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Born ca. 27 AD
Died ca. 66 AD
Occupation Novelist
Notable work(s) possibly Satyricon

Gaius Petronius Arbiter (ca. 27–66 AD) was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is speculated to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.



Tacitus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder describe Petronius as the elegantiae arbiter, "judge of elegance" in the court of the emperor Nero. He served as consul in the year 62 AD. Later, he became a member of the senatorial class who devoted themselves to a life of pleasure, whose relationship to Nero was apparently akin to that of a fashion advisor. Tacitus gives this account of Petronius in his historical work the Annals:

“He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste ('arbiter elegantiae’) in connection with the science of luxurious living.”

None of the ancient sources give any further detail about his life, or mention that he was a writer. However a medieval manuscript, written around 1450, of the Satyricon credited a “Titus Petronius” as the author of the original work. Traditionally this reference is linked with Petronius Arbiter, since the novel appears to have been written or at least set during his lifetime. The link, however, remains speculative and disputed.


As a writer

Petronius’ development of his characters in the Satyricon, namely Trimalchio, transcends the traditional style of writing of ancient literature. In the literature written during Petronius’ life the emphasis was always on the typical considerations of plot, which had been laid down by classical rules. The character, which was hardly known in ancient literature, was secondary. Petronius goes beyond these literary limitations in his exact portrayals of detailed speech, behavior, surroundings, and appearance of the characters.

Another literary device Petronius employs in his novel is a collection of specific allusions. The allusions to certain people and events are evidence that the Satyricon was written during Nero’s time. These also suggest that it was aimed at a contemporary audience in which a part consisted of Nero’s courtiers and even Nero himself.

One such allusion, found in Book IX, refers to the story of the good wife Lucretia which was well-known at the time:
“Si Lucretia es,” inquit, “Tarquinium invenisti”
“If you're a Lucretia,” he said “You've found a Tarquin”

The message Petronius tries to convey in his work is far from moral and does not intend to produce reform, but is written above all to entertain and should be considered artistically. As the title implies the Satyricon is a satire, specifically a Menippean satire, in which Petronius satirizes nearly anything, using his impeccable taste as the only standard. It is speculated that Petronius’ depiction of Trimalchio mirrors that of Nero. Although we never know the author's own opinion, we see the opinions of the characters in the story and how Encolpius criticizes Trimalchio.


Petronius’ high position soon made him the object of envy for those around him. Having attracted the jealousy of Tigellinus, the commander of the emperor’s guard, he was accused of treason. He was arrested at Cumae in 66 AD but did not wait for a sentence. Instead he chose to take his own life. Tacitus again records his elegant suicide in the sixteenth book of the Annals:

“Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince's shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.”

In fiction

Petronius, usually assumed to be the author of the Satyricon, appears or is referenced in several works of fiction:

  • Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis and its adaptations (but see below for the film), where C. Petronius is the preferred courtier of Nero, using his wit to adulate and mock him at the same time. He is horrified at Nero's burning of Rome, and eventually commits suicide to escape both Nero's antics and his anticipated execution.
  • in Jesse Browner's novel The Uncertain Hour, which recounts Petronius' final banquet and suicide (as told by Tacitus, Annals 16).
  • In the 1951 film of Quo Vadis, Petronius is portrayed by Leo Genn, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
  • In the 2001 film of Quo Vadis, Petronius is portrayed by Boguslaw Linda. It was the first Polish adaptation of Sienkiewicz's novel.
  • In the 1835 short story "A Tale of Roman Life" by Alexander Pushkin, Petronius' final days in Cumae are chronicled.

In recent times, a popular quote (reportedly by Charlton Ogburn, 1957[1]) on reorganization is often (but spuriously[2][3]) attributed to a Gaius Petronius. In one version, it reads:

“We trained hard ... but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

See also

See also...
Dpb.png Works at Domínio Público
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External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Petronius (c. AD 27-66) was a Roman writer of the Neronian age; he was a noted satirist. He is identified with C. Petronius Arbiter, but the manuscript text of the Satyricon calls him Titus Petronius. Satyricon is his sole surviving work.




