Petronius : biography
Gaius Petronius Arbiter (c. 27 – 66 AD) was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian era.
Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder describe Petronius as the elegantiae arbiter (also phrased arbiter elegantiarum), "judge of elegance" in the court of the emperor Nero. He served as consul in the 62 AD. 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 the Annals:
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 and disputed.
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 chapter 9, refers to the story of the good wife Lucretia which was well-known at the time:
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 65 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:
Petronius appears or is referenced in several works of fiction:
- A stanza of Petronius’ poetry is in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: "Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting…"
- In the 1835 short story "A Tale of Roman Life" by Alexander Pushkin, Petronius’ final days in Cumae are chronicled.
- David Wishart’s novel Nero is narrated by Petronius, and is presented as his last testament before his enforced suicide.
- Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis and its adaptations, 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.
- 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 Actor.
- In the 2001 film of Quo Vadis, Petronius is portrayed by Boguslaw Linda.
- 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, ).
- in Anthony Burgess’s novel The Kingdom of the Wicked, Gaius Petronius appears as a major character, an advisor to Nero.
- 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 Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators."
- The Mountain Goats’s first EP release is entitled "Songs for Petronius."
- He appears in Books 2 (Victrix) and 3 (Gladiatrix) of Frances Hendry’s Neronian-era trilogy, about a young Briton woman, who becomes a gladiatrix (the female equivalent of a gladiator). It covers the rebellion of Boudicca- to Nero’s death, the Year of the Four Emperors and the rise of Vespasian. In these books, he is much like the character of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel.
In recent times, a popular quotation (actually 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.