The Satyricon of Petronius may be more relevant now than at any time in its two-millennium history. It offers rare insight into the Roman-like nature of the cultural, economic, intellectual, and social disruptions within the twenty-first-century United States. Like early imperial Romans of the mid-first century A.D., Americans too are completing their final transition from an agrarian-designed republic to a globalized civilization. And like them, our lives are increasingly orchestrated by a permanent bureaucratic class and animated by a dynamic but uninhibited and self-absorbed popular culture.
The Satyricon is a racy Roman novel likely written two millennia ago.
The Satyricon is a racy Roman novel likely written two millennia ago, sometime in the 60s A.D. during the notorious era of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Most English translations were banned or bowdlerized in the United States until the early 1960s. (Quotations below come from J. P. Sullivan’s translation, first published in 1965.) But the novel has always fascinated Latin scholars as one of the oldest extant examples of extended prose fiction in Western literature. More particularly, the Satyricon in antiquity was categorized as “Menippean satire,” a now-lost genre of mixed poetry and prose that mocked popular culture, social dogma, and political orthodoxies, much in the snarky fashion of Saturday Night Live today—despite its being written in a period, also like ours, of increasing imperial suppression of free discourse.
Controversy still lingers over the identification of its brilliant author and master stylist, one aristocratic T. Petronius Niger. He is most likely the same infamous Petronius identified by the historian Tacitus, a generation later, as the emperor Nero’s arbiter elegantiae or “judge of elegance.” That identification, also alluded to by both the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, is key. It tends to confirm that the satirist is not a one-dimensional stern old Roman censor. Rather, Petronius was more likely a cynical participant in the very debauchery that he seems to celebrate and yet to concede can be cruel, repulsive, and widely destructive.
Indeed, the arbiter epithet may confirm that Petronius helped to prepare the menu catering to Nero’s own unbound sexual, culinary, and material appetites. According to Tacitus, likely at a date some time after the publication of the Satyricon (the Greek title probably refers to books of “satyr-like things”), Petronius became embroiled on the losing side of intense and dangerous court intrigue. Framed by his rivals, he was eventually forced by Nero to commit suicide.
But, apparently, the arbiter left secure a long, firsthand account of the emperor’s multifaceted depravities—analogous perhaps to our Washington, D.C., genre of tell-all memoirs by gossipy ex-cabinet officials and fired White House staffers trashing the president emeritus who hired them. The racy candor of the latter, however, has tended to win lucrative book advances rather than sliced wrists—at least until the age of Jeffrey Epstein and Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Superficially, the emperor Nero resembled many of the buffoonish characters in the novel.
Some argue that such a payback dossier might be intended by the lewder chapters of the Satyricon. Superficially, the emperor Nero resembled many of the buffoonish characters in the novel—the degenerate hack poet Eumolpus (“Nothing is so difficult if you’re prepared to be wicked”) and the debauched Trimalchio (“There is nothing wrong if the boss wants it, but I did all right by the old girl too”). Nero was often portrayed by biographers and historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius as a Petronian character: a clownish musician, wannabe lyricist, pseudo-Philhellene, sexual predator, and deviant, maybe even a murderous psychopath. Whatever the actual relationship of Nero to the many characters of the Satyricon or to the author himself, the emperor certainly was both a catalyst for and emblematic of the excesses of his time. In our own era, we may ask similarly whether the unconstrained sexual appetites of political figures like Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and Prince Andrew have coarsened or simply illustrated the existing mores of our Western political hierarchy.
In all aspects of modern life, our own predatory and exhibitionist elites—Woody Allen, the Cuomo brothers, Jeffrey Epstein, Michael Jackson, the Kardashians, Roman Polanski, Jeffrey Toobin, Anthony Weiner, Tiger Woods—would feel great affinity with the persuasions, tastes, and libidos of Petronius’s cast. Shame in both societies vanished, replaced by occasional loudly declaimed performance art and meaningless expressions of remorse similar to our own empty “I take full responsibility for my inappropriate conduct.” (Such guilt is rarely if ever expressed in a religious or otherwise concrete context of measurable penance.)
Because of the explicit nature of the text, only continuous portions of Books 14, 15, and 16—the apparent middle of the novel—have survived the often haphazard manuscript trail of textual transmission from antiquity to the age of printing. But we can probably recover from these hundred thousand or so surviving words, along with other extant scattered bits and pieces of what was likely a vast work, much of the novel’s plot and main characters.