  • Abiit ad plures
    • Translation: He has joined the great majority.
    • Sec. 42
  • A man who is always ready to believe what is told him will never do well.
    • Sec. 43
  • One good turn deserves another.
    • Sec. 45
  • Litterae thesaurum est.
    • Translation: Education is a treasure.
    • Sec. 46
  • Then the Sibyl! I saw her at Cumae with my own eyes hanging in a jar; and when the boys cried to her, 'Sibyl, what would you?' she'd answer, 'I would die' -- both of ‘em speaking Greek.'
    • Sec. 48
    • In the T. S. Eliot poem, "The Waste Land", this quote is written in Greek and Latin as follows: Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω. The translation generally associated with Eliot's poem is as follows: For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?', she replied, 'I want to die' .
  • Not worth his salt.
    • Sec. 57
  • Beauty and wisdom are rarely conjoined.
    • Sec. 94
  • Horatii curiosa felicitas.
    • Translation: The studied spontaneity of Horace.
    • Sec. 118



  • We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
    • A quote by Charlton Ogburn (1911–1998) in "Merrill's Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure" in the January 1957 issue of Harper's Magazine
    • Actual quote[citation needed]: "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization." [citation needed]

External links

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PETRONIUS (G. (?) 1 Petronius Arbiter), Roman writer of the Neronian age. His own work, the Satirae, tells us nothing directly of his fortunes, position, or even century. Some lines of Sidonius Apollinaris refer to him and are often taken to imply that he lived and wrote at Marseilles. If, however, we accept the identification of this author with the Petronius of Tacitus, Nero's courtier, we must suppose either that Marseilles was his birthplace or, as is more likely, that Sidonius refers to the novel itself and that its scene was partly laid at Marseilles. The chief personages of the story are evidently strangers in the towns of southern Italy where we find them. Their Greek-sounding names (Encolpius, Ascyltos, Giton, &c.) and literary training accord with the characteristics of the old Greek colony in the 1st century A.D. The high position among Latin writers ascribed by Sidonius to Petronius, and the mention of him beside Menander by Macrobius, when compared with the absolute silence of Quintilian, Juvenal and Martial, seem adverse to the opinion that the Satirae was a work of the age of Nero. But Quintilian was concerned with writers who could be turned to use in the l The MSS. of the Satirae give no praenomen. Tacitus's Petronius is Gaius, though the elder Pliny and Plutarch call him Titus. The name Arbiter, given him by later writers, is not an ordinary cognomen; it may have been bestowed on him by contemporaries from the fact that his judgment was regarded as the criterion of good taste.

education of an orator. The silence of Juvenal and Martial may be accidental or it is possible that a work so abnormal in form and substance was more highly prized by later generations than by the author's contemporaries.

A comparison of the impression the book gives us of the character and genius of its author with the elaborate picture of the courtier in Tacitus certainly suggests the identity of the two. Tacitus, it is true, mentions no important work as the composition of his C. Petronius; such a work as the Satirae he may have regarded as beneath that dignity of history which he so proudly realized. The care he gives to Petronius's portrait perhaps shows that the man enjoyed greater notoriety than was due merely to the part he played in history. "He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial governorship, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigour and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero's intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste (arbiter elegantiae) in connexion with the science of luxurious living."' Tacitus goes on to say that this excited the jealousy of Tigellinus, an accusation followed, and Petronius committed suicide in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document which professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practised.

A fact confirmatory of the general truth of this graphic portrait is added by the elder Pliny, who mentions that just before his death he destroyed a valuable murrhine vase to prevent its falling into the imperial hands. Do the traits of this picture agree with that impression of himself which the author of the Satirae has left upon his work ? That we possess therein part of the document sent to Nero is an impossible theory. Our fragments profess to be extracts from the fifteenth and sixteenth books of the Satirae: Petronius could not have composed one-tenth even of what we have in the time in which he is said to have composed his memorial to Nero. We may be sure too that the latter was very frank in its language, and treated Nero with far greater severity than the Banquet treats Trimalchio. On the other hand, it is clear that the creator of Trimalchio, Encolpius and Giton had the experience, the inclinations and the literary gifts which would enable him to describe with forcible mockery the debaucheries of Nero. And the impression of his personality does in another respect correspond closely with the Petronius of the Annals - in the union of immoral sensualism with a rich vein of cynical humour and admirable taste.

