promoted marriage.
The event that brought Rome to the initial point of sexual brink was the festival of Floralia. This pagan event is in itself incredibly interesting. Where the truth of its history can’t be quite confirmed, historians speculate that the festival traces back to the goddess Flora. Now she is thought to be the goddess of flowers, with the day being celebrated by wrapping garlands of flowers around the body and dancing in the street. But when the festival started in ancient Rome, about 200BC, it was attributed to Flora as a prostitute: she had stored the incredible wealth she had accumulated through escorting, and set up a fund in which the people would celebrate her after her death. The festival was incredibly sexual, which prostitutes stripping themselves of clothing and dancing in the streets, luring men with their sexual heat. While Cato, the censor of the time, tried to outlaw the festival, the people would not allow it. As Cicero noted, “If there is anyone who holds the opinion that young men should be interdicted from intrigues with the women of the town, he is indeed austere!… When was this NOT done? When was it rebuked? When found fault with?”
The lasciviousness of these festivals so grew, and spread the practice of prostitution, that laws were created to limit how women presented themselves publicly. These laws were sustained for almost two decades.
We know the ancient Greeks had several levels of escorting, ranging from foreign-born slave prostitutes to the educated and refined hetaerae, who we would now call courtesans. And these women were largely responsible for the second spread of accepted sexuality in Rome.
When Roman soldiers and politicians returned from war in Greece they had learned more lavish and less chaste practices that would soon again reshape the views on those things in their homeland. While away they had seen the art and culture of foreign lands, and the incredible sensuality and talent of the hetaera escorts there, many of whom they brought back with them to be their slaves and mistresses.
The Roman matriarchs realized that they were at a large disadvantage when compared to the more corporeal and bodily experienced women their men lusted after, along with the fine paintings, music and dance their culture was being infused with in rapid paces. So they fell in stride with their male counterparts, embracing sexuality and their newly acquired fortunes with gusto. Sex became much less of a moral debate, so much so that it would later be noted by Sophronius Rufus: “long have I been searching the city through to find if there is ever a maid to say ‘No’; there is not one.”
Such dramatic changes in culture are what brought about Nero’s reign and Petronius’ position in the senate and in palace life. And that culture is represented clearly in the Satyricon.
The story of the bisexual trio is one of movement, sexual variety and drama. Through the different chapters that were recovered the men experience a wide variety of lasciviousness. In the opening passages, Encolpius is in Greece and finds Ascyltus and Giton, who confides that Ascyltus made sexual advances on him. Through a course of conflict and dispute in a market, they return to their lodgings and confronted by Quartilla, a woman who might have been a madam or an escort, or simply a highly sexed woman. The male trio is overpowered by Quartilla and her maids, who sexually torture them and then serve them dinner before they all partake in a great orgy. This is the opening invitation to the readers that the stories to follow will be dramatic and highly sexual.
The next large section of plot, and the one which is most highly written and studied by historians, is a party thrown by Trimalchio. Trimalchio was born a Greek slave. Through his good deeds he was left a large sum of money from his master, which he then invested wisely and accumulated massive wealth. In this chapter he hosts a dinner attended by the trio and other wealthy, notable freedmen. Such parties were common at the time, and give great insight into a world where lowly born slaves arose in ranks and tried to meld with civilized society and the highly educated above them. But instead of proving that he is indeed an equal with those at his table, the lavish meal and entertainment carries a great deal of humor: Trimalchio is incontinent, running to the bathrooms at intervals. He boasts of his art collection, but often confuses fact and fiction and proves that he has neither real taste nor much intelligence. He becomes obsessed with the legacy he will leave after he dies, reads his will aloud to the group, and proceeds to hold a mock funeral for himself so that others may mourn him. Disgusted and bored, Encolpius and his friends manage to escape during a moment of chaos, and move on.
Trimalchio was most likely based on Nero himself, who had a great deal of power but little class. While Petronius was in his counsel and highly regarded by the emperor, he was also aware of the questionable public opinion of his superior.
