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Literature / The Satyricon

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“The disgusting indecencies of which the remains of Petronius are full ... give him so bad a name, that he who confesses an intimate acquaintance with the poem, and expresses gratification with it, exposes himself to a severe judgement, and affords a good opportunity for the display of sanctimonious hypocrisy."
—Barthold Georg Niebuhr

"It sounds like a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a gay porno parody of Grand Theft Auto."

The Satyricon (or Satyrica) is a work of fiction that is generally attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter, one of Nero's courtiers. It follows the criminal misadventures of three vagabonds: young Roman citizen Encolpius, his teenage slave and catamite Giton, and his friend (and sometimes rival for the favours of Giton) Asciltos; as they wander the earth; getting into all kinds of bizarre situations, often sexual in nature, and running afoul of the law. Only fragments of The Satryicon survive, so the plot is incomplete. Scholars believe that Encolpius is forced to wander the earth after offending Priapus—a Roman fertility god—or possibly that he was ritually expelled from his home city to prevent a plague. From there, the fragmented narrative follows the trio's escapades before ending abruptly.


While The Satyricon is infamous for its grotesque sexual content, it does have literary merit. It is a satire of the Neronian court, a possible early example of the novel, and an insight into the lives of ordinary Romans and its class structure (if one can read past the satirical-cum-pornographic elements that make up the bulk of the story).

While most Latin text are serious works of oratory or poetry, The Satyricon provides a rarer example of a comic narrative about low-brow subjects. Despite its sordid reputation, The Satyricon has inspired many famous authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald references The Satyricon in The Great Gatsby, and originally planned to name it "Trimalchio in West Egg", after a character. It is also referenced in The Waste Land, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In 1969 it was adapted into a fittingly surreal film by Federico Fellini, titled Fellini Satyricon.


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