The style of the work, where it does not purposely reproduce the solecisms and colloquialisms of the vulgar rich, is of the purest Latin of the Silver age. 2 Nor would there be any point in the verses on the capture of Troy and the Civil War at any 1 Ann. xvi. 18.

2 The false taste in literature and expression fostered by the declamationes is condemned by both Persius and Petronius on the same grounds. Cf. too Pers. i. 121, hoc ego apertum, hoc ridere meum, tam nil, nulla tibi uendo Iliade with Sat. 52, meum intellegere nulla petunia uendo; Pers. ii. 9, 0 si ebulliat patruus, praeclarum funus, et o si sub rastro crepet argenti mihi seria with Sat. 88, Alius donum promittit, si propinquum divitem extulerit, alius si thesaurum effoderit and 42, homo animam ebulliit; Pers. iv. 26, arat. .. quantum non milvus oberrat with Sat. 37, fundos habet qua milvi volant. Both use the rare word baro. Animam ebullire occurs in Seneca's Apocolocyntosis, and the verbal resemblances illustrate perhaps rather the common use by both writers of the vulgar style. Cf. for resemblances to the style of the younger Seneca and the date of the work in general, Studer, Rh. Illus. (1843).

other era than that in which Nero's Troica and Lucan's Pharsalia were fashionable poems. The reciting poet indeed is a feature of a later age also, as we learn from Martial and Juvenal. But we know from Tacitus that the luxury of the table, so conspicuous in Trimalchio's Banquet, fell out of fashion after Nero (Ann. 3. 55).

Of the work itself there have been preserved 141 sections of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps. The name Satirae, given in the best MSS., implies that it belongs to the type to which Varro, imitating the Greek Menippus, had given the character of a medley of prose and verse composition. But the string of fictitious narrative by which the medley is held together is something quite new in Roman literature. This careless prodigal was so happily inspired in his devices for amusing himself as to introduce to Rome and thereby transmit to modern times the novel based on the ordinary experience of contemporary life 3 - the precursor of such novels as Gil Blas and Roderick Random. There is no evidence of the existence of a regular plot in the fragments, but we find one central figure, Encolpius, who professes to narrate his adventures and describe all that he saw and heard, whilst allowing various other personages to exhibit their peculiarities and express their opinions dramatically.

The fragment opens with the appearance of the hero, Encolpius, who seems to be an itinerant lecturer travelling with a companion named Ascyltos and a boy Giton, in a portico of a Greek town, in Campania. An admirable lecture on the false taste in literature, resulting from the prevailing system of education, is replied to by a rival declaimer, Agamemno, who shifts the blame from the teachers to the parents. The central personages of the story next go through a series of questionable adventures, in the course of which they are involved in a charge of robbery. A day or two after they are present at a dinner given by a freedman of enormous wealth, Trimalchio, who entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance a number of men of his own rank but less prosperous. We listen to the ordinary talk of the guests about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, about the education of their children. We recognize in an extravagant form the same kind of vulgarity and pretension which the satirist of all times delights to expose in the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of the age. Next day Encolpius separates from his companions in a fit of jealousy, and, after two or three days' sulking and brooding on his revenge, enters a picture gallery, where he meets with an old poet, who, after talking sensibly on the decay of art and the inferiority of the painters of the age to the old masters, proceeds to illustrate a picture of the capture of Troy by some verses on that theme. This ends in those who are walking in the adjoining colonnade driving him out with stones. The scene is next on board ship, where Encolpius finds he has fallen into the hands of some old enemies. They are shipwrecked, and Encolpius, Giton and the old poet get to shore in the neighbourhood of Crotona, where, as the inhabitants are notorious fortune-hunters, the adventurers set up as men of fortune. The fragment ends with a new set of questionable adventures, in which prominent parts are played by a beautiful enchantress named Circe, a priestess of Priapus, and a certain matron who leaves them her heirs, but attaches a condition to the inheritance which even Encolpius might have shrunk from fulfilling.' If we can suppose the author of this work to have been animated by any other motive than the desire to amuse himself, it might be that of convincing himself that the world in general was as bad as he was himself. Juvenal and Swift are justly regarded as among the very greatest of satirists, and their estimate of human nature is perhaps nearly as unfavourable as that of Petronius; but their attitude towards human degradation is not one of complacent amusement; their realism is the realism of disgust, not, like that of Petronius, a realism of sympathy. Martial does not gloat over the vices of which he writes with cynical frankness. He is perfectly aware that they are vices, and that the reproach of them is the worst that can be cast on any one. And, further, Martial, with all his faults, is, in his affections, his tastes, his relations to others, essentially human, friendly, generous, true. There is perhaps not a single sentence in Petronius which implies any knowledge of or sympathy with the existence of affection, conscience or honour, or even the most elementary goodness of heart.

