Gaius Petronius Arbiter
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian era (54–68 AD).
Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder describe Petronius as the elegantiae arbiter (also phrased arbiter elegantiarum), "judge of elegance", in the court of the emperor Nero. He served as suffect consul in 62. Later, he became a member of the senatorial class who devoted himself to a life of pleasure. His relationship to Nero was apparently akin to that of a fashion advisor.
Tacitus gives this account of Petronius in his historical work the Annals (XVI.18):
He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigour and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero's intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste in connection with the science of luxurious living.
None of the ancient sources give any further detail about his life, or mention that he was a writer. However, a medieval manuscript written around 1450 of the Satyricon credited a "Titus Petronius" as the author of the original work. Traditionally, this reference is linked with Petronius Arbiter, since the novel appears to have been written or at least set during his lifetime. The link, however, remains speculative and disputed.
Petronius' development of his characters in the Satyricon, namely Trimalchio, transcends the traditional style of writing of ancient literature. In the literature written during Petronius' lifetime, the emphasis was always on the typical considerations of plot, which had been laid down by classical rules. The character, which was hardly known in ancient literature, was secondary. Petronius goes beyond these literary limitations in his exact portrayals of detailed speech, behaviour, surroundings, and appearance of the characters.
Another literary device Petronius employs in his novel is a collection of specific allusions. The allusions to certain people and events are evidence that the Satyricon was written during Nero's time. These also suggest that it was aimed at a contemporary audience which consisted in part of Nero's courtiers and even Nero himself.
One such allusion, found in chapter 9, refers to the story of the good wife Lucretia which was well known at the time:
"If you're a Lucretia," he said, "You've found a Tarquin".
The message Petronius tries to convey in his work is far from moral and does not intend to produce reform, but is written above all to entertain and should be considered artistically. Nevertheless, his writings can be a valuable tool to better comprehend the customs and ways of life of Roman society at that particular time, since the author strives to preserve the plausibility of his representation, as can be noted by the frequent use of allusions and detailed descriptions of characters and behaviours. As the title implies, the Satyricon is a satire, specifically a Menippean satire, in which Petronius satirizes nearly anything, using his taste as the only standard. It is speculated that Petronius' depiction of Trimalchio mirrors that of Nero. Although the author's own opinion is never alluded to, the opinions of the characters involved in the story are evident, as is how Encolpius criticizes Trimalchio.
Petronius' high position soon made him the object of envy for those around him. Having attracted the jealousy of Tigellinus, the commander of the emperor's guard, he was accused of treason. He was arrested at Cumae in 65 AD but did not wait for a sentence. Instead, he chose to take his own life.
Books by Gaius Petronius Arbiter
The Satyricon, Satyricon liber (The Book of Satyrlike Adventures), or Satyrica, is a Latin work of fiction believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, though the manuscript tradition identifies the author as Titus Petronius. The Satyricon is an...