Satyrica - How Did Nero Influence the Character of Trimalchio?

  By zeno, January 2007; Revised
How Did Nero Influence the Character of Trimalchio?

The surviving fragments of Petronius’ Satyrica are some of the most exciting Roman literature we possess, simultaneously rewarding and thwarting historical investigation. What we have makes up maybe a tenth of the original piece, thought to be twenty books (or even twenty four, emulating Homer) and perhaps some four hundred thousand words. There are no citations of the work until Fulgentius, writing nearly half a millennium later. Unless it was in the lost chapters of the Annals, Tacitus did not consider it worthy of his imperial histories. As well as the comic novel, scholars have found numerous other genres in the work, including the epic Odyssey, the Hellenistic novels, Milesian tales and Mennipean satire. Dating the composition has also been disputed, but since K. F. C. Rose (1971), most scholars accept the Neronian setting. The identity of the author is another problem, but is generally thought to be the consular senator mentioned in Pliny (NH 37:20), Plutarch (Moralia 60) and the infamous Tacitus passage (Ann 16:17-20). Despite the tragic loss of so much of the Satyrica, the large amount of Petronian research is a testament to the quality of the work. The passages from Books 14, 15 and 16 suggest a literary masterpiece and in particular, one is reminded of Don Quixote in the calamities of Encolpius. This of course raises the question of how the work was received in the First Century. It may have been read aloud at Nero’s court. G. Rosati has examined the possibility that the Satyrica performed in scaena, or due to its size, published to be read privately. However, these questions ignore the fact that the satires of Horace and Juvenal, either side of the Satyrica, earned great respect in ancient Rome. Petronius’ work, it seems, was not appreciated in his lifetime. So published or read in public, why was the Satyrica ignored when its literary merits are so obvious, even two thousand years later? Perhaps there was something in it that made it too radical for the libraries. Rose describes it as an “amused and ironical depiction of what was vulgar, vicious, abnormal, pretentious, avaricious and materialistic in the world of [Petronius’] day.” F. I. Zeitlin describes it as “radically anti-classical.” It is important that we should look for what could have been taboo for First Century Romans, and no more taboos were broken then during the reign of Emperor Nero.

The Cena Trimalchonis has received the best part of Satyrica research, not just because it is the most complete episode, but because it is one of the most fascinating artistic creations of an ancient Roman. It is a diversion from the main plot of the Satyrica, and therefore we may assume there is a point to be made. The word notare is frequently used in the Cena. Central to the historical period of the Satyrica was Nero. Central to the Cena was the spectaculum Trimalchio. As most Neronian research is centred around the Emperor, most Satyrica research is centred around Petronius’ millionaire freedman. The parallels between the two are apparent from the start, first proposed by Boissier (1875) and as Rose admits, “too numerous to ignore.” For an excellent discussion about ‘how to read’ and the quest to understand what Petronius’ audience made of his allusions see N. W. Slater, Reading Petronius (1990) pp.3-4. Even though Trimalchio’s actions in the Satyrica are entirely preserved, the absence of the rest of the novel makes it impossible to fully comprehend the purpose of the Cena. However, it should be stated that this essay title is essentially a subjective one, and my own approach must come from my own ‘first reading’ of the Satyrica; that in Trimalchio there are numerous parodies of the Emperor. This will therefore be my starting point; examining the similarities between Tacitus and Suetonius’ Nero and Petronius’ Trimalchio, countered by the scholarship that suggests this was not the author’s intention.

The scene is set for us with Encolpius the hero, Agamemnon, Ascyltus and Giton outside the house of Trimalchio (Book 15 Chapter 26). Immediately we are informed that their host is “… terribly elegant. He has a clock in the dinning room and a trumpeter all dressed up to tell how much longer he’s got to live.” This is a man with plenty of servants. Dressing to impress is clearly important, and like Nero, there is an interest in water clocks. Although Trimalchio is only a wealthy freedman, everything about his world seems to aim higher. He urinates into a silver bottle and dries his hand on the hair of one of the “long-haired boys.” The board game latrunculi is played with gold and silver pieces. The house clearly commands the greatest luxuries available, and one cannot help think of an imperial palace. Trimalchio has himself covered in perfume. Spilt silver is swept along with the other rubbish on the floor. Is this staged? As Encolpius makes no comment, judgement is saved for the audience, and the obvious reaction is shock at the extravagance and waste of Trimalchio’s house. There is so much wealth in fact that our author gives up detailing everything that was going on: “It would take too long to pick out isolated incidents.” So the heroes have gained access to a rich man’s banquet. There is a suggestion of imperial levels of indulgence, but not enough yet to call it parody. This comes next as Trimalchio begins to speak, and his carefully choreographed evening gets under way.

