Petronius' Satyricon




"Dinner with Trimalchio"

Roman bedrooms were frequently adorned with mythological wall paintings, for example this one showing the Cyclops, Polyphemus, as the unsuccessful suitor of the sea nymph Galatea. At the upper right is an episode from the return of Odysseus in which Polyphemus, blinded by Odysseus and his crew, hurls a boulder at the departing ships. Compare the description of the wall paintings in Trimalchio's house.

Did you pick up the following points from our discussion?


"The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile--in a word, natural--enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences."

"Parvenus who presume to join the group of legitimate, i.e., hereditary, possessors of the legitimate manner, wihout being the product of the same social conditions, are trapped, whatever they do, in a choice between anxious hyper-identification and the negativity which admits its defeat in its very revolt."

P. Bourdieu, Distinction.

Agree? Disagree? Why?


Think about: Culture (with a capital C) and popular culture: who or what makes and guards the boundaries between them? how and why are they maintained? or are they?


  • Tacitus (a Roman historian) describes his life as one of indolence and refined luxury
  • Petronius was elegantiae arbiter, judge of good taste, in the court of Nero.
  • We know more about his death than his life; Tacitus relates Petronius' manner of slowly bleeding himself to death after Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

The Satyricon

  • satur: "Satyr" or "Satire"
  • Objects of Petronius' satire include:
    • VULGAR ABUSE OF WEALTH (excess, conspicuous consumption, plain old bad taste)
    • PRETENSION: claims to learning, to social and/or political status
  • Although Petronius is satirizing typical characters on the lower rungs of the Roman social hierarcy, it has been suggested that he is also poking fun at Nero with some of his depictions.

"Dinner with Trimalchio"

  • The first person internal narrator ("I") is ENCOLPIUS, who is playing the role of a bright young rebel against education orthodoxy, in hope of winning points with AGAMEMNON, a teacher of rhetoric,
  • Trimalchio and his guests:
1) Economic status: rich
2) Professional status: lawyers and traders/merchants
3) Social status: freedmen
  • The dinner itself is a performance, a spectacle, which we view through Encolpius' eyes.
  • TRIMALCHIO'S HOUSE: note the wall-paintings depicting a watch-dog (which Encolpius mistakes for real), scenes from Trimalchio's life story (all labeled!), scenes from the Iliad and Odyssey, and scenes of gladiatorial combat. Trimalchio is represented--for an elite audience--as displaying a lack of discrimination.
  • TRIMALCHIO'S APPEARANCE: note the napkin with purple border and his look-like-gold rings. Trimalchio is represented as a wannabe senator and equestrian.
  • CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION: conspicuous waste of silver (tossed when dropped) and food (inedible, for show only); for a reader 'in the know', even Trimalchio's "hundred year old wine" sours.
  • LITERARY PRETENSIONS: pay attention to Trimalchio's boast about his three libraries (one Greek and one Latin), his "mangled mythology," the lines he composes extemporaneously (in writing) to commemorate his trifling wound, and his increasingly garbled versions of the Trojan War. Also, observe the reasons given for 'getting a little learning'.
  • RELIGIOUS SUPERSTITION al la Trimalchio: note that guests must enter right foot forward, zodiac dish, preoccupation with death, etc.
  • HERMEROS' INDIGNATION: Hermeros' indignant speech is directed at Ascyltus when he laughs at the inept verbal performance (is his outrage not also directed at us, the readers, who are laughing along with Ascyltus?)
  • GENERAL LACK OF DISCRIMINATION LEADS TO CHAOS: bugle imitations, dog fights, slaves invited to the table, and Fortunata up-ended.
  • THE ULTIMATE CONFUSION/INDISCRIMINATION is between life and death as Trimalchio acts out his own funeral scene. In the confusion caused by the bugler and entrance of fire-fighters, Encolpius, Ascyltus, and Giton make their escape.

Food for thought

  • Who and/or what values are satirized in the Satyricon? In what ways does Petronius position the reader as 'superior'?
  • Does Petronius thus reinforce a set of social norms/elite values?
  • How is the Satyricon like and unlike Greek stage comedy? The Symposium?