The Satyricon is ostensibly a mock odyssey of itinerant, middle-class, unemployed young Roman males. Their pretentious literariness and half-educated status make them similar to our archetypical six-year, on-and-off college students, with a B.A. in gender or environmental studies in progress that supposedly earns them the right to sneer at the deplorables, clingers, and irredeemables.
The Satyricon is ostensibly a mock odyssey of itinerant, middle-class, unemployed young Roman males.
In today’s vocabulary, we could also fairly call the rootless characters of the Satyricon overeducated grifters, petty scoundrels, and hook-up artists, most notably the shacked-up pair of Encolpius and his sixteen-year-old slave, Giton. Their lifestyle of constant partying, pub-crawling, name-dropping, and chatty repartee might fit right into the pre-covid Manhattan or San Francisco nightlife. And their candor and gratuitous exposure of their bodies and private lives make them seem little different from our minor celebrities, who cynically hawk half-nude videos of their young torsos and tweets of their sex lives online—often as clickbait for paid media or to be accessed through a paywall.
These two Petronian anti-heroes aimlessly wander through central and southern Italy in search of free stuff, easy sex, and rich people to ridicule, con, and swindle. They are the “no-place” in-crowd of our own time who feel they have transcended the “some-place” bores of last-century America. Naturally, as cosmopolitans, they congregate mostly along the Italian seashore south of Rome, especially in the hedonistic Bay of Naples at Pompeii.
Again, their ethos centers on harvesting the excesses of a now-rich Roman Italy without working or worrying about any others than themselves. Such tensions, applicable to the past as the present, reverberate throughout the novel. Just as we should assume that the traditional agri of rural northern Italy were still a world away from the action at Puteoli or Herculaneum, so too the agricolae and aratores of Nebraska and Oklahoma for a while longer remain on quite a different planet from the metrosexuals of Martha’s Vineyard, Malibu, and the Bay Area.
The novel’s historical backdrop is the institutionalization of a global imperial autocracy—ushering in upward mobility and material prosperity along with cultural regression. The standardization of language, politics, commerce, transportation, and communication, coupled with the gradual end of exhausting, chronic, and nihilistic civil wars, created levels of affluence and leisure never seen in civilization’s past. With such conquest and riches came far greater urbanization, imported mass slave labor, corporate agriculture, improved productivity, and non-landed wealth. These radical changes of civilization’s first globalization, in cultural terms, resulted in both deprecation of Italian rustics and the parallel rise of the rural nostalgia evident in Virgil’s earlier Georgics and Eclogues. So too in our time, when our small-farmer dinosaurs represent a mere 1 to 2 percent of the American population, the number of back-to-the-land and grow-your-own almanacs and catalogues is at an all-time high.
Being Italian increasingly meant little, given that the eastern provinces of Egypt and Asia Minor were far richer than Italy. The migrating millions of freedmen from Asia, northern Africa, and western Europe into Italian cities, like immigrants everywhere, were often more industrious and eager to “make it” than the native Italian-born. One of the subtexts of the Cena Trimalchionis (“Dinner with Trimalchio”)—the centerpiece of the novel as we have it—is that the supposedly crude evening guests could buy and sell most of the Italians who slight them.
Petronius is clearly interested in describing the moral downsides that arise when people have too much money, too much time on their hands, and little if any ethical, religious, and traditional bridles on their appetites. But he is still too insightful a satirist simply to ridicule the decadence of a fading bankrupt aristocracy and its replacement by an emerging new plutocracy. Although the author is an obvious critic of excess and Roman vacuity, at times his ingenious and often reflective characters suggest that there is more than just chaos in the new Roman cosmopolitanism.
A vibrant freedom has emerged in violation of all past moral and traditional restraint, but it also entails a leveling process that puts the aristocratic Roman on roughly the same level as the newcomer Trimalchio. Reading the Satyricon might remind us why the excesses of American popular culture—the lyrics of rap, the twerking in TikTok videos, and the violence of mixed martial arts—captivate millions of upper-middle-class Americans as well as billions worldwide. The nexus of violent inner-city drug dealers and wealthy Brooklynite hipster buyers is now an American topos.
A vibrant freedom has emerged in violation of all past moral and traditional restraint.
