The Satyricon, like many other works written in the time of early Ancient Rome, is a narrative whose author is not known definitively. However, the best candidate from the time was Titus Petronius (Arbiter). The story, looking especially from the scene “Dinner with Trimalchio,” is a satiric masterwork of the pragmatic and materialistic attitude of the time, soon to be replaced by Christianity. “Dinner with Trimalchio” tells a tale from the perspective of Encolpius, a vagabond student of the master Agamemnon, who is invited along as a pupil of Agamemnon to a banquet.
The host of the banquet is Gaius Trimalchio, who was once a slave but now a freedman millionaire, who worked hard to attain his power and wealthy status. Trimalchio is known for throwing elegant and overly extravagant dinner parties complete with exotic foods and fine wines. This banquet, however, takes a turn for the worst when Trimalchio, who is superstitious and very obsessed with his own death, begins describing in detail his tomb in which he will be buried, which is overly grandiose, and even goes as far as bringing out his will.
Quickly the dinner party turns into a drunken circus, eventually coming to a conclusion after the guests, solely to tickle his fancy, act out Trimalchio’s funeral. ?I believe, in discord with critic John Wright, that Petronius in fact had a moral purpose for writing The Satyricon. Furthermore, I feel that there are underlying cultural traits that support ideas of divisions of social classes, the value of education, and the love of material wealth.
Because Petronius colloquially writes about serious topics including exposing blindness to spiritual values, distrust of the intellect, and preoccupation with the awareness of being cheated by one’s neighbor, some critics do not accept that he is writing on a much more incisive level. ? Petronius, in my opinion, wrote The Satyricon as a call for change in Roman society. Through his satirical writing, he specifically harps on the cultural traits of the time. For example, the man-centered society seems to be unjust and unequal for the women of the social order.
Classical gender roles make the women behave as if they are second-class citizens, being grateful to be in the presence of a powerful male figure; where in actuality, Fortunata, Trimalchio’s wife, sold her jewelry to finance Trimalchio’s first wine selling business, which is how he made his millions. Without the help and generosity of Fortunata, Trimalchio would, himself, be a second-class citizen who struggles to pay for daily bread, like most of the poor lower-class Romans.?
Another way Petronius exemplifies his purpose of writing this story is showing the importance of education in ancient Rome during the time, and how the culture valued it so much. Agamemnon, the scholarly teacher and friend of Trimalchio, is very well respected by the populace of the story. There is one passage in particular where Trimalchio tries to spark a conversation with Agamemnon about the stores of Hercules and Ulysses wherein Trimalchio makes obvious to Agamemnon that he is not well read in Homer’s literature, yet pretends to be.
Trimalchio questions, ? “Do you remember the twelve labours of Hercules and the story of Ulysses—how the Cyclops tore out his thumb with a pair of pincers. I used to read about them in Homer, when I was a boy. In fact I actually saw the Sibyl at Cumae with my own eyes dangling in a bottle. ”? This unintelligent miscue may not be noticed amongst the banquets’ crowd of guests, but among the educated individuals familiar with Homer’s work who will later reflect on the satirical comedy of the situation.?
Perhaps one of Petronius’ most important reasons for writing The Satyricon is to show the evilness behind coveting material things and worshiping false idols. Trimalchio’s love for money and material wealth makes him stand out in the city, but as suggested by Petronius, for the wrong reasons. His taste for fine wines and glamorous cuisine at the lavish parties he throws—mainly to show off his great prosperity— is particularly revolting thought, knowing Trimalchio could easily share his riches with the hungry and suffering people of his city.
Trimalchio does not know any god other than Mercury, the patron of business operations. He has dedicated a gold bracelet, worth one tenth of his total savings, to Mercury’s honor; but instead of depositing it into a shrine of the god, he wears it on his arm. Clearly Trimalchio is not humbled by the great fortune with which he is blessed. Petronius’ remarkable argument is that people, if fortunate enough to be as prosperous as Trimalchio, should not invest their savings in materialistic things and live o nicely, yet they should give back to those in need; for the true treasures in life are not made of gold and silver, it is more important to be spiritually rich. ? As for not having a moral purpose for writing such a profound satirical piece, I cannot agree with the critics. I accept the idea that Petronius was using this work as a tool for individuals to better themselves in cultural ways of thinking, the acceptance of others, and grow introspectively with consideration of the ideals of humility.