Petronius: Roman Virtue and Taste in the Empire

Written by on September 19th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Petronius Satyricon

|||Petronius, J. P. Sullivan, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The Satyricon. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986.|||

Petronius ‘Here,’ said he, ‘don’t you know who’s your host today? It’s Trimalchio–he’s terribly elegant…He has a clock in the dinning-room and a trumpeter all dressed up to tell him how much longer he’s got to live.’…

No sooner had Menelaus spoken than Trimalchio snapped his fingers. At the signal the eunuch brought up the pissing bottle for him, while he went on playing. With the weight off his bladder, he demanded water for his hands, splashed a few drops on his fingers and wiped them on a boy’s head. pp. 51-52.

Petronius is a difficult author to understand. This is for a variety of reasons the foremost of which is that his work survives in fragments. But more to the point, Petronius is difficult because it is not clear how we should take his writings. It is important to determine how the The Dinner of Trimalchio is written, whether seriously or not, because how we read the text determines which values Petronius seems to uphold and which he puts down. We can then compare and contrast those values to the traditional virtues of the via Romana1.

The The Dinner of Trimalchio may be interpreted in several ways. We could, for example, take it as proof of Roman excess. But such a reading would stem almost as much from what we know of Petronius’ indulgent lifestyle as it would from proofs in the text.2 We could also claim that the The Dinner of Trimalchio is a satire and that Petronius is a moralist.3 Thirdly, we could claim that he writes simply for entertainment and that academics have made much of what is in effect an upper-class distraction. But none of these seem quite suitable. If we read Petronius for his historical accuracy, we are prevented by the foolishness of his characters and the absurdity of their situations from taking it too seriously. If we read Petronius as a satirist, we can explain the absurd plots and the description, but not the deviation from traditional literary style, or why his life mirrored in a more refined way that which he seems to criticize. And if we read Petronius as court revelry then we lose with it any interpretive power, except, perhaps, externally and psychologically. But there does seem to be fourth option, which is a combination of the above. It is possible that Petronius does write as a satirist, but not a moral one; that he writes comically, but not simply to revel; and that his descriptions do, somehow, give us a picture of the non-praetorian upper class.

If the The Dinner of Trimalchio is a satire it is not a traditional one. Petronius in writing it does not follow closely the traditional form of the genre as, say, Lucian does. He does not clearly attack attitudes instead of people (although one can make a case for it). He does not outline in the course of the satire, either directly or indirectly, what is wrongheaded about the characters or the scene. Instead, Petronius merely describes, as if it were true, what goes on. And so we are left asking ourselves two questions. The first is what purpose the satire serves; to whom is it addressed, and what do they hope to gain from it. The second question is to whom must we contrast Trimalchio’s dinner, whether the poor who cannot afford such luxuries, or the aristocracy whose luxury seemed more refined.

The first question at hand is what purpose the satire serves. This question is impossible to determine with certainty, but textual evidence suggests to us that the purpose of the satire was to refine taste and to be able to better differentiate something stylish from something crass. The historical evidence to which I refer is the odd parallel in the The Dinner of Trimalchio to dinner passages in Horace and Juvenal, and even in earlier Greek writings such as the Symposium or the Phaedo. It would seem that everything which Trimalchio does is ill-mannered in some way or another, and the way that we know it is ill-mannered (besides from our intuitive sense of propriety) is that the scenes are exaggerations of social blunders found in well-known Roman authors.4 The text therefore affirms what is socially acceptable by showing the absurdity of what is not.

Yet if we are to say that the various episodes of the text are given context by reading other authors, such as Horace, we might reasonably ask ourselves who would be familiar with such authors. Who might we expect to generally understand why Trimalchio’s behavior is so ill-mannered. The answer to that, as we hinted, were those with leisure and education. Only those with enough money to throw an elaborate dinner would be able to understand why and how the dinner was so poorly executed.

But more specifically, who were those to whom Petronius wrote. For wealth itself, as Trimalchio makes clear, does not mean one is cultured.5 Petronius seems to write the satire only for the Praetorian (and some of the equestrian) class. He is not concerned with educating those who are tasteless, much less exposing them. Instead, he wishes to use them as an example to positively reinforce the correct use of luxury in an elite aristocratic environment.

Once we determine that Petronius audience is the aristocratic elite6 the question of whether we are to compare Trimalchio’s dinner to the poor or to the wealthy is informally answered. Since the text seems to be aimed at refining the taste of the educated elite, it would be absurd to see the The Dinner of Trimalchio as a commentary on the excess of rich. Instead we must see Trimalchio’s dinner as a failed confusion between wealth and taste; Petronius wishes to denounce the inelegant use of wealth, or at least to draw a sharp distinction between the idea of luxury and taste at any cost and cost itself as indicative of taste. The The Dinner of Trimalchio contrasts aristocratic predilection for fine meals and good company with the lower class desire for wealth and security. It is for leisure that the aristocrats aimed and for the plebes and lower class freedom from labor.