In Petronius, everything from fashion and food to violence and sex is cast in extremes—unsustainable in their excesses, but nonetheless beguiling in their sheer diversity and bizarreness. Many of Petronius’s characters are non-Italians, as far as we can tell from their Greek names, bad Latin, and frequent references to far-away imperial holdings and foreign names. Petronius seems on to something when he focuses on their optimism and upward mobility as the logical result of redefining Roman status by money rather than by static standards of birth or landed property alone. Some seem more Roman than old Romans, a phenomenon also true of many American immigrants.
In his ridicule, the satirist still manages to offer a balanced assessment of this emerging multiracial and multiethnic cohort—Greek, Jewish, and Asian freedmen, like Echion the rag-merchant, Chrysanthus the wine broker, Habinnas the stonemason, and Trimalchio, the zillionaire real-estate wheeler-dealer and commercial investor. In ferocious putdowns of the sneering young fops at dinner, the freedmen brag of their own bootstrapping success, especially in their efforts to see their children educated, to become Romanized, and to cement their newfound status among the Roman mercantile upper classes.
Indeed, the ex-slave Trimalchio’s zeal to win traditional Roman honorific appointments and titles might suggest that the acculturation was more like our now unpopular but ever-applicable trope of the melting pot. Just as later Spanish and then North African emperors would follow the spent Italian Julio-Claudian and Flavian imperial dynasties, so too will U.S. presidents and vice presidents increasingly be descended from ancestries different from the once-usual British and northern European presidential lineages.
In this cultural and ethnic matrix, Petronius can offer a rough guide to our similarly globalized America, as vast new wealth and immigration dethrone the old American–European nexus. After all, there are currently nearly fifty million non-native-born American residents. If polls are any indication, most of these non-Europeans eventually will emerge from the shadows as ambitious, middle-class, and surprisingly culturally conservative. They are increasingly critical of the laxity and laziness of their adopted country, whose past stability and norms, not its present chaos, drew them and their parents to America.
Imperial Rome was then on to something quite new. For the first time in civilization’s history, a uniform culture, even if only traces of it subsisted at the empire’s frontiers, had united disparate peoples around the Mediterranean. What seems to have made Rome work was not so much diversity as it was uniformity in seeking to satisfy common appetites without many prerequisites other than racially blind money. As in contemporary wide-open America, status was accorded to riches that trumped birth and race. Oprah, Jay-Z, Eminem, or Elon Musk has more clout, influence, money—and therefore status—than the combined descendants of the Rockefellers, Kennedys, or Vanderbilts. Dynastic fortunes accrued over a century or more now mean little in America, where a few college dropouts like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg could buy out thousands of heirs and heiresses with their spare change.
Less nuanced are Petronius’s unflattering portraits of the chief anti-heroes of his mock epic. They are the sexually indiscriminate but impotent chief neurotic Encolpius (named “Crotch” in Greek and an unlikely ex-gladiator, originally from ancient Roman Marseilles) and his treacherous and conniving effeminate teen boyfriend and nominal slave Giton (“Giggly”). The two are occasionally joined by assorted acquaintances such as Ascyltos (“Indomitable”), a more brutal bisexual predator and rival for Giton’s affections, and the sly and lecherous old poet Eumolpus (“Sweet Singer”). The latter ingeniously uses his mediocre talents and pretentious learning to win free housing, food, and sex from his naive and bamboozled enablers, who are intent on acquiring from him the thin veneer of perceived learning and knowledgeable table talk or, short of that, any tangible inheritance the experienced faker can pass off.
When rote rhetorical education is slammed by the rote poet Eumolplus and the rote rhetorician Agamemnon, or when Trimalchio’s pathetic mythological name-dropping is sneered at by the know-nothing but pretentious Giton, we sense from Petronius that the medicine of classical pedantic scholasticism, of memorization and boilerplate emulation, is deadlier than the disease of near-illiteracy afflicting the otherwise often ingenious freedmen.
Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton feel equally at home with male and female lovers.
If we sometimes complain that those who put on our nation’s annual sybaritic Super Bowl halftime show, or jabber on The View, or hung out with Jeffrey Epstein, or party on Martha’s Vineyard do not have a clue what happened at Shiloh, don’t recall the Gettysburg Address, or have no inkling of James Madison—and have no desire to learn of all that—then I bid you welcome to the Satyricon and its message that native hosts may not be offering much civic guidance to foreign newcomers.