Now, the Roman baths are well known now as a place where the elite would literally wash away their troubles and enjoy carnal delights. But what is less discussed is that they were also homes to female and male escorting and gave birth to the most ancient of brothels. Just as Giton is shared and fought over by Encolpius and Ascyltos, so most young Roman men of a certain prestige enjoyed the bed company of those even younger than them, the company of boys more so even than of female escorts. Such youngsters were often in attendance at the baths, where incredibly dim lighting hid all sorts of dirty deeds. Several characters in this next large section of the Satyricon make advances on Giton, who returns to the temporarily departed Encolpius, begging him to take him back.
The baths were not the only places for wanton sex. During this period a wide variety of brothels sprung, offering both lowly and extravagant environments in which to get satisfied. “The regular brothels are described as having been exceedingly dirty, smelling of the gas generated by the flame of the smoking lamp, and of the odors which always haunt these ill ventilated dens”. The polar opposite were those that employed hairdressers, water boys and secretaries to regulate the activities of the employed women and men.
Through Petronius we also see one of the first recorded examples of the relationship between the pimp or madam and the escort in so-called civilized society. These early bosses recorded the particulars of the “maids”: where they were from, their families and age. They then advised her in how to dress and gave her a working name. From there their relationship would grow to their mutual advantage, helping the maid formulate the best relationship with clients of a higher nature with a percentage paid to the organizer.
One final story stands out amongst many others in the Satyricon, that of the widow of Epheus. In the pornographic tale, the widow is starving herself at the grave of her late husband out of love and loyalty to him. Nearby, a guard is set to watch the bodies of crucified criminals so that their families do not take the bodies for proper burial. While he was convincing the widow to eat and live, one of the bodies is stolen. The widow in turn gives the body of her husband to the guard to hang in its place, rather than he commit suicide or face crucifixion himself. The two then enjoy incredibly carnal and animalistic sex.
In this story, Petronius once again points out the “degenerate tastes of human beings”, that the desires of the flesh are far stronger than the desires for respect, decency and loyalty. Such was the time in which he lived, and the morals by which he and his fellows stood.
The many other known chapters contribute other enticing plot points for Encolpius, Giton and Ascyltus. They steal, trick, become cursed with and cured of impotence, and repeatedly exchange bedfellows of both genders. They have sex with a variety of men and women from various classes and levels of slavery.
Historically, the novel gives those with a literary bent a variety as well: fluctuating between poetry and prose, it is the first recorded work that shows dialogue between characters, the simple, direct speak of those of the time and even a bit of humor. Unlike the heavily metaphorical speech we’re used to with that period, where the characters of plays or subjects of stories speak in monologue or directly to “the gods”, Petronius writes fluidly, giving an honest account of the lives and attitudes of the people of the age.
It also shows the incredible variety of words that were association with the escort trade at the time:
- balconies where harlots were shown
- inns, but frequently houses of prostitution
- roadhouse brothels
- she who stands in front of her cell or stall
- she who sits in front of her cell or stall
- Scorta erratica
- clandestine strumpets who were streetwalkers
- kept mistresses
- harlots of great beauty who wore no clothing
- country girls who frequented the roads
The lists go on and on, both in general and very specific definitions.
In subsequent millennia, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot and Federico Fellini would all either base characters off of those in the Satyricon or create their adaptations literally from the text in their own work.
Time has passed so much so that there’s not much to be judged about the society in which Petronius wrote, but there is much to learn. In the story we have an ancient order that was obsessed both with government and culture but also understanding of the role that sex plays in relationships and enjoyment. The Satyricon tracks the trends between men and women over time, detailing the power between those of different genders, sexual preferences and social / economic status.
Both Petronius and Nero would commit suicide later in life as the government order changed over to the hands of their rivals. Such was not uncommon for the time, nor was a scourging of government anything to blink an eye at. But Petronius’ death in particular paints a full circle to the life he lived and the story he shared:
Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses…
He then took to bed, so that death would come to him as sleep.