(Previously- Fellini Satyricon WTF)

Bust of Nero

The Satyricon was a satirical novel written in the first century CE by a man named Titus Petronius (who we just call Petronius now).  He was a patrician governor in the early Roman Empire who had a reputation for cultured extravagance, sophistication, and luxury.  This brought him to the attention of the emperor Nero who, as a fellow devotee to taste and refinement, gave Petronius the fanciful position of “Arbiter of Elegance” in his imperial court.

Unfortunately, Petronius fell out of favor and was accused of plotting against the emperor by jealous courtiers.  Nero ordered him to commit suicide in 66 CE, allowing the wealthy and influential man to avoid a messy public execution (Tacitus’ Annals, 16.17-20).  True to the way he lived his life, Petronius threw a lavish party and invited all of his closest friends to feast at his opulent house.  He slit his wrists and at various times throughout the event, he opened or bound his wounds, allowing himself to slowly bleed to death amid the merrymaking.  He was also said to have dictated several scathing accounts of Nero’s depravities as he spent his final evening.

Before his fall, Petronius wrote the Satyricon probably in the early to mid 60’s CE.  It was a satire of the empire in the age of Nero, full of bawdy and violent episodes as well as erudite discussions of literary styles.  This juxtaposition between high and low brow is just one of the cultural constructs particular to its ancient Roman setting that to us seems bizarre, disconcerting, and sometimes disturbing.

The Satyricon also partly served as a loose parody of the Odyssey, where Homer’s hero Odysseus angered Poseidon, the mighty god of the sea, became shipwrecked and experienced many fantastic adventures trying to reclaim his home.  In the Satyricon, the anti-hero Encolpius angered Priapus, a fertility god with a mighty big phallus, became impotent and experienced many vulgar adventures trying to reclaim his mojo.

We do not possess all of the Satyricon.  It only survives in fragments (understanding this will be crucial to understanding what Fellini is doing in his film).  It may have originally consisted of twenty books, but we possess less than a tenth of the total text today.  Trying to follow the plot in the Satyricon is challenging since most of the connecting narrative between various chapters and episodes has been lost.  A few stand-alone anecdotes, poems, and tales were also included, but it is not entirely possible to reconstruct the entire story.  We can only say that as Encolpius wandered through Italy and the empire, he encountered many low-class characters, had many misadventures, and kept accidentally incurring the wrath of Priapus.  Two of his most important companions were his partner in crime (and sometimes rival) Ascyltus and a beautiful but fickle young man named Giton.

Petronius presented everything in the Satyricon without explicit moral comment (or condemnation), something that was rare among his fellow writers of the first century CE.[1]  Therefore, although the entire novel was presented as a comical and fantastical commentary on the Age of Nero, we are never quite sure how we are meant to understand or evaluate what happens.  Encolpius is a rogue who kills and commits crimes, but he is also affable, sympathetic, and able to converse about the finer points of literary theory and philosophy.  From our vantage point, two thousand years later, we still struggle to comprehend how the strange and wild things we see in the novel relate to their original cultural context.  Fellini will also pick up on this.

An aside on Roman films:  Most films set in the ancient Roman world update the motivations, circumstances, and experiences of its characters in order to make them relatable to modern cinema-goers.  This includes movies where the Romans are the heroes (e.g. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)) or the villains (e.g. Spartacus (1960), The Sign of the Cross (1932)).  The family Maximus has crucially lost in Gladiator (2000) is a modern, traditionally constructed nuclear one, not the extended one based around an arranged marriage of antiquity.  We understand Ben Hur’s piety in the context of contemporary mainstream Christianity, not the far different context of first century Judea.  The HBO series Rome (2005 & 2007) broke somewhat from this convention and its creators proudly proclaimed that it would portray a “historically accurate” culture.  Its characters would do things that, to us, might seem strange and morally dubious, but that was because we were looking back into a foreign world.  “They are different than us because they value different things than us,” said the series’ historical consultant Jonathan Stamp.[2]  Although I believe Rome was only somewhat successful in accomplishing this goal, it was an approach that owed a tremendous amount to Fellini’s Satyricon, as we will see.

(Up Next- Satyricon 2 – Fellini’s Film)


[1]  This analysis from Sullivan, J. P. (1965), “Introduction”, in The Satyricon and the Apocolocyntosis (Penguin), p. 24-26.

[2]  From the short documentary When in Rome, available as a bonus feature on the season one DVD.