Our lionized statue-topplers, remember, knocked down the wrong General Lee when they tore down the monument to World War II airborne commander Maj. Gen. William C. Lee. And the 1619 Project fabricator and “genius grant” winner Hannah Nikole-Jones, already known for recalibrating the key dates of American history, tweeted out in complete earnest that the American Civil War began in 1865. All could fit right in at Trimalchio’s pretentious table of ignoramuses.
Petronius’s duo, revolving in and out of the baths or the free sumptuous dinners of the nouveaux riches, or conniving for inheritance on the southern Italian seashore town of Croton, would be unrecognizable to the legionaries and their commanders who were slaughtered at Cannae and butchered at Carrhae, but perhaps, mutatis mutandis, be more familiar to us in a world of Lindsay Lohans, Paris Hiltons, and Britney Spearses.
Traditional masculinity—or rather the lack of it—is then thematic in the novel. Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton feel equally at home with male and female lovers. They seem to enjoy being dominated by both. They do not just mock everything traditional, but are themselves mock fighters, mock thieves, mock suicides. They recoil before more physical brutes, sneer at those who do physical labor, and seem to feel comfortable teasing sex-starved older women attracted to their youthful, near-feminine good looks.
In modern terms, we might recognize them as “pajama boys,” “man-children,” and “prolonged adolescents” who wake in the evening hours and manage to satisfy their urban appetites without much worry over getting a real job, marrying, raising children, buying a house, or getting on with life. In prior generations, perhaps the two might have been derided as tasteful and precious fops, dandies, lounge lizards, or blades. The chief difference, however, is that premodern Rome was a far more brutal society in which early adulthood was analogous with the onset of puberty, and ex-gladiators and freedmen lacked the social safety net of a parental basement.
As noted, the Satyricon is now best known for its long and mostly extant centerpiece chapters, the Cena Trimalchionis, or the “Dinner of Trimalchio.” Here Petronius provides us with a description of a marathon evening with the wannabe-rich intimates, mostly ex-slaves, of Trimalchio—himself a buffoonish, pretentious ex-slave who could spend circles around the played-out and calcified landed Italian aristocracy he so poorly emulates. Or as a guest at the dinner explains of his host, “The old boy himself now, he’s got estates it’d take a kite to fly over—he’s worth millions of millions. There’s more silver plate lying in his porter’s cubbyhole than any other man owns altogether.”
Trimalchio (a Greek-Semitic compound name for “three times a king”) and companions ostensibly seek to erase any incriminating evidence of their hardscrabble servile roots. Yet it is precisely their quarter-educated recitation of Greek myths, slang patois, fascination with magic and werewolf tales, lack of social awareness, and vulgar authenticity that seem almost redeeming in the eyes of Petronius, who otherwise would have had no need to make their snarky guests appear so silly and inept in their sneering.
Petronius’s narrative is a masterpiece of polished Latin. And such prose mastery descends into the popular dialogue of the Satyricon, as characters drop case endings, make up words, trim their syntax, and import foreign terms, reminding us that millions of working-class imperial Romans spoke a language a world away not just from Cicero’s, but also from that of the pretentious young wannabe rhetoricians.
Stalwart legionaries are mocked, male effeminacy preferred.
We too are experiencing just such widening poles of expression, as hip-hop music or the workplace slang of the majority of Americans bears no resemblance to the talk of bicoastal professionals. Reading the dialogues in the Cena Trimalchionis is not unlike listening to Joe Rogan, America’s most popular podcaster, who interviews guests with vocabularies that reflect their wide experience. And for social historians, the novel offers a treasure trove of contemporary fads and tastes, at least in the context of the material world and values of southern Italy at the end of the near-century reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 B.C.–68 A.D.).
What accounts for the sense of nonchalance and lack of national purpose in the novel? By the time of the Satyricon’s appearance, the destructive Roman Civil Wars (49–31 B.C.) were long past. The empire had mostly established its permanent borders for the next four centuries, incorporating over a million square miles of conquered lands, and seventy million people, from the Persian Gulf to southern Britain and from the Rhine to the Sahara. Romans were grateful for the Pax Romana, and they appreciated what must have appeared an “end of history”–style cessation to most internecine violence.
Perhaps the relief was similar to that of elite Americans in our first Gilded Age, who expressed their thanks that the Civil War was finally fading into the past by frantic and ostentatious living. But just as the gay 1890s lacked an Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, or Robert E. Lee, so too during the peaceful hiatus and ensuing ennui of the Julio-Claudian period, there were no longer any Julius Caesars, Pompeys, Mark Antonys, or Octavians—larger-than-life men of war and politics, who are for good and evil the stuff of history. As Catullus earlier noted, otium, leisure, has destroyed kings and once-happy cities.
