Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Europe's First Novel? The Satyricon of Petronius

In the week that sees the UK release of Baz Luhrmann's film, The Great Gatsby, it may be interesting to reflect on one of the works that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's book. Fitzgerald saw in The Satyricon of the Roman writer, Petronius, a reflection of the decadence of his own age. He originally entitled his work Trimalchio, after one of Petronius's characters (the original text remains in print under this title with Cambridge University Press).

The Satyricon (which most scholars now agree was written in the mid-1st Century AD) has a justifiable claim to be one of Europe's first novels (Apuleius's work, Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, is more than a century later). Whilst there is no direct continuity between these two isolated Roman works and the modern novelistic tradition, it may be more than a coincidence that some of the earliest modern novels (Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders) follow The Satyricon in adopting anti-heroic or "picaresque" themes. Printed versions of The Satyricon circulated from the mid-17th Century, and English translations from 1694.

The Satyricon is a first person narrative of a journey made by a former gladiator, Encolpius, in company with a male friend (and former lover), Ascyltos, and a slave-boy, Giton, with whom they are both sexually entangled. The text is incomplete (the surviving fragments add up to a novella, but the original may have been as long as Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu). It includes encounters with a Priapic priestess, an alcoholic witch and a married woman who becomes infatuated with Giton. The most famous passage centres around a lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a fabulously wealthy, but comically vulgar freedman (former slave). Federico Fellini made a film adaptation of The Satyricon, and the relevant scene is available at

                         Trimalchio's banquet in Fellini's screen adaptation.

For me, the most interesting aspect of The Satyricon lies in the insights that it gives into the daily lives of ordinary Romans (although these insights are not unbiased - the author, Petronius, was a courtier, who shared the common aristocratic prejudice against freedmen). Marguerite Yourcenar argued that we know little of the spoken language of the ancient world, but The Satyricon includes dialogue, just like a modern novel:

"Interpellavit tam dulces fabulas Trimalchio: nam iam sublatum erat ferculum, hilaresque convivae vino sermonibusque publicatis operam coeperant dare. Is ergo reclinatus in cubitum: 'Hoc vinum, inquit, vos oportet suave faciatis: pisces natare oportet. Rogo, me putatis illa cena esse contentum, quam in theca repositorii videratis? Sic notus Vlixes? Quid ergo est? Oportet etiam inter cenandum philologiam nosse. Patrono meo ossa bene quiescant, qui me hominem inter homines voluit esse...'"

            A family feast, from a mural of the 1st Century AD, found at Pompeii.

"This agreeable gossip was here interrupted by Trimalchio; for the second course had now been removed, and the company being merry with wine began to engage in general conversation. Our host then, lying back on his elbow and addressing the company, said: 'I hope you will all do justice to this wine; you must make the fish swim again. Come, come, do you suppose I was going to rest content with the dinner you saw boxed up under the cover of the tray just now? Is Ulysses no better known? Well, well! Even at table we mustn't forget our scholarship. Peace to my worthy patron's bones, who was pleased to make me a man amongst men...'" (translated by Alfred R. Allinson, 1930).

I can well understand why Yourcenar chose not to use this as a model for the conversations that may have taken place at Hadrian's court, preferring to leave dialogue out altogether. As far as the Roman Empire more generally is concerned, however, and the 1st Century AD specifically, this is about as close to "tonal authenticity" as one can ever hope to come.

At least two English translations of the full text are freely available online:
The latter displays the Latin text and English translation side by side.
The Satyricon includes material of an adult nature.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed ShoresAn Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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