From the recognition that the two are incompatible, wealth as a freedom from labor, and taste without regard for cost, comes both the humor of the novel and the accurate representation of the uncultured rich. The humor stems from shocking and absurd situations in which the characters find themselves. It is humorous to think that a man would believe it appropriate to use his wealth to practice his funeral oration at a dinner party;7 It is also humorous to suppose that such a man thought himself good-mannered. The humor arises partly out of a sense of shame (how could one associate with such a one) and partly out of a sense of pride (we ourselves, we say, would never do such a thing). But the reality of the humor is that such characters do exist, even if on a smaller, less absurd scale.8 The Trimalchios of the world existed then, as they do now. Petronius, in painting a picture of the exaggerated misunderstanding of taste, has created a realistic portrait of Roman culture.9

And so we come at last to the topic of our discussion: how the value of taste and culture relate to the via Romana. We recognize in the value of taste and culture a sub-value (not really of the same kind) which is the value of wealth as a emancipator from labor. And so the question is really a two-fold question. The first question is about the relation between taste and the via Romana and the second question is about the relation between fortune and wealth to the via Romana.

I shall answer the second question first since although it comes second logically, it is the less interesting of the two. The relation between fortune and the via Romaan is at best strained and more likely impossible. The need to seek one’s fortune is no where found in the via Romana; perhaps to seek one’s fame, but those are separate (although often linked) goals.10 In fact, it stands opposed to nearly all the virtues. It seems to stand most opposed to frugalitas, which is as the word suggests a certain prudence11 and industria, which is the assiduity for ones responsibilities. Both of these values undermine the notion that wealth is valuable because it frees us from our need to work; instead, wealth is something which enables us to perform our civic duty.

The more interesting question is how exactly does taste and culture relate to the the Roman virtues. I can’t help but think of Cato whose staunch virtue shamed Romans away from Greek luxury. How can this concept of taste and elegance, of connoisseurship, have its place within the Roman ideologue? We must remember that we have already drawn a distinction between wealth and refinement; it is to the latter that taste belongs, which is the recognition of excellence, particularly Roman excellence. Rich and pricey wine is tasteful, especially if one appreciates its excellence, since it relates directly to the virtue of dignitas.12 Providing a feast for an honored guest, or for the Roman people in general (in the case of triumphant emperors or generals) is fitting, since it bespeaks the gravitas and pietas of the event.13 There are, of course, more examples, but the point is made: the refinement of taste does not stand opposed to the Roman virtues, but instead are given meaning and context within them. Taste, it seems, while a value different than virtue, nevertheless, when exhibited properly, points to an underlying virtue.

About B. R. Mullikin

B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. The via Romana is the Roman Way of Life. 

  2. After all, Petronius was favored in the courts and well-known for his taste and indulgence. 

  3. We would, of course, still need to account for his hedonism. 

  4. Petronius the Moralist, p. 182. 

  5. This, I think, is the particular purpose of the various misquotes and oddly wrong sayings of Trimalchio: to show him to lack the prerequisite learning to have taste. He is therefore incapable of doing luxury correctly. 

  6. It is easy to assume that his audience is the Praetorian class because he read the Satyricon at court, but such a claim would be circumstantial. It is much better to show evidence of this in the text itself. 

  7. It is humorous both in the context of Roman society, and of ours. 

  8. Think of the parallel one might draw between the movie “Meet the Parents,” its absurd situations, and its resemblance to hoops young couples go through to please their step-parents. The difference is of degree and not kind. 

  9. Much as (and forgive the excessive hollywood illustrations) the Thanksgiving dinner in Talladega Nights exemplifies the American obsession with cheap, easy, and un-ceremonial fare. 

  10. The need for wealth to obtain fame is well-noted, especially in Roman society. However, money is treated then as a means to an end and not as a value. 

  11. Frugalitas has in it the idea of prudence. it certainly means more than mere cheapness. frugalitas is a recognition of a thing’s value; an understanding of what frugi it bears. In many respects frugalitas has more to do with the modern usage of our English ‘shrewd’ than ‘frugal.’ 

  12. Not so much of the one who consumes the wine, but of the dignitas of the wine in general. 

  13. gravitas since the matter was worthy of recognition by the whole Roman people, and pietas since it is a sharing of the victory between the all Romans.