Stalwart legionaries are mocked, male effeminacy preferred. It is assumed that this entire Roman circus of sex, food, and fun is kept safe from tribal peoples who readily would loot, vandalize, wreck, and sack it if let loose from the other sides of the Rhine and Danube. In that sense, dorm residents at Ivy League institutions or the buzzing crowds at raves are also more in the dark than their modern-day Roman counterparts, who keep them safe at night flying F-22s along the nato borderlands or steaming through the South China Sea or the Straits of Hormuz. The wealthier and larger the Western society, the smaller the relative size of and public interest in the military that makes it all possible.
The vast majority of Roman men in the novel know little of military service and either ignore or mock those who do. The elite assume that as Roman citizens their chief worries are no longer tribes of Gauls or the Germani on the horizon, but petty pickpockets, predatory gigolos, grasping legacy hunters, horny old women, pseudo-intellectual grifters, conniving teenage prostitutes, elderly shake-down artists, and street thugs in the bad districts of the otherwise rich cities of southern Italy.
Almost all the embattled businesspeople of the Satyricon wax on about the “good ol’ days,” even when they themselves at that time were slaves or recently emancipated. Of such dreamy pre-Neronian times (likely the relatively prosperous and peaceful era of Augustus’s forty-three years of continuous reign), a freedman at Trimalchio’s table sighs, “Oh, if only we still had the sort of men I found here when I first arrived from Asia. Like lions they were. That was the life!”
It is true that the ancestors of the empire’s diverse peoples had been conquered by Roman arms, and many of the novel’s characters themselves were born into slavery. And yet the Satyricon’s backdrop is a globalized diminution of large-scale violence, especially piracy, thanks to a growing network of uniform Roman roads, cities, and maritime routes. The result is a perceived hiatus to enjoy the easy life. What Rome did for the Mediterranean, America did for a time for the post-war Atlantic and Pacific: ensure a common commercial world of orderly rules, overseen and enforced by the U.S. Navy.
The bounty accruing from such secure free markets and sanctity of private property permitted a materially prosperous life that gradually allowed cleaner water, better sanitation, and the extension of habeas corpus and Roman law. In the shadows of the Satyricon, then, are a cast of ingenious stonemasons, engineers, corporate farmers, and maritime traders, the sort who have risen on the basis of a meritocracy and are building a new global Rome rippling out far from its birthplace.
In the new, materialist Roman world of single males and empowered women, childlessness, especially among the upper classes, is endemic.
During imperial rule, regional Roman bureaucracies operated almost on autopilot to provide a semblance of blind justice for Roman citizens throughout the empire. Even under the emperor, habeas corpus—and the privileges accorded to any who could declare, “Civis Romanus sum”—was still as much an inducement to become Roman as aqueducts and free entertainment. Imperial Rome’s amnesia with respect to inherited republican traditions is similar to our own: a vast unelected apparat, or “deep state,” gradually came to combine legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the administration of law and government services. A common theme in the novel is furor at the final word of a magistrate, the corruption of a regulator, or the asymmetrical government hounding of the “little guy.”
In the new, materialist Roman world of single males and empowered women, childlessness, especially among the upper classes, is endemic. The early empire, we know, like contemporary America with its current fertility rate of 1.8 children per family, struggled with a shrinking native-born population. The emperor Augustus over two decades passed a series of moral codes, the so-called Leges Juliae (“Julian laws”), establishing rewards for marriage and fertility as well as punishments for celibacy and promiscuity. A Roman would say to Americans that our own plummeting fertility rate, declining percentage of married adults (only about 50 percent), and delayed age of first marriage (ca. 27) and first childbirth (28) are symptomatic not just of a diminution of the middle class, but also of an ethos that believes less in transcendence and self-sacrifice and far more in here-and-now gratification—or perhaps that material acquisitions take priority over child-rearing.
Similarly evident from the childlessness and the preoccupations of male youth in the Satyricon is the theme of prolonged adolescence. It manifests itself in the key man-boy characters who attend to their looks, clothing, and tastes rather than to marriage and child-rearing. So the eager maid Chrysis complains to the self-absorbed but impotent Encolpius, “What’s the point of your combed wavy hair, the heavy make-up, the soft silkiness in your eyes, the self-conscious walk, the measured steps?”
