Evan Leach's Reviews > The Satyricon

The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter
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Apr 29, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 0-999, roman-literature, humor-and-satire, novels
Read from October 14 to 18, 2012

Today, the Satyricon is most famous for two things:

1. For being (arguably) the first novel, and

2. For being a very, very dirty little book.

Unfortunately, only 141 chapters of a much longer work have survived. But those chapters are extremely compelling. Written during the reign of Nero in the 1st century, the Satyricon is quite simply unlike anything before it. Perhaps the best way to think about this book is to look at it like a little prose Odyssey. Except instead of the king of Ithaca, our hero is the ex-gladiator (and current scoundrel) Encolpius. And instead of trying to get home to a faithful wife after 10 years of war, the protagonist is concerned with getting free meals, tricking legacy hunters out of their money, and (most importantly) fixing his erectile dysfunction so he can get back to the business of pederasty. So I guess it’s not exactly like Homer.

It all ends up being very funny stuff, though. I don’t always have the taste for ancient comedy. Aristophanes is funny, but Menander/Terence/Plautus/etc. don’t do much for me. But listen to this:

Tryphaena’s cohorts, spurred on by the hysterical screaming of her maids, prepared to attack us with their bare hands. Only the pilot remained aloof, cursing the whole fracas as the lunatic work of a mob of perverts and threatening to abandon his post unless we stopped immediately. Even this dire threat, however, failed to quench our martial ardor...[s]uddenly, however, our gallant Giton turned the edge of his razor against his own manhood, threatening at one fell blow to lop away that root of all our troubles. Tryphaena, overcome with horror, cast all pretense aside and rushed forward to prevent the consummation of such a catastrophe.”

“The lunatic work of a mob of perverts” wouldn’t be a terrible subtitle to this book. Encolpius and Giton end up falling in with a self-anointed poet named Eumolpus. Eumolpus happens to be terrible, much to his distress and our amusement. Here is a typical response to one of his (many) poetic outbursts:

At this moment, several of the people who were strolling about the gallery greeted Eumolpus’ epic effusion with a volley of stones. Eumolpus, clearly no stranger to these tributes of his talent, wrapped his head in his robes and dashed from the temple. Fearing they might accuse me of being a poet too, I raced after him and caught him at the shore. “Look here,” I said, “can’t you rid yourself of this loathsome disease? I’ve been with you for less than two hours, but in all this time you’ve talked more like a Homer than a man. No wonder people pelt you with stones. In fact, I’m going to fill my pockets with stones right now, and every time you start spouting, I’ll bloody your head for you.”

The comedy is even funnier if you’ve read Homer or Virgil. Part of what makes the story so silly is when the characters compare their stupid, squalid problems with those of the epic heroes. Particularly, there are a number of direct parallels with the Odyssey: Encolpius calls himself Polyaenos at one point, he compares his inability to ‘get it up’ with the trials Poseidon imposed on Odysseus, at one point Giton has to cling to the underside of a bed like Odysseus clinging to the ram’s belly, etc. The group of lowlife scoundrels at the heart of the tale never fail to think of themselves and their ridiculous trials in heroic terms, which I found endlessly hilarious.

Aside from the comedy, this book is also interesting as a very frank look at the underbelly of Roman life in the first century. Very few books from antiquity really look at what life was life for the little people; the Satyricon provides a revealing, if comic, look at what it must have been like to live in the early Roman empire.

I read the Arrowsmith translation, which at 53 years old is almost a classic in its own right. But it doesn’t feel dated at all, and is justifiably the gold standard English translation. I thought about knocking a star or half star off because what’s left of the book is so fragmented, making the experience of reading it feel a bit incomplete. But what’s there is so entertaining that I’m giving it the whole five. This is the best post-Augustan Roman work I’ve read, and one of the very best Roman writings, period. 5 stars, highly recommended!
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10/17/2012 page 97
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