For the whole question of possible predecessors and Petronius's relation to the extant Greek romances see W. Schmid, "Der griechische Roman" in Jahrbacher far das klass. Altertum, &c. (1904). One would certainly have expected the realistic tendency which appears in the New Comedy, the Characters of Theophrastus and the Mimes, to have borne this fruit before the first century of our era. - (W. C. Su.) Omnes qui in testamento meo legata habent praeter libertos meos, hac conditione percipient quae dedi, si corpus meutn in partes conciderint et astante populo comederint (141).

The work has reached us in so fragmentary and mutilated a shape that we may of course altogether have missed the key to it; it may have been intended by its author to be a sustained satire, written in a vein of reserved and powerful irony, of the type realized in our modern Jonathan Wild or Barry Lyndon. Otherwise we must admit that, in the entire divorce of intellectual power and insight from any element of right human feeling, the work is an exceptional phenomenon in literature. For, as a work of original power, of humorous representation, of literary invention and art, the fragment deserves all the admiration which it has received. We recognize the arbiter elegantiae in the admirable sense of the remarks scattered through it on education, on art, on poetry and on eloquence. There is a true feeling of nature in the description of a grove of plane-trees, cypresses and pines: "Has inter ludebat aquis errantibus amnis Spumeus et querulo vexabat rore lapillos." And some of the shorter pieces anticipate the terseness and elegance of Martial. The long fragment on the Civil War does not seem to be written so much with the view of parodying as of entering into rivalry with the poem of Lucan. In the epigram extemporized by Trimalchio late on in the banquet: "Quod non expectes, ex transverso fit Et supra nos Fortuna negotia curat, Quare da nobis vina Falerna, puer," we have probably a more deliberate parody of the style of verses produced by the illiterate aspirants to be in the fashion of the day. We might conjecture that the chief gift to which Petronius owed his social and his literary success was that of humorous mimicry. In Trimalchio and his various guests, in the old poet, in the cultivated, depraved and moody Encolpius, in the Chrysis, Quartilla, Polyaenis, &c., we recognize in living examples the play of those various appetites, passions and tendencies which satirists deal with as abstract qualities. Another gift he possesses in a high degree, which must have availed him in society as well as in literature - the gift of story-telling; and some of the stories which first appear in the Satirae - e.g. that of the Matron of Ephesus - have enjoyed a great reputation in later times. His style, too, is that of an excellent talker, who could have discussed questions of taste and literature with the most cultivated men of any time as well as amused the most dissolute society of any time in their most reckless revels. One phrase of his is often quoted by many who have never come upon it in its original context, "Horatii curiosa felicitas."/n==Authorities== - Until about 1650 only part of the Banquet of Trimalchio, with the other fragments of the work, was known. The best MS. of this type is a Leiden MS., a copy by Scaliger of one which seems to have belonged to Cujacius. Marinus Statilius (see, however, Ellis, Journal of Philology, 12, p. 266) discovered at Trau in Dalmatia a MS. containing the whole Banquet, which was first published at Padua in 1664.