During an argument, three of Trimalchio’s masseurs spill wine on the floor. The pretensions of the man are astounding as he declares that his slaves are ‘drinking to his health,’ like to a god. Seneca praised Nero as an Apollo, and the new Emperor had probably quite enjoyed it. Trimalchio announces that he has denied himself “of all my little pleasures for you. However, you will allow me to finish my game.” Nero was notorious for these ‘little pleasures;’ Seneca and Burrus had an entire enclosure built just so Nero could ride chariots, away from disapproving eyes. As Trimalchio is (unnecessarily) carried around his house in a litter, a musician “whispered a tune in his ear the whole way.” This ancient attempt at personal headphones is stunningly opulent. Trimalchio wishes to enjoy his music alone, not even sharing it with his guests. Singing is the music provided for the guests, leaving Encolpius to describe the start of the banquet as “more like a musical comedy than a respectable dinner party.” What is the influence here? Is this a comment on a Neronian banquet full of singing slaves? Perhaps it is a more subtle reference to Nero himself, think of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis?

Trimalchio may exhibit some signs of imperial nobility, and even Nero’s personality but the similarities go further still. There is the repeated suggestion that the Cena, like Rome, is self-sufficient. A sign threatens slaves with one hundred lashes if they go wondering without their master’s permission. One would expect every slave in the household to be well aware of such a rule, suggesting the sign in there for effect, more of Trimalchio’s showing off. All the food comes from his own farms. He dreams of owning Siciliy, allowing him to travel across continents without leaving his own estate. Could we read here a criticism of Nero’s plan to cut “a canal which would allow ships to sail straight to Rome,”? Another sign announces that the master will only be absent two days of the year, such a good host he is. All these features could suggest someone like an Emperor, whose lands are so vast and resources so plentiful that they are sustained by the whole world. Nero only planned two trips away from Italy. The reading of Trimalchio’s assets makes his vast property seem like a minature Rome, parodying the senate’s acta diurna. Trimalchio’s genius (53, 75) suggests the Imperial cult. Might sevir in absentia refer to Nero’s absence during his consulship? Nero’s first beard was put in a gold box and dedicated to Capitoline Jupiter. Likewise, Trimalchio keeps his first beard in a golden casket. Starr has argued that in owning three libraries, Trimalchio was making a claim to imperial status.

Both men are cruel. Trimalchio repeatedly threatens his slaves with violence. In the inevitable executions that came with regime change, Nero regretted the death of Narcissus, whose “greed and extravagance harmonized admirably with his own latent vices.” Tigellinus rose to power “because Nero found his unending immoralities and evil reputation fascinating.” The freedmen actually discuss the sorry state of Rome, but only when Trimalchio is away, “nos liberatum sine tyranno nacti coepimus.”

So begins the procession of the food. The themes of Trimalchio’s menu are deception and metamorphoses. Encolpius is afraid (or joking) that an egg he receives may have already formed a bird inside. In fact, a wooden chicken has ‘laid’ eggs made of pastry, containing a bird seasoned in yolk and pepper. Other treats include a pig full of live birds, a goose and fish all made from pork, and fruit full of saffron. The criticism of Petronius is perhaps most obvious in the food brought to the guests. Not only is a ridiculous amount of time and energy wasted on these deceptions, they are also inherently unnatural, surely a reference to real Roman banquets. Nero’s celebrated his evening with such enthusiasm that his friends were leaned on to play host: one organised an expensive mitellita (turban party), another spent a vast sum on a rose dinner.

