People - Ancient Rome: Petronius Born Gaius Petronius Arbiter, he was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero.
Petronius in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
Gaius, or (possibly) Titus. A Roman novelist probably to be identified with an accomplished voluptuary at the court of
Nero. He was one of the chosen companions of Nero, and was regarded as director-in-chief of the imperial pleasures, the
judge whose decision upon the merits of any proposed scheme of enjoyment was held as final (elegantiae arbiter). The
influence thus acquired excited the jealous suspicions of Tigellinus. Petronius was accused of treason; and believing
that destruction was inevitable, he resolved to die as he had lived, and to excite admiration by the frivolous
eccentricity of his end. Having caused his veins to be opened, he from time to time checked the flow of blood by the
application of bandages. During the intervals he conversed with his friends, and even showed himself in the public
streets of Cumae, where these events took place; so that at last, when he collapsed from exhaustion, his death (A.D.
66), although compulsory, appeared to be the result of natural and gradnal decay. He is said to have despatched in his
last moments a sealed document to the emperor, taunting him with his brutal excesses (Tac. Ann. xvi. 18, 19; Pliny ,
Pliny H. N. xxxvii. 20).
The remarkable work which is traditionally ascribed to this person and which has come down to modern times in an
incomplete form, was originally written in at least 16 books, with the title Satira or Satiricon. It is in prose, with
many passages in verse scattered through it as quotations, or as compositions of characters introduced in the novel. The
book is a sort of comic romance, in which the adventures of a certain Encolpius and his companions in the south of
Italy, chiefly in Puteoli or its environs (on the place see H. W. Hayley in Harvard Studies in Class. Philology for
1892), are made a vehicle for exposing the false taste and vices of the age. Unfortunately the vices of the personages
introduced are depicted with such fidelity that we are perpetually disgusted by the obscenity of the descriptions. The
longest section is generally known as the Dinner of Trimalchio (Cena Trimalchionis), presenting us with a caricatured
account of a fantastic banquet, such as the gourmands of the Empire were wont to exhibit on their tables. Next in
interest is the well-known tale of the Ephesian Matron, which is really older than the time of Petronius, and is found
in various forms in the literature of many peoples, even in the Chinese; and which in English is introduced into one of
the sermons of Jeremy Taylor. It is probably the best if not the only remaining specimen of a Milesian Tale. (See Novels
and Romances.) The novel is also remarkable for its pictures of low life, and for the specimens which it gives of the
Latin of the uneducated classes (sermo plebeius), of which it is the most important literary example. The dialogue is
amusing, abounding in idiomatic expressions, popular maxims, ungrammatical language, and slang. See Sermo Plebeius.
A remarkable attempt at fraud by one François Nodot in the seventeenth century is associated with the history of the
text of Petronius. Nodot professed to have got possession of a complete copy of Petronius with no lacunae, found, he
said, at the sack of Belgrade. His text was printed at Rotterdam in 1693, but was at once seen to be a forgery; yet as
it gives a continuous narrative instead of the fragmentary one of the genuine text its additions are sometimes printed
(in different type) in editions of Petronius.
There are twenty-one existing manuscripts of Petronius, the most important being the Codex Traguriensis in the
Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris. It was found at Trau in Dalmatia in 1663, and contains the Cena Trimalchionis. See
Beck, The Age of Petronius (Cambridge, Mass., 1856), and the account of the MSS. in Bücheler's large edition.
The best editions are those of Burmann (2d ed. Amsterdam, 1743); Reiske (Leipzig, 1748); Bücheler, ed. maior (Berlin,
1862); and Bücheler, ed. minor, text only (Berlin, 1886; last ed. 1895); De Guerle, with translation into French (Paris,
1862); of the Cena, with German translation and notes (Leipzig, 1892); and Waters, with English notes (announced, 1895).
On the language, see Ludwig, De Petronii Sermone Plebeio (Leipzig, 1870); von Guericke, De Lingua Vulgari apud Petronium
(Königsberg, 1875); Cesareo, De Petronii Sermone (Rome, 1887); Schuchardt, Der Vokalismus des Vulgärlateins (Leipzig,
1866-68); and Cooper, Word Formation in the Roman Sermo Plebeius (N. Y. and Boston, 1895). For criticism, etc., see
Pétrequin, Récherches sur Pétrone (Paris, 1869); Gaston Boissier in the Revue des Deux Mondes for November, 1874;
Thomas, La Société Romaine d'après Pétrone (Paris, 1892); and H. W. Hayley, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, iii.
pp. 1-40 (1892).
