The Satyricon through Different Lenses, Part I: A Critique of Roman Literary Idealism
Petronius is writing parody with a purpose; the Satyricon is as an attack against the generalized genre, the fetish of equivalence, and literary abstraction. The domination of empire––although the prescriptions of Roman culture were present throughout the period of the republic––streamlined culture as it spread far beyond the borders of Italy. An industry of Roman culture that is pumping out replicas of itself through colonies, military camps, and its influence over newly conquered areas. As Roman ideology solidified it became a symbol of status: to fully integrate oneself with the Roman ideal of culture, no matter where you are in the world or what level of society you come from, is what defines success or failure in society. Along with this idea of centralized culture comes the expectation of patterns in both social behavior and literature. The structure of traditional literary genres leaves no room for innovation, especially within a culture that regards novelty as synonymous with revolution. Therefore, Roman writers––especially those who write within the moralizing tradition––craft “a calculated framework that allows the audience to guess what is going to happen next, and be gratified by actually being right, subduing any unruliness and subordinating them to a formula which supplants the work.” Using a quote by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno is fitting because they wrote during the rise of the modern culture industry, and it is among this sort of cultural atmosphere that the Satyricon is created.
All mass culture under empire is identical and that includes art in all of its manifestations. Style becomes tantamount to universality of form, and “what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal.” How then does the Satyricon accomplish the task of not being a literary repetition while also subverting the reader’s expectations? Petronius supplies what is lacking: “a tension between the poles…the extremes which touch.” Similarity to others is what most works of traditional art coming out of the Roman cultural sphere rely upon, and the Satyricon is no different, however, through parody, Petronius mimics tradition while eventually subverting it and therefore creating something new. As Horkheimer and Adorno claim, “it is only in its struggle with tradition…that art can find expression for suffering.” Petronius’ use of tension professes the untruth of style and genre, through which literary tradition has created stagnation and generalizations that do not display reality, but only an idealized form of it. Like Trimalchio’s narration of the Greek actors performing Homer behind him, what is said and what is happening are two distinctly different things.
The Satyricon creates novelty through both the depiction of reality and the satirizing of traditional genres. This task of subversion can be shown by concentrating on the tension between the poles, that is, the tension between female and male characters, which manifests itself throughout the Satyricon. Why focus on this area specifically? Because those who do not conform to the ideals of Roman genre––women, slaves, the lowers classes––are convicted of inadequacy by exclusion, and therefore, by focusing on women and their declaration of adequacy in the Satyricon, there can be seen a clear subversion by Petronius. Furthermore, women specifically because many other excluded types insist unwaveringly on the ideology by which they are enslaved, e.g. Trimalchio and his freedmen ensemble. Petronius, by including a tension between Roman men and women, is acknowledging what is idealized by other authors: that culture is that which is the sum of both spheres, both the upper and lower classes, both the free and enslaved, and both men and women. Moreover, that within this tension resides reality.
During the last days, my outfit assembled fast. Most of it came from Millet’s army surplus store in The Strand: an old Army greatcoat, different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts, a couple of white linen ones for best, a soft leather windbreaker, puttees, nailed boots, a sleeping bag (to be lost within a month and neither missed nor replaced); notebooks and drawing blocks, rubbers, an aluminium cylinder full of Venus and Golden Sovereign pencils; an old Oxford Book of English Verse. (Lost likewise, and to my surprise – it had been a sort of Bible – not missed much more than the sleeping bag.)
The other half of my very conventional travelling library was the Loeb Horace, Vol. I, which my mother, after asking what I wanted, had bought and posted in Guildford.
(She had written the translation of a short poem by Petronius on the flyleaf, chanced on and copied out, she told me later, from another volume on the same shelf: 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…’ She was an enormous reader, but Petronius was not in her usual line of country and he had only recently entered mine. I was impressed and touched.)
THE SATYRICON IS FUCKING WEIRD. ALL THAT SURVIVES OF IT IS BOOKS 14-16. OF 26. SO BEAR IN MIND THAT THIS SHIT WAS PROBABLY THE LONGEST PIECE OF PORN EVER.
IT’S SORT OF LIKE THE ODYSSEY BUT ROMAN AND WITH A LOT MORE SEX. OUR HERO, ENCOLPIUS, WHO IS FUCKING STUPID AND GENERALLY SHIT, IS A BIT LIKE ODYSSEUS. THE KEY DIFFERENCE IS THAT INSTEAD OF THE ANGER OF POSEIDON, GOD OF THE SEA, HE’S PROVOKED THE ANGER OF PRIAPUS, GOD OF BONERS.
ENCOLPIUS GOES OUT TO HAVE A SHITTY ADVENTURE, WITH HIS BOYFRIEND GITON (WHO’S ABOUT FIFTEEN) AND ASCYLTOS, WHO’S SORT OF A FRIEND BUT ALSO KEEPS TRYING TO SLEEP WITH GITON AND IS GENERALLY A CREEPY MOTHERFUCKER.
I thought that drawing penises on sleeping people was a relatively new pastime. I was wrong.
As I learned yesterday, while reading Petronius’ Satyricon with my students, drawing penises on the unwary is just as funny now as it was in the first century.
Cum Ascyltos gravatus tot malis in somnum laberetur, illa quae iniuria depulsa fuerat ancilla totam faciem eius fuligine longa perfricuit, et
non sentientis labra umerosque sopitionibus pinxit.
“When Ascyltus, weighed down by so many troubles, was drifting off to sleep, that servant girl who had been unjustly rebuffed rubbed his
entire face with long smears of ash, and drew on the senseless man’s
lips and shoulders [sopitionibus].”
The problem is that out of all of Latin literature, sopitio is only ever attested here, so its definition is uncertain. Fortunately, the Oxford Latin Dictionary suggests it’s a variant of sopio, which definitely means “penis.”
Which brings us back to where we started. Ascyltus has drunk too much, partied too hard, and made the classic mistake of being the first one to fall asleep at the party. So the girl he’d rejected earlier covers his face in soot and proceeds to draw penises on him.
The protagonist can’t get it up. His solution? He gives his penis a stern talking to.
What do you have to say for yourself? All gods and men are ashamed of you! Why, it’s uncivil to even mention your name in serious conversation! Do I deserve this kind of treatment from you… to have my youthful vigor slandered while the debility of senility is thrust upon me? Speak up, you’dbetter have some something to say for yourself!
And then he composes a little ditty on the subject.
It’s eye fixed on the ground, it turned away
as little roused by what I had to say
as willows limp or poppies drooping sway
Ancient Rome was a very different place, you guys. A very different place.