The Satyricon is the Ulysses of Roman literature. It is a comic novel intoxicated with language, with the power of verbal craft. As Joyce deploys Hamlet, so Petronius uses the Aeneid—the master text of the literature telling a high tale that is both imitated and parodied by the later text. And, in addition, behind both the Satyricon and Ulysses lies the Odyssey of Homer, the breezy and sublime tale of wandering that informs all Western literature.

The Satyricon is a product of the age of Nero (regnavit A.D. 54–68). Its author, most probably, was an aristocrat who, Tacitus tells us, returned from a vigorous proconsulate in Bithynia to Nero’s court, where he held the unofficial title of “elegantiae arbiter.” The Satyricon—produced by 66, when...


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