Petronius in Roman Biography
Pe-tro'nI-us, [Fr. Petrone, pi'tRon',] or, more fully,
Petro'nius Ar'biter, a licentious Latin writer, supposed
to have lived in the reign of Nero. He described
the vices of his time in a satire or novel, in mingled
prose and verse, entitled "Satyricon," fragments of
which are extant. His
is classical, and the work
displays much talent, but is extremely licentious. The
author of this is supposed to be identical with Petronius,
a refined voluptuary who figured at the court of Nero as
arbiter elegantia, (umpire of fashion and taste,) and who
killed himself in 66 A.D.
Annales," book xvi. : J. C. von Orei.i.i, "Lectiones
Petronianae." 1836; Dunlop,
History of Fiction;"
Petronius in Wikipedia
Gaius Petronius Arbiter (ca. 27–66 AD) was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is speculated to be the author of the Satyricon, a
satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.
Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder describe Petronius as the elegantiae arbiter, "judge of elegance" in the court of the emperor Nero.
He served as consul in the year AD 62. Later, he became a member of the senatorial class who devoted themselves to a life of pleasure,
whose relationship to Nero was apparently akin to that of a fashion advisor. Tacitus gives this account of Petronius in his historical work
He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as
famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His
reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he
held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became
one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste (elegantiae arbiter) in
connection with the science of luxurious living.
None of the ancient sources give any further detail about his life, or mention that he was a writer. However a medieval manuscript, written
around 1450, of the Satyricon credited a “Titus Petronius” as the author of the original work. Traditionally this reference is linked with
Petronius Arbiter, since the novel appears to have been written or at least set during his lifetime. The link, however, remains speculative
As a writer -
Petronius’ development of his characters in the Satyricon, namely Trimalchio, transcends the traditional style of writing of ancient
literature. In the literature written during Petronius’ life the emphasis was always on the typical considerations of plot, which had been
laid down by classical rules. The character, which was hardly known in ancient literature, was secondary. Petronius goes beyond these
literary limitations in his exact portrayals of detailed speech, behavior, surroundings, and appearance of the characters.
Another literary device Petronius employs in his novel is a collection of specific allusions. The allusions to certain people and events
are evidence that the Satyricon was written during Nero’s time. These also suggest that it was aimed at a contemporary audience in which a
part consisted of Nero’s courtiers and even Nero himself.
One such allusion, found in Book IX, refers to the story of the good wife Lucretia which was well-known at the time:
"If you're a Lucretia,” he said, “You've found a Tarquin”.
The message Petronius tries to convey in his work is far from moral and does not intend to produce reform, but is written above all to
entertain and should be considered artistically. As the title implies the Satyricon is a satire, specifically a Menippean satire, in which
Petronius satirizes nearly anything, using his impeccable taste as the only standard. It is speculated that Petronius’ depiction of
Trimalchio mirrors that of Nero. Although we never know the author's own opinion, we see the opinions of the characters in the story and
how Encolpius criticizes Trimalchio.
Petronius’ high position soon made him the object of envy for those around him. Having attracted the jealousy of Tigellinus, the commander
of the emperor’s guard, he was accused of treason. He was arrested at Cumae in 66 AD but did not wait for a sentence. Instead he chose to
take his own life. Tacitus again records his elegant suicide in the sixteenth book of the Annals:
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. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep,
that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter
Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince's shameful excesses, with the names of
his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring,
that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.
In fiction -
Petronius, usually assumed to be the author of the Satyricon, appears or is referenced in several works of fiction:
Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis and its adaptations (but see below for the film), where C. Petronius is the preferred courtier of
Nero, using his wit to adulate and mock him at the same time. He is horrified at Nero's burning of Rome, and eventually commits suicide to
escape both Nero's antics and his anticipated execution.
Mika Waltari's novel The Roman.
in Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Door into Summer, in which the protagonist's cat is named "Petronius the Arbiter".
in Jesse Browner's novel The Uncertain Hour, which recounts Petronius' final banquet and suicide (as told by Tacitus, Annals 16 ).
in Anthony Burgess's novel The Kingdom of the Wicked, Gaius Petronius appears as a major character, an advisor to Nero.
In the 1951 film of Quo Vadis, Petronius is portrayed by Leo Genn, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting
In the 2001 film of Quo Vadis, Petronius is portrayed by Boguslaw Linda. It was the first Polish adaptation of Sienkiewicz's novel.
In the 1835 short story "A Tale of Roman Life" by Alexander Pushkin, Petronius' final days in Cumae are chronicled.
George Orwell in "Bookshop Memories" (1936): "Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the
mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petrenius Arbiter than PETER PAN, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared
with some of his later imitators."
In recent times, a popular quote (reportedly by Charlton Ogburn, 1957) on reorganization is often (but spuriously) attributed to a
Gaius Petronius. In one version, it reads:
“We trained hard ... but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in
life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while
producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”