Petronius and the Satyricon

The art of spectacle and staging coupled with elegance and artistry was a integral part of Roman life during the Age of Nero. These aspects are chronicled throughout the preserved pieces of Roman literature of that time period. The statement that "All the World is a stage", describes how life was in Nero's Rome. Is life a reflection of art or is art a reflection of life? Or is the reflection always as it appears to be? These questions stand out in The Satyricon by Petronius. In this work Petronius uses spectacle and staging along with color and imagery to augment his characters. These devices reveal much about the characters as well as the real life Romans that they represent.

In this story the main character Trimalchio is a freedman who through hard work and perseverance has attained power and wealth, making him a pseudo-aristocrat and a minor office holder. Some of best examples of staging and spectacle appear in the subchapter, Preliminaries and Hors d'oeuvres (p19 Petronius-Latin Version Bolchazy-Carducci), "It's Trimalchio -- he's terribly elegant-- He has a clock in the dining room and a trumpeter all dressed up to tell him how much longer he's got to live."(Petronius Sec26 P51) In this passage the reader is first introduced to the personality of Trimalchio and the lengths to which he will go to put on a show. And also the reader is introduced to his life's ambition. These themes are the foundation for staging that unfolds for both the reader and the narrator.

The first scene in which Trimalchio himself appears is the game of Roman ball which in his version was not played according to the normal rules. It was the prelude to dinner and a chance to get a close up examination of Trimalchio. He was a balding old man with an eye for the young boys and even at play his wealth and station were evident. "Suddenly we saw a bald old man in a reddish shirt, playing ball with some long-haired boys......Two eunuchs stood around at different points: one of them carried a silver pissing bottle, the other counted the balls, not those flying from hand to hand according to the rules, but those that fell to the ground."(Petronius Sec.27 P51) Wealth,luxury and obsession are physically present in the scene and these themes carry through the entire work.

The narrator of the story, Encolpius finds himself amazed with the finery and opulence of his host. And in many ways Encolpius as well as the reader get swept up in the entire spectacle.

In the baths, the guests, are treated to the fine perfumes and robes. While Trimalchio himself is wrapped in the best wools and rubbed with expensive ointments, much like if he was a prince or royalty. The trip to his home profiles this most effectively. "Wrapped in thick scarlet felt he was put into a litter, four couriers with lots of medals went in front.....his favorite boy was riding--a wizened bleary-eyed youngster, uglier than his master. As he was carried off a musician with a tiny set of pipes took his place by Trimalchio's head and whispered a tune in his ear the whole way."(Petronius Sec28 P52) This passage shows the need for Trimalchio to look important. He is surrounded by a entourage even his servants wear medals, so therefore their master must be someone important. His trip home is one big spectacle for all to gaze at and admire.

The ceremonious of the attire of the servants in Trimalchio's house is also interesting. Even while doing every day tasks they are dressed up as if it were some formal affair. "Just at the entrance stood the hall porter,dressed in a green uniform with a belt of cherry red. He was shelling peas into a silver basin."(Petronius Sec28 P52) Once again the reader and the narrator encounters the richness of the host. We begin to see this man's obsession with his own wealth and how it overshadows everything. And with each passing scene the surroundings are becoming more ostentatious. "Over the doorway hung --of all things golden cage from which a spotted magpie greeted visitors." (Petronius Sec28 P52) It can be said that the magpie in many way represents Trimalchio. He himself is trapped by his surroundings and his station in life. Never will he be an aristocrat like he so much wants to be. But he like the bird is confined, confined to his freedman's class.

One of the most vivid scenes in this section is "CAVE CANEM". In this scene, Enclopius is almost injured when he frightened by the chained dog,but this is not just any dog but a picture of a dog painted on the wall. One might draw from this image that everything is not always as it appears. Once again reflecting the life style of Trimalchio. He seems by all appearances to be an aristocrat but is not.And no matter how hard he tries he will never be. Yet he is eccentric and a bit of a prankster. This drives him to make each spectacle more lavish.

