First of all, it must be said that The Satyricon represents a marked difference from other works of Latin literature for several reasons but could offend those unable to tolerate explicit sexual references and homoerotic situations. Rather than present a synopsis of the contents of this work, one may find an online translation here. A summary, plus the full text, can be accessed here. However, briefly stated, The Satyricon follows the misadventures of Encolpius and his boy lover Giton through the lower classes of Roman society.
This work of a mixture of prose and poetry, purportedly the creation of Petronius Arbiter, possibly details the lives of ordinary Romans and gives a better understanding of the mind of Romans. If one reads Latin literature, the most intriguing and frustrating aspect is the distance between contemporary thought and those of the ancients. One never quite grasps what lurks in the day to day culture of Rome and what made it so powerful even among captured nations to endure so very long.
With The Satyricon, the formal, high-toned writings of the historians such Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others, are rejected in favor of a playful, at times jocular, style with fewer restraints on the expression of contemporary emotion as well as much less elevated results of impulses and actions.
How true to life the proceedings of the characters are, due to the limited quantity of works available as a cross reference, makes it hard to judge whether Encolpius and the others are real enough in nature to imagine that people such as those in the work could have actually existed in ancient Roman Italy. Perhaps the principals are exaggerations or caricatures and The Satyricon was meant to be entirely humorous or sarcastic. In other words, we do not know how realistic this work is. So too, we have no clue the impression it made on the original audience; maybe shock, disgust, or amusement.
What we do know is that no other work exists in the ancient world that seeks to tell a story in such an intensely personal way and to present the hero of the tale in such a real and human perspective. In this respect, The Satyricon has an approach on the level of a work of fiction closer to our time such as Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon or even Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth from 1969. Due to the fact that so many pieces of ancient literature are extinct, and that this form of literature might have been looked down upon and, consequently, not preserved, maybe this type of work saw some popularity in Rome. However, we know of the one-time existence of various works due to references in other extant writings of Latin scholars. This is totally lacking in other books that might be in the same genre as The Satyricon.
Although it might not help greatly, regrettably, I do not read Latin. Instead, I rely on translations. Some references in this work refer to overt sexual actions and instances better described by slang and colloquialisms. In this respect, I do not have an adequate knowledge of the amount of filtering of the text by the translator. This makes a huge difference in understanding what was permissible in Roman society. We often hear how tolerant Romans were when it came to the religion of others. We know that many of the Roman Emperors engaged in bisexual behavior. Hadrian made famous his lover Antinous. If we are to believe The Satyricon, this behavior was the norm and not the exception; that Venus nor Priapus favored one behavior over another.
The details of sexual encounters may be more or less explicit than the translator’s sensibilities allow. Nevertheless, one confronts the notion that the ancient Roman had a laissez-faire attitude when it came to matters of sexual expression. Many times these acts are performed in the vicinity of others and not in private.
One also gathers that a remarkable level of sophistication existed among the Romans during this time. Encolpius himself in pointing to various writers, thinkers, and spiritual details, shows a relatively high erudition only obtainable from formal education. In fact, a certain level of knowledge seems to be expected. This, of course, may be part of the farce utilized in telling the story.
All of this and more is known to scholars. Yet like so many works from Latin writers from the early Republic through the height of Imperial Rome, this book is incomplete. Out of 20 sections, only 3 remain in tact and we have no clue as to order. This is very important to keep in mind. Some people enjoy the narrative in The Satyricon, while others find it interesting to delve into the thinking of the Roman mind.
As a side note: This work is attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter, though it is also given to Titus Petronius Niger who may or may not be the same person. Petronius Arbiter was a dandy and confident in the court of Nero who is said to have had influence in terms of taste and style, therefore, Arbiter in his name. He was an elegantiae arbiter according to the Roman historian, Tacitus, who wrote of Petronius in his famous Annals of Imperial Rome.
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 in connection with the science of luxurious living.
That Petronius wrote The Satyricon is speculative and not at all certain. The fact that the work was composed during the time of Nero and a medieval manuscript attribute it to Titus Petronius seems to be the strongest evidence that this individual from Nero’s inner circle and at one time a Suffect Consul wrote The Satyricon.