The menu is not the only thing that has become confused. Trimalchio’s appearance is a complete mess of Rome’s social dress code. With the hair of a slave, gold of a knight and purple of a senator, the host’s bizarre attire is applauded. How could we see Nero in this costume? The Emperor enjoyed dressing as a slave and causing mayhem in the streets of Rome. He fell for Acte the slave. However it is more likely that, like the food, this is Petronius’ expression of the warped customs prominent in his time and in particular, the loss of class distinction.

From an early age, Nero was interested in “carving, painting, singing, and riding… Sometimes he wrote verses…” Could we infer from Tacitus that Nero had not the classical education of a Roman nobleman, and had filled his head with alternative subjects? Seneca advised the young Nero against studying philosophy - his dominant characteristic was “his thirst for popularity.” Is this the reasoning behind Trimalchio’s repeated blunders of reference? The presentation of Opimian Wine, his knowledge of Homer, astrology, Corinthian silver and Cicero, all suggest Trimalchio is desperate to impress, but doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about. Nero was awarded some of the most extravagant triumphs Rome had ever seen, when he patently had done nothing to receive such adulation. This is arguably parodied by Trimalchio’s gawping freedmen. Perhaps suggesting his corrupting influence, even Encolpius joins in: “We greeted this witticism and several more like it with the greatest enthusiasm.” Compare this with the Augustiani, who “maintained a din of applause day and night, showering the divine epithets on Nero’s beauty and voice.”

In the painting of a dog, Trimalchio’s appearance, the food and many other examples, “the novel shows an author conscious of the unnaturalness of contemporary life,” writes Courtney. The presence of architecture in the Cena is striking. Like dei ex machinis, Trimalchio’s ceiling shakes with a contraption which sounds similar to the ‘ceiling fruit’ in Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future II. Is this inspired by Nero’s Golden House and the notorious comment “Good, now I can at least begin to live like a human being!”? Another direct attack on Nero may be hidden in the Zodiac dish. Nero had an interest in astrology, and Baldwin has proposed that there is a pun on Locusta, the celebrated poisoner of Nero’s time (Tacitus Ann.,12.66 and Suetonius Nero, 33.47) and perhaps the murderer of Claudius and Britannicus. Potentially we have many references to the dissimulatio of Nero’s reign in the Cena. It is a world of contamination: Greece in Rome; class distortion; the chef invited to join the feast death in life. The stories told by the diners involve powers that turn the normal world upside down. Is this a reference to the effect Nero’s personal tastes had had on Roman culture? After all, this was an Emperor who wanted to turn seruam into uxorem, and performed Canace in Childbirth.

Tacitus states that “Agrippina displayed feminine rage at having an ex-slave as her rival and a servant-girl as her daughter-in-law, and so on.” Poppaea was equally persuasive of Nero. Can we relate this to Trimalchio’s wife, Fortunata? A former seruam, she now believes she has control over a wealthy husband. Their domestic argument may be a reflection on the attempts by women to ‘rein in’ a man who believed he could do whatever he liked. Trimalchio gropes his slave, and one thinks immediately of Sporus and Acte, and a Nero “dispatched” by his freedman Doryphorus. It is wise to be cautious however. There is nothing extraordinary in the relationship between Trimalchio and his wife, and is more likely a comic reflection on rich men’s wives.

The most exciting parallels between Trimalchio and Nero can be made from the final scenes of the Cena. Trimalchio looses control over his delusions of grandeur, and soon a mock funeral begins Trimalchio’s ‘apotheosis,’ another imperial reference. There has been the skeleton puppet, and the whole scene becomes a ‘dance of the damned,’ the motifs of death keep appearing until it eventually takes over. Trimalchio has tried to control everything around him, culminating in the guests weeping at his ‘death.’ He cannot control everything however, as a cock crows, announcing real death. Despite Trimalchio’s orders to repay the threat in kind, the portent comes true as the Cena ends in chaos as a fire brigade storm in. Fires were frequent in Rome, but is this the Fire of 64? It could be a reference to Nero’s staging of the play The Fire. Trimalchio’s miniature Rome collapses around him, and it is certainly his fault. Encolpius has to ‘escape’ the fire. R. M. Newton has made an excellent assessment of the Nero’s influence on the Cena’s descent into the underworld. The parallels between Trimalchio and Nero at the end of the Cena are the least obvious, and so perhaps here Petronius is his most critical of the imperial household. Trimalchio suffers the consequences of his gross behaviour as “his tragedy becomes farce through a surfeit of ‘reality,’” completing the joke that “He got what was coming to him.” Surely many in Rome must have wondered when this would happen to Nero.