In a depopulating society, childless rich people are the objects of flattery of greedy inheritance hunters, the sorts of captatores who dominated the life of Croton. It is an infamous city of two classes: “Either they have fortunes worth hunting or they are fortune hunters,” we learn. The residents are always willing to fawn upon and provide sexual favors to the old, sick, and childless—if there is a scent of a legacy.
Sexual hypocrisy, or the idea that chastity and naiveté must be contrivances to mask rampant sexual libidos and prurience, is a common refrain. Two excurses classified by scholars as “Milesian tales”—the “Widow of Ephesus” and the “Pergamon Boy”—were models perhaps for Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They share saucy sexual themes of pseudo-chastity, overturned by role reversals in the stories’ finales. And they illustrate the Satyricon’s overall cynicism that no one in the empire is immune from sexual corruption, not even a grieving widow or a purportedly earnest young student eager for liberal-arts instruction.
The widow of Ephesus is mourning in a tomb beside the corpse of her recently deceased husband. But she is willing to put his body up on a nearby cross to rot in order to save her new clandestine lover—a derelict, horny Roman guard whose seduction of the bereaved widow has made him a lax caretaker of a crucifixion site and thus subject to the death penalty. Rather than see her new lover executed, she decides to give up the corpse of her spouse: “I would rather hang the dead than slay the living!”
In the “Pergamon Boy” episode, a supposedly stern tutor and his dutiful teen student stealthily vie to out-manipulate each other at night. Initially portrayed as the victim of a nocturnal pederastic assault by the old lecher, the boy turns out to be not quite as victimized and inexperienced as his elderly companion assumes. As the nights wear on, the tables turn. After episodes of supposedly coerced sex, the young, quiet, though evidently hormone-crazed student no longer reluctantly consents to be sodomized by his teacher on the promise of gifts, but instead, for free, demands more sexual performance than the worn-out predator can muster. The old teacher then threatens to rat the conniving boy out to his father—in the same manner the boy had earlier implied he would do if not given presents in exchange for the use of his body.
In both the cases of the lamenting widow and the targeted youth, the supposed noble victims prove the more devious than their supposed seducers. The widow turns out to be more scheming even than her opportunistic lover in finding any way possible to continue their nocturnal sexual liaisons, while the Pergamon boy’s surprising passive sexual appetites are inexhaustible and boomerang as supposedly suitable punishment for his predatory, lusty mentor.
Masculinity has been redefined in opposition to republican norms. In some sense, Rome was the first Western society to dismiss binary gender roles. Bisexuality seems to have expanded among all urban classes, well beyond the elite Greek practice of pederasty under the pretext of mentorship. At least in the Satyricon, all the main male characters seem as attracted to young men and boys as they are to women and see no reason, much less pressure, to prefer one to the other. Such ambiguity, which is manifested in cross-dressing and outward feminization, is not quite a matter of gender dysphoria. But as has so often been pointed out about the elite of ancient Greek society, every attractive young human seems to be a fair sexual target for any urban adult male.
While bisexuality was always endemic among urban elites in the Greco-Roman world, in Petronius’s imperial age it is now ubiquitous throughout the classes to the point of being a rite of passage among urbanites. In a world in which the “East” is now part of Rome, there is no longer the Roman slander that effeminacy is an Eastern, Greek, or Asian artifact. Sexual encounters between males are adorned by casual literary and mythological name-dropping. Characters hook up with strangers, quarrel over third-party partners, and go hunting in the baths for new conquests—with an occasional acknowledgment that they are at least intellectual sybarites. Envious, left-out women seem insistent upon either breaking up or joining in open male congresses. In a world overrun by underperforming yuppies, some women can at least turn to the lower-born for sexual satisfaction. Or as one female attendant says of her aristocratic boss, “Some women get heated up over the absolute dregs and can’t feel any passion unless they see slaves or bare-legged messengers. The arena sets some of them on heat, or a mule-driver covered with dust, or actors displayed on the stage.”
The only general rule about sexual details seems to be that intercourse and its auxiliary acts never appear in the guise of purely heterosexual relations between a married man and wife. In this regard, the novel’s frequent fixations on mainstreaming quite unabashed bisexuality, bondage, cross-dressing, dildos, effeminacy, exhibitionism, homosexuality, masturbation, pederasty, pedophilia, polymorphous and group sex, transgenderism, sadomasochism, scopophilia, and voyeurism show that such practices tend to lead not to happiness and contentment—or often even to animalistic sexual gratification. In other words, the novel—like Hollywood, much of the internet, and popular social media—focuses on every imaginative species of sex, the common denominator being both promiscuity and resulting languor.