The important editions are (1) with explanatory notes: Burmann (Amsterdam, 1743, with Heinsius's notes), and, of the Cena only, Friedlander (Leipzig, 2nd ed., 1906) and Lowe (Cambridge, 1904); (2) with critical notes: Bi cheler (Berlin, 1862, 4th ed., 1904). Translations into German in Friedlander's edition (Cena only), into French by de Guerle (complete, in Garnier's Bibliotheque), into English in Lowe's edition (Cena only) and Bohn's series (complete). Lexicon to Petronius by Segebade and Lommatsch (Leipzig, 1898). Criticism, &c., in Haley, "Quaestt. Petron." (Harvard Studies, 1891); Collignon, Etude sur Petrone (Paris, 1892); Emile Thomas, L'Envers de la societe romaine d'apres Petrone (Paris, 1892); Hirzel, Der Dialog, ii. (Leipzig, 1895); Tyrrell, Latin Poetry (London, 1895); Norden, Antike Kunstprosa i. (Leipzig, 1898); Henderson, Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero (London, 1903); Dill, Roman Society from Nero to MarcusAurelius(London,1905); and the various histories of Roman literature (especially Schanz, §§ 395 sqq.).

(W. Y. S.; W. C. Su.).

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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Governor of Syria (39-42); died probably in the reign of Claudius. During his term of office Petronius had frequent opportunities to come in contact with the Jews of Judea and to confer benefits upon them. This was especially the case when the insane Emperor Caligula caused himself to be worshiped as a god throughout the Roman empire, so that the peril which had threatened the Jews of Alexandria became still greater in Palestine. Irritated by the news that the Jews had torn down the imperial altar built by the Greeks in Jabneh, Caligula commanded his statue to be placed in Jerusalem in the Temple itself; and, since it was to be expected that the Jews would resist stubbornly, he ordered Petronius to enter Judea with the half of his army, i.e., with two legions.

The governor was shrewd enough not to irritate the Jews to the utmost, and he therefore practised a policy of delay. Although he had the statue made in Sidon, he did not advance toward Jerusalem, but remained in Ptolemais during the winter of 39, parleying with the leaders of the Jews, who naturally were unwilling to yield. Multitudes of Jews—old men, women, and children—threw themselves at his feet, declaring that they would die rather than submit to the desecration of their sanctuary; and he encountered the same spectacle when he sojourned at Tiberias during the autumn of the year 40. There the entreaties of the people were supported by Aristobulus, brother of King Agrippa, and their kinsman Helkias, so that Petronius, moved by the deep piety of the Jewish people, led his troops back to Antioch, and wrote the emperor, entreating him to counter-mand his order. Meanwhile matters had taken a favorable turn in Rome, owing to the intervention of Agrippa, and the emperor ordered a letter to be written to Petronius forbidding any alteration in the Temple at Jerusalem.

The emperor was not sincere in this matter, however, and possibly he surmised that Petronius was merely making an excuse when he said that the statue at Sidon was not ready. He therefore gave orders for another effigy to be made in Rome, and which he intended to convey personally to Jerusalem. When the letter of Petronius with the entreaty to countermand the order reached the emperor, the latter became so enraged at the disobedience of his governor that he caused a letter to be written demanding that Petronius take his own life in punishment. Fortunately for the Jews and for the entire world, Caligula was murdered soon afterward; and the news of his death reached Petronius twenty-seven days before the imperial letter ordering the governor's suicide (Philo, "Legatio ad Caium," §§ 30-34; Josephus, "Ant." xviii. 8, §§ 2-9; idem, "B. J." ii. 10, §§ 1-5).

On another occasion Petronius showed his friendship toward the Jews. When some young men at Dora had placed a statue of the emperor in the synagogue, he, on the request of Agrippa, ordered that those who had done this should be punished, and that such an outrage should not be repeated ("Ant." xix. 6, § 3).

Bibliography: Grätz, Gesch. 4th ed., iii. 342; Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., i. 503-507, 554; Prosopographia Imperii Romani, iii. 26, No. 198.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.


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