Finding such a well-constructed parody of a Roman Emperor is perhaps wishful thinking by the historian. Because our records of the period are focused on individuals, it is easy to imagine that those we do know about were all personally and socially connected. In fact, Rome was a city of millions, and Trimalchio could be nothing more than the author’s expression of bad taste and misguided culture; in G. Highet’s words “a ‘monumental expose’ of the revolting and ludicrous aspects of bad manners.” There are certainly plenty of sceptics. In the words of one, “I personally cannot believe that Trimalchio is in any way intended to suggest to the reader a sustained caricature of the emperor.” A usual objection is that, if parodying Nero, the Satyrica would hardly have been appropriate for a court performance. How could one of Nero’s court so publicly criticise their lord? The fourteen year old Britannicus had composed and sang a poem at an imperial Saturnalia banquet, “implying his displacement from his father’s home and throne.” So it was not impossible, but it was probably fatal. Regardless, a sustained portrait of Nero would probably not have suited the model of the Cena. Nothing is consistent in the Cena and this was undoubtedly Petronius’ intention.

Does Trimalchio parody anyone else then we may ask. There is no shortage of candidates; Plato’s Symposium and Horace’s Nasidienus probably provide the literary foundations for Petronius’ dinner scene. Perhaps Trimalchio was comical for hopelessly emulating the imperial family, like a working class celebrity pretending to be the Queen of England. If the composition was read at his court, Nero may well have been complimented by the vein attempts of a foreign freedman to be Emperor-like. Rather than influenced by Nero, Trimalchio might be based on some hopeless country-nobleman, hounded out of Rome for some faux pas. Trimalchio shares Augustus’ love for games, and Claudius’ eccentric attitude towards the bowels. Rose proposes that Trimalchio was inspired by Asiaticus, a freedman of Vitellius, but accepts that he probably based on any number of Petronius’ contemporaries. Petersmann (1986) proposed that the Cena is a reaction to Otho’s influence on Nero’s court. Galba and Domitian have also been candidates.

In a work of such size, it is no surprise that we find Petronius influenced by many things. The Emperor was not the only one worth mocking and perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. Maybe the work was a reaction to the tiresome and sober objections of the Stoics in Nero’s court. Their prevalence in Nero’s time is clear from the contents of the Satyrica; there are subtle references to Lucan, and Trimalchio’s ‘playing dead’ was inspired by Seneca, as was the model of Sabinus a millionaire freedman. As Courtney writes, the Cena was “the prime example of the Roman banquet at its ripest, the paradigmatic expression of a society possessed by its conviviorum furor which so outrages Seneca.”

It is also worth noting that there is much about Nero that does not feature in Trimalchio. Mother fixation, the construction of an artificial lake, horses, the treasure of Queen Dido, the massacre of the nobility, sacrifices to a girl’s statuette and so on. An Emperor like Nero was ripe for parody and arguably Petronius was spoilt for choice. Perhaps therefore the most appropriate question is to ask how prominent Nero was in the household, the slaves, the wife and the dinner of Trimalchio, compared with the other obvious influences. Homer, Plato, Virgil, Horace, Lucan; Augustus, Claudius, Otho. They were all utilised by Petronius exceptionally or infrequently. The only consistent muse of the Cena Trimalchonis is Nero himself.
An incomplete portrait cannot override what is already there. As Slater puts it, “the significance is in the process of the Cena, not the result.” There are so many similarities between Trimalchio and Nero that could be examined. This suggests that at least some are innocent coincidences, only noticeable to the overactive historian. For example, as Nero emerges for the first time as Emperor, he is carried in a litter to the Praetorian Guards. Trimalchio is likewise carried to the dinner and his guests. Suetonius says as a boy Nero “gave an exceptionally good performance in the Troy games at the Circus.” This must have been his first exposure to the Roman people, and perhaps for a time that was what he was most famous for. The bungled performance of Homer in the Cena may contain subtle references to Nero’s own acting, or perhaps there is no comparison to be made. Tacitus records a legal dispute over the rights of patrons and ex-slaves. Should the puns about ‘liber pater’ and the boar wearing a freedman’s cap be read with this in mind?