The ubiquity of Viagra-like liquid “aphrodisiacs” and assorted sex therapists and sex-toy appurtenances suggests that young men fixate on performance because they so often fail. Or sex becomes ubiquitous to the point of boredom and banality. The chief character Encolpius’s impotence seems commonplace in this era, rather than aberrant, at least in the candor with which he berates his own penis and the easy availability of fake healers and quack doctors. Those who treat this apparently common affliction often diagnose impotence with women as due to homosexual liaisons or simply too much sexual enticement in general.
Our America listens nightly to commercials on how to cure “E.D.” (erectile dysfunction), often by euphemistic “male enhancement,” through vitamins, herbs, and pharmaceuticals like Viagra and Cialis. So too in Rome’s pre-Viagra world, Encolpius visits various sex therapists looking to rekindle his virility through pop cures, painful probing and genital stimulation and massages, and spells and enchantments—integral to his “odyssey” of finding a cure and returning “home” whole.
Characters seem frequently to box and beat each other, or at least threaten murder and mayhem.
Gratuitous violence is as commonplace as sex in a world without R-ratings. Characters seem frequently to box and beat each other, or at least threaten murder and mayhem. Slaves enter and leave and often plop down on guests in mock-rapist fashion. Scuffles are common. And there is no word in the Petronian vocabulary akin to our “sex abuse” to describe what we might see as felonious sexual battery. Encolpius admits that he has murdered. Cruelty is the norm, as dinner guests of Trimalchio hope a fallen acrobat is at least seriously hurt for disrupting their entertainment. And when fishermen paddle out to steal the flotsam of a scuttled ship, they suddenly feign a willingness to help—but only after they see the crew is prepared to defend their cargo.
Fixations on food are as common in the Satyricon as in our society. In a world of massive grain production from the Po Valley and Gaul, and megatonnage imports from the latifundia of Egypt and North Africa, the exoticism and the appearance of meals are as important as the taste and nourishment they provide. Wealthy Romans did not have access to Zantac, Prilosec, and Pepto-Bismol, but characters speak equally publicly of a variety of natural nostra deployed to treat what seems to be widespread bouts of bingeing and purging, reflux, constipation, and diarrhea—the wages of overeating, obesity, and premodern food preparation.
The dishes at the Cena Trimalchionis could come right out the menus of Keith Floyd, Thomas Keller, Marco Pierre White, and Delia Smith. The point of elite dinners is not to celebrate camaraderie by breaking bread together, much less to provide needed caloric intake, but, as tips from our modern cooking channels may show, to impress guests with the cost and labor involved in cooking and the dazzling preprandial appearance of unusual foods on the plates.
It is no surprise the upstart Trimalchio seeks to wow his supposedly A-list guests by ostentatious methods of advertising the cost and ancestry of his high-priced wines, and the stamped weight of his gold and silverware. The only difference, and one for which the satirist ridicules him, is that Trimalchio lacks the finesse of real Roman aristocracy, who know that subtlety rather than crassness better advertises money and tastes. Nonetheless, Trimalchio has his wine bottles labeled not just with the variety, but even the consul who reigned at the time of the vintage: “Falerian, Consul Optimus, One Hundred Years Old.”
By Nero’s time, Rome is well past conspicuous consumption to ostentatious wastage. In his desire for legendary Attic honey, Trimalchio ordered bees to be imported from Athens. That is akin to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during the recessionary covid-19 lockdown, bragging about having $12-a-pint boutique ice cream delivered to her $23,000 imported twin Italian freezers, or the maskless California politicians in November 2020 at Keller’s exclusive French Laundry bistro in Napa, scarfing down multi-hundred-dollar hors d’oeuvres—such as the Laundry’s special “white-truffle menu” featuring imported caviar, oysters, truffles, and wagyu beef.
Epicureanism, which in its bastardized form contents itself with promoting hedonism as a reminder that eating, drinking, and sex are by nature innately pleasurable, seems the de facto religion of the elite. Thus, agnosticism or superstition seems to overshadow traditional Roman religion. Astrology, the Zodiac, and numerology are commonplace and taken seriously, while the murky tales of the old gods like Jupiter are botched and cobbled together. As America and the West in general become more leisured and affluent, as life spans lengthen and science can ameliorate or even cure once-horrific diseases, pseudo-science seems more and more to replace religious orthodoxy.
