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Petronius (ca 27-66)  

The author of The Satyricon is traditionally identified with the Gaius (or Titus) Petronius described in Tacitus's Annals as a sensualist "who made luxury a fine art," and whose suicide in 66, after being falsely betrayed by a rival and dismissed by the emperor Nero as his "arbiter" of elegance and sensual pleasure, is described by Tacitus as the ultimate act of refined self-control.

Only fragments survive of The Satyricon, Petronius' brilliant satire of excesses in Nero's Rome, but they remain both the best evidence for homosexual behavior at the height of the Roman Empire and one of the most bumptious picaresque narratives ever written.

The world of The Satyricon at times resembles a sexual carnival. Encolpius (whose name, translator Arrowsmith concludes, means "crotch") is a student with an exceptional phallic endowment, but whose offenses against the god Priapus result in a sequence of painful but generally comic misadventures, including the humiliation of sexual impotence and the loss of his teenaged boyfriend Giton to his equally impressively endowed friend and rival Asclytus.

In the world through which they move, genders are happily interchangeable when pleasure is at stake. Thus, although the nouveau riche Trimalchio was named his former master's heir because of the sexual favors he provided well past the age when it was seemly for him to act in a passive role, he boasts how faithfully he serviced his mistress as well; his own wife is angry, not that he keeps a stable of beautiful male slaves, but that he kisses his favorite boy publicly in her presence.

Encolpius is driven to suicidal despair by his jealous love of Giton but is happy to try to satisfy beautiful, sexually voracious Circe. Poetaster Eumolpus leches after every handsome younger man that he sees, but when given the choice of a legacy-hunter's son or daughter, he happily chooses the girl, leaving the boy to Encolpius, whom he had just been attempting to seduce.

The only crime in Petronius' imagined universe, as the paired tales of the Widow of Ephesus and of the Boy of Pergamon suggest, is denying one's sexual appetites; such hypocrisy is punished, generally through comic ridicule.

The Satyricon is the prototype for such contemporary gay novels as John Rechy's City of Night (1963), Daniel Curzon's The Misadventures of Tim McPick (1975), and Luis Zapata's Adonis Garcia (1979), in which travel licenses sexual experimentation as well as indulgence.

An English translation of The Satyricon first published in Paris in 1902 and purported to be by "Sebastian Melmoth," a well-known pseudonym of Oscar Wilde, suggests a second important influence that Petronius' narrative has had on gay letters.

Although clearly not Wilde's work, the anonymous translator's attempt to promote the underground classic by linking it to the refined aestheticism, sexual self-indulgence, and satiric sharpness of the Victorian Age's most famous homosexual, implicitly defines a gay tradition of arbitrating elegance and of disrupting conventional sexual values that might include, additionally, Christopher Marlowe, Joe Orton, and Quentin Crisp.

The controversial 1968 film version of Satyricon by Federico Fellini captures Petronius' satiric grotesquerie and powerful homoeroticism, while losing most of its campy humor.

Raymond-Jean Frontain


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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  Bisexual Literature

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literature >> Overview:  Comedy of Manners

The Comedy of Manners, which flourished on the Restoration stage, has been particularly amenable to twentieth-century gay male writers as a vehicle for social satire in both dramatic and nondramatic works.

literature >> Overview:  Decadence

Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

literature >> Overview:  Erotica and Pornography

Erotic and pornographic works have been written in many cultures since ancient times and recently have flourished with the relaxation of censorship.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

literature >> Overview:  Sadomasochistic Literature

Sadomasochistic literature, one of the most controversial forms of lesbian and gay writing, confronts such issues as domination, submission, uniformity, and humiliation and poses a constant challenge to them.

literature >> Crisp, Quentin

"Not merely a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one," actor, writer, performance artist, and wit Quentin Crisp left as his most significant legacy an example of courage.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Orton, Joe

The gay British playwright Joe Orton, an important precursor of the queer literary movement, is perhaps the finest writer of farce in the twentieth century.

literature >> Rechy, John

In his novels about hustling, preeminently City of Night and Numbers, John Rechy moves from the world of homosexual behavior into the world of gay identity.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Zapata, Luis

The fiction of Luis Zapata offers a broad look into Mexican gay culture.


Haig, Thomas. The Novel in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Petronius. The Satyricon. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: New American Library, 1960.

_____. The Satyricon and the Fragments. Trans. J. P. Sullivan. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Richardson, T. Wade. "Homosexuality in the Satyricon." Classica et Mediaevalia 35 (1984): 105-127.

Slater, Niall W. Reading Petronius. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Sullivan, J. P. The Satyricon of Petronius: A Literary Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.


    Citation Information
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Petronius  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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