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literature

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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.

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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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    Bibliography
   

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 www.glbtq.com/literature/petronius.html  
    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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