One theme of this novel is that there can be no remarkable literary or artistic achievement given the proliferation of rhetoric and academicism that has replaced creativity, trivialized existential concerns, and obviated the challenges of conducting war and maintaining peace during the prosperity of the early empire. The poet Eumolpus’s lyrics, designed to critique pedantic flat poetry, are themselves pretty awful. Arguments over Asiatic versus Attic schools of rhetoric are portrayed as tired and boring turf spats—and a long way from the fiery speeches of a century earlier by Cato the Elder or Cicero.
There were few positive literary appraisals of Rome in the imperial period, when heroes were few.
Note that there were few positive literary appraisals of Rome in the imperial period, when heroes were few. Work of real genius remained, especially the riveting novels of Petronius and Apuleius, the often-ironic histories of Tacitus, and the brilliant satire of Juvenal. But in its cynicism, irony, and sarcasm, most literary genius during the time was adversarial to what Rome had become. Gone was the monumental positivism of just a few generations prior, as found in Virgil’s Aeneid, Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (or history ‘“from the founding of the city’’), and Horace’s Odes. In this regard, movies like Shane, novels like Huckleberry Finn, and heroes such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or the Wright Brothers are either neglected, canceled, or falsely written off as naive one-dimensional illustrations of an America flawed from birth and grown worse still in adulthood.
Often, in eerie resemblance to American higher education and the breakneck effort to borrow huge sums in order to be branded with a prestigious B.A. degree, Roman youth are pushed by ambitious parents into rhetoric mills that have nothing to do with real education. So, the mediocre rhetorician-for-hire Agamemnon is nonetheless correct to say that pushy, tiger-mom parents don’t care about Socratic, inductive education. Instead, they force their kids to lap up inane rhetorical tropes—in Roman times the equivalent of our “-studies” courses—in order to get ahead in the new bureaucrat Roman rat race:
In the first place, they sacrifice everything, even their hopes, to their ambition. Then in their overeagerness they direct these immature intellects into public life. . . . they dress up their boys as orators while they are still drawing their first breath. If only parents would not rush them through their studies!
Given its prominence in the education of our Founders and influence upon our shared Western heritage, Rome is often referred to, both positively and negatively, to elucidate either American ascendence or decline. But “Rome” itself is a generalization that spans a millennium in the West and another still in the East. More instructive perhaps for Americans is the hundred-year metamorphosis under the Julio-Claudian emperors. In this critical century, traditional Italian society absorbed both formally and culturally the entire known world of Europe and much of western Asia and northern Africa. The result was a dynamic collision of three continents’ multifarious cultures that created enormous wealth and in some sense stood as an antithesis to the very Roman values that made it all possible.
Hollywood and historians have charted Rome’s “decadence” and the unsustainability of such excess
Hollywood and historians have charted Rome’s “decadence” and the unsustainability of such excess. But Rome not only survived the world of Petronius and the hundred years from Augustus to Nero, but also experienced serial recoveries and renaissances after subsequent long bouts with chaos, lost wars, and economic catastrophes.
In reaction to imperial foreign disasters, civil wars, bloody succession fights, and economic collapse, Rome proved amazingly resilient. It is synonymous with recovery and recuperation, as we know from the successful Flavian dynasty (69–96 A.D.), the era of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” (96–180 A.D.—which Edward Gibbon cited as the period when “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”), the late-third-century A.D. rebound due to the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine (284–337 A.D.), and, of course, the millennium-long survival of romanitas in the Greek Eastern Empire (476–1453 A.D.).
America has not used up all of its nine lives, as we know from the aftermath of the Civil War, its survival through the Great Depression, the rebound from Pearl Harbor, the reactions to cultural upheavals of the Vietnam-era Sixties, the inability of radical Islam to repeat 9/11, and the abortive woke nihilism of 2020–22. We are not falling like Romans.
Instead, Petronius might say of our twenty-first century America that the exuberance, excitement, and cultural chaos of Western-inspired globalism and American-led cultural upheavals are energizing but not sustainable. Excess invites reaction and a renewal of traditionalism from those in the shadows, who are critical to the survival of a civilization that so often mocks and ridicules them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 13
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