Trimalchio is always looking for away to show off he accomplishments that he has made and to portray himself as an aristocrat. The mural painted on his wall depicts him as a man of greatness with the blessings of the gods.

"There was a mural of a slave market, price tags and all. Then Trimalchio himself, holding a wand of Mercury and being led into Rome by Minerva. After this a picture of how he learned accounting and, finally, how be became a steward.......Just where the colonnade ended Mercury hauled him up by the chin and rushed him to a high platform. Fortune with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads were there in attendance."(Petronius Sec29 P52-53) In this passage the narrator relates to the reader how blessed Trimalchio is. The gods have shown him favor and this made him special as if he was under their protection and guidance. And as a good Roman, Trimalchio also pays them homage so the good fortune will continue. The mural on the wall also shows the scene of The Iliad ,The Odyssey and a depiction of a gladiatorial show. The importance is again a look at what is wrong with Trimalchio. He makes important the gladiatorial show putting it on the same level as the Epics.

An observation can be made on his lack of sophistication, being lowly born, and not very educated yet he with every action tries to pass himself as something he is not. The more he tries to be an sophisticate he begins to come off as a buffoon but a buffoon with a lot of money.

To even further the spectacle, Trimalchio even dresses the part of the aristocrat. "His cropped head struck out from a scarlet coat; his neck was well muffled up and he had put round it a napkin with a broad purple stripe and tassels dangling here and there. On the little finger of his left had he wore a heavy gilt ring and a smaller one on the last joint of the next finger, This I thought was solid gold, but actually it was studded with little iron stars. And to show off even more of his jewelry, he had his right arm bare and set off by a gold armlet and an ivory circlet fastened with a gleaming metal plate."(Petronius Sec32 P54-55) Interesting in this section Trimalchio , almost step over the line of his freedman's class. By using the purple stripe and the gold jewelry which are signs of the aristocrat class. Trimalchio is trying once more in to place himself that station of life. This is beginning be some what of an obsession with him. As is the obsession of showing off his wealth at every opportunity. "After picking his teeth with a silver toothpick, he began ,'My friends, I wasn't keen to come into the dinning room yet, but if I stayed away anymore, I would have kept you back, so I've deprived myself of all my little pleasures for you. However, you'll allow me to finish my game. A boy was at his heels with a board of terebinth wood with glass squares, and I noticed the very last word in luxury--instead of white and black pieces he had gold and silver coin."(Petronius Sec33 P53) Here we see Trimalchio using real coinage instead of the markers that came with the game. Again putting on a show as well as airs for his guests, trying to impress them with his good fortune.

Even the Hors d'oeuvres were not as they seemed. "There were small iron frames shaped like bridges supporting dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seed. There were steaming hot sausages too, on a silver gridiron with damsons and pomegranate seed underneath"(Petronius Sec32 P54) "There is an attempt on the part of the cuisine to represent natural foods as something that they are not -- here damsons and pomegranate seeds look like a fire beneath the griddle." (Sullivan Note 10 P190) This is another example of thing in this household that are never as they seem. This seems to be part and parcel of the spectacle that Trimalchio is presenting to his guests. Never can the reader or the narrator take things at face value.

"Trimalchio, the archetypal self-made millionaire whose pretentious vulgarity on a insanely grand scale make him one of the great comic characters in literature."(Sullivan cover notes) This sentence sums up Trimalchio to a tee, and at the same time sums up life in Nero's Rome. In many ways The Satyricon with all its spectacle can be used as a mirror of rule under the Age of Nero. Things are not as they appear to be. The insanity that Trimalchio shows could very well be an attempt by Petronius to depict Nero. The insanity, pretentious vulgarity do rather describe Nero. By the portrayal of Trimalchio and his flaws, Petronius was telling his reader what was wrong with Rome and it's ruler.

Written by Mary A. Cornwell
CFXS Director


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