The Roman voluptuary Petronius Arbiter (died ca. 66) is the ascribed author of the Satyricon, a fragmentary picaresque novel generally considered one of the most brilliant productions of Latin literature.
The "Arbiter" of the ascribed author's name is clearly intended to imply an identification with the Petronius who is called elegantiae arbiter, or judge of elegance, by Tacitus, and whose death by suicide in 66 is described by Tacitus in a famous passage. The author's identity has been vigorously disputed by those who feel that the novel should rather be ascribed, on the basis of style, customs described, and other internal evidence, to the 2d or 3d century, but the majority of scholars are willing to accept the former identification as probable.
Petronius had proved his ability as proconsul (governor) of Bithynia and later as consul under Nero. Modern scholarship has thus identified him with Titus Petronius Niger and showed that his first name was incorrectly reported (as Gaius) by Tacitus and correctly by Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. He then, according to Tacitus, by the assumption or imitation of vice and by his authority in matters of taste and style, became such an influential favorite of Nero that the Emperor would not approve of anything as elegant or artistic without Petronius's approval. This influence aroused the jealousy of Nero's powerful and sinister favorite, Tigellinus, who bribed a slave to implicate Petronius with Scaevinus, the major figure in the recently discovered conspiracy of Piso.
Nero's court was in Campania, and Petronius hurried to him to defend himself, but at Cumae he found that his case was hopeless and decided to commit suicide. The end was worthy of the man: he refused to indulge himself in sentimentality or a fashionable and ostentatious show of consoling himself with philosophy, such as had marked the end of Seneca. He had his veins cut, and alternately closed and reopened, while he played at composing verses with his friends, rewarded or punished his slaves, ate a good dinner, and took a nap, so that, as Tacitus says, his death, even though forced on him, would seem as though it had come by chance.
At the end Petronius refused to declare his loyalty to Nero, as was customary (largely in order to prevent the confiscation of the estate), but wounded the Emperor's vanity by composing and sending to him a detailed and categorical account of Nero's debaucheries and experiments in vice, and he broke his signet ring in order to prevent it from being used to forge documents which would endanger others.
The similarity of the character of Petronius as described by Tacitus to that which one can ascribe to the author of the Satyricon is perhaps the best argument for their identity. The Satyricon is witty, elegant, and sophisticated: the author clearly had wide experience of literature, good society, and men of all ranks and conditions, as well as a freedom from moral and sentimental restraints and inhibitions and a taste for the licentious which resembles that of Petronius.
The plan of the work, in a mixture of prose and verse known as Menippean satire, is apparently based, somewhat loosely, on a parody of the Odyssey: just as Odysseus suffers from the wrath of Poseidon, so Encolpius, the hero, suffers from the wrath of Priapus, the phallic god, who afflicts him with impotence, and he wanders around, through a series of low and scandalous adventures, in search of a cure with his companions, the scoundrelly boy Giton, with whom he is in love, and the equally disreputable Ascyltus.
The fragments we have seem to come from the fifteenth and sixteenth books and represent part of a series of excerpts made in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. The only long passage preserved is the "Dinner of Trimalchio, " which was discovered at Trogir in Dalmatia about 1650. It shows the dinner party of a vulgar parvenu freedman in a small Italian town, attended by the three protagonists and an assortment of lowborn but successful men, and is delightful not only for its picture of vulgar ostentation and ignorant aping of good society but also for its keen psychology, with the refined but decadent and worthless protagonists played off against the boorish but vital and human local citizens. It is also the best representation of common, ordinary Latin speech (Vulgar Latin) preserved from antiquity.
In addition, a series of elegant short poems have been preserved under the name of Petronius. There are, however, grave differences in style among them, and there is no agreement as to which, if any, are actually by him. There have been numerous forgeries of fragments of Petronius, some of which have been used by unwary editors and translators.
A major study of the Satyricon is H. D. Rankin, Petronius the Artist: Essays on the Satyricon and Its Author (1970). See also John P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius: A Literary Study (1968); Gilbert Bagnani, Arbiter of Elegance: A Study of the Life and Works of C. Petronius (1954); and John Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age from Tiberius to Hadrian (1927; 3d ed. by A. M. Duff, 1964) and Roman Satire (1936). The introduction and notes to William Arrowsmith's translation (1959), although elementary, are interesting and generally accurate.