Classics Petronius
Costas Panayotakis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0040


The Satyricon of Petronius, whom most (but not all) scholars nowadays identify with emperor Nero’s courtier Titus Petronius Niger, recounts, in an elegant first-person prose narrative interspersed with poems of various length, the adventures of the comic rogue Encolpius (“Mr. Groin”) and his companions as they travel around the Bay of Naples in search of a hedonistic life and a free meal (see General Overviews). Petronius held a consulship in 62 CE and was, according to Tacitus, Nero’s “tutor in refinement” (hence, he is sometimes called “Petronius Arbiter”). He exploits the sexual and satirical encounters of Encolpius with teachers of rhetoric, orgiastic priestesses, excessively wealthy freedmen, mediocre poets, nymphomaniac ladies, useless witches, and unscrupulous legacy hunters to poke fun at the social, religious, cultural, and aesthetic issues of his time (see Social, Historical, and Cultural Context). The narrative contains erudite allusions to a host of widely divergent literary genres, which are subverted for the learned readers’ amusement (see Intertextuality). The beginning and the end of the text are not extant, and this contributes to the controversial character of the novel. The Satyricon influenced the development of European and American prose fiction (see Reception) and remains indispensable as a source book of Roman civilization.

General Overviews

The fragmentary nature of the Satyricon and the indecent character of some of its episodes militated against comprehensive discussion of the text until the publication of Sullivan 1968, which firmly established Petronius as an author worth discussing at a scholarly level. Sullivan’s section on the date of composition of the Satyricon was superseded by Rose 1971, and Sullivan’s analysis of the literary features and background of the novel is inferior to the superb treatment of the topic of Petronius’s formative literary genres in Walsh 1970. But the satirical qualities of the Satyricon, the contrast between Petronius and Seneca, and the psychoanalytical interpretation of Encolpius’s sexual escapades are more prominent in Sullivan 1968 than in any other work of Petronian scholarship. Slater 1990 breaks new ground with its narratological reading of Petronius, which employs reader response theory to focus on the reader and on what happens within the reader during the process of reading the novel in its deliberately episodic structure. Likewise, Conte 1996 follows the thread of the Petronian narrative with the help of an original theoretical model and considers the implications of the distinction that Petronius, “the hidden author,” makes between Encolpius the “agent ‘I’” and Encolpius the “narrating ‘I.’” Courtney 2001 provides a running commentary, in chronological sequence and from a philological/literary perspective, on all the installments of Encolpius’s melodramatic life, the author makes excellent observations on Petronian literary parody and allusion. Schmeling 1996 offers a concise overview of all the major issues (including the manuscript tradition) with which a first-time reader of Petronius ought to be acquainted.

  • Conte, Gian Biagio. 1996. The hidden author: An interpretation of Petronius’ Satyricon. Translated by Elaine Fantham. Sather Classical Lectures 60. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A very influential account of the means by which Petronius, the “hidden author,” constructs the story of Encolpius, the “mythomaniac narrator,” as a continuous parody of elevated epic, heroic literature, and high oratory.

  • Courtney, Edward. 2001. A companion to Petronius. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Especially helpful in discussing the Satyricon within its literary context and in spotting sophisticated allusions to Greek and Roman authors in all the episodes of Encolpius’s adventures; less good in its overview of the role of sex in the Satyricon.

  • Rose, Kenneth F. C. 1971. The date and author of the Satyricon. Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Supplementum 16. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

    This is the work that argued most persuasively for a Neronian date for the Satyricon and for the identification of “Petronius Arbiter” with the Petronius described in detail by Tacitus in Annals 16.18–20. Very few scholars nowadays challenge Rose’s conclusions.

  • Schmeling, Gareth. 1996. The Satyrica of Petronius. In The novel in the ancient world. Edited by Gareth Schmeling, 457–490. Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Supplementum 159. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

    A concise overview of the identity of Petronius the historical figure, the reconstruction of the novel’s plot, the textual history of the Satyricon, its style of language and its generic identity, and its “Nachleben.” Schmeling has been working on the Satyricon for at least forty years, and his views must always be considered in discussions of Petronius. Revised edition, 2003.

  • Slater, Niall W. 1990. Reading Petronius. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A groundbreaking narratological study of Petronius that views Encolpius’s travels as a journey in search of meaning and of fulfillment of the self. Slater is the most sophisticated exponent of the view that our problems in interpreting the Satyricon exist precisely because Petronius’s novel is deliberately meant to resist any kind of meaningful interpretation.

  • Sullivan, John P. 1968. The Satyricon of Petronius: A literary study. London: Faber & Faber.

    An excellent study of Petronius, covering such important topics as the “prosimetric” form of the novel, literary criticism and parody in the Satyricon, the intention of Petronius, and the humor of the narrative. Very few scholars nowadays favor Sullivan’s psychoanalytical interpretation of the sexual scenes in Petronius.

  • Walsh, Patrick G. 1970. The Roman novel: The Satyricon of Petronius and the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The most authoritative account of the “Roman” qualities of Petronius’s novel. It includes excellent overviews of the literary features of the Satyricon as a whole, and of the complex ways in which Petronius combines literary tradition and historical reality to create the most successful episode in Encolpius’s narrative, “Dinner at Trimalchio’s House.” Reprinted in 1995 (London: Bristol Classical Press).

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