on 8 September 2013
The Satyricon is the surviving portion of a picaresque novel recounting the travels across Italy, probably in the first century AD, of two young men in a homosexual relationship. In their apparently aimless wanderings, they encounter a vulgar nouveau-riche businessman, a corrupt and drunk priestess, a nymphomaniac, a pompous poet and other caricatures of Roman society. They scheme and struggle to escape the clutches of one only to land in those of another. It's full of satire and sex, and is said to be the first - or at least the oldest surviving - novel in the picaresque genre, later providing inspiration to the authors of Candide and Don Quixote.
The novel is short but sometimes hard to follow as some chapters are little more than disjointed fragments. It provides insights into the Roman world in a much more colourful way than the epistles, essays and histories which constitute most of the era's extant writings.
The Oxford Worlds' Classics edition has an excellent introduction that highlights different readings of the novel and its influence on European literature, as well as plenty of detailed notes that explain Petronius' multiple references to other works and authors, from Homer to Virgil and Ovid.
Written during the first century CE by Petronius, a favourite of Nero, only fragments exist of this 'novel'. What we have describe the racy adventures of Encolpius with set pieces based around sex and eating, particularly the famous dinner party of Trimalchio. Critics still argue over whether this should be classified as satire or a picaresque adventure but, whatever the genre, this is still amusing, entertaining and witty. It perhaps works best if you have a fairly good knowledge of previous Latin (and Greek) literature with which it engages closely, but that shouldn't deter first time readers.
on 8 June 2015
A most unusual book. It is somewhat reminiscent of Rabelais and much of the humour depends on intimately knowing the society for which it was written; that makes it difficult for the modern reader, who is constantly having to look up the allusions etc in the glossary at the back. Having said that, it races along in the tradition of such books. As with many of the classics, one can't help lamenting the chapters and passages that have gone missing over the centuries.