The available information is unfortunately disproportionate. We know a great deal about Nero but not everything and we have the complete character of Trimalchio, but know nothing about the author. So there is a great deal of missing information on either side. This could mean that, had we all the facts, a comparison between Nero and Trimalchio is totally unfounded and coincidental. Perhaps more fancifully, the parody of Nero was the whole purpose of the Cena. From here one might ask if this was responsible for the Satyrica’s underachievement in the classic world as a classic text. The air of criticism and waste cannot be ignored in the Cena. Rather than settle for ‘amoral’ Petronius, Courtney argues that a deeper reading reveals “a coherent interpretation of contemporary life and society to which one can apply the epithet ‘moralistic.’” Our sources make it undeniable that the whims and tantrums of Nero were the most important powerful forces in Petronius’ world, including even the author’s death. So despite the counter-arguments, the Cena, with Trimalchio in charge must be a commentary on Rome with Nero in charge. It is perfectly possible that Petronius tell us much about Nero that Tacitus and Suetonius could not. Perhaps the Satyrica was part of the documents left by the arbiter elegantiae denouncing Nero in embarrassing detail. It is an amusing possibility, if unlikely. But it reminds us of the amazing fact that the Cena is the only complete episode, and at numerous occasions, points directly to Nero. Of course there is always coincidence. But some scholars believe that the Cena was meant to be this confusing. Zietlin states that “the uneasiness its ambiguity may create in the reader by baffling his expectations may well be a key to its meaning.” Slater praises Petronius with the highest literary proficiency: “This ‘wandering viewpoint’ or ‘shifting perspective’ is not simply to satirize particular interpretive figures and their results, but rather to destabilize the notion of interpretation itself. Thus the Cena becomes a radically self-consuming artefact.”

The biggest problem however must be in defining the work however. If it was a novel to be read individually, perhaps it was never read in Nero’s court. This would allow the harshest parody of Nero. If it was publicly performed or read aloud, denouncing the Emperor in such a way would have been suicidal. A synthesis of these possibilities is that, as most historians believe, Nero would have laughed at the foolish Trimalchio, but missed a deeper understanding of the work. If Trimalchio was meant as an obvious target of resentment, would Nero have made the connection to his own popular status? There is only so much we can propose from our sources, but it is a pleasing thought that maybe Petronius had written a far better account of Nero’s personality than anything Tacitus or Suetonius could have hoped to achieve. Alternatively, we are dealing with nothing more than different writers presenting different men. Perhaps there were many men in Rome like Trimalchio. The fact that Trimalchio was an artistic creation and Nero was written about long after his death reiterates that the historical value of Trimalchio is both beneficial and hazardous. However, Nero’s influence on the Cena and its host are so apparent that it is pointless to argue otherwise. Both men appear confident and powerful, yet are riddled with doubt and suspicion. “Pity them then,” writes Slater, “both made ridiculous by being too real.”

Primary Bibliography
• Petronius, Satyrica, trans. by Sullivan J. P., (London: Penguin, 1986)
• Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. by Graves R. (London: Penguin, 2003)
• Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. by Grant M. (London: Penguin, 1996)

Secondary Bibliography
• Anderson G., ‘Trimalchio at Sousa-on-Sea’ in The American Journal of Philology (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) pp.50-53
• Baldwin B., ‘A Note on Trimalchio's Zodiac Dish’ in The Classical Quarterly (The Classical Association, 1970) p.364
• Courtney E., A Companion to Petronius (Oxford University Press, 2001)
• MacKendrick P. L., ‘The Great Gatsby and Trimalchio’ in The Classical Journal (The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1950)
• Newton R. M., ‘Trimalchio's Hellish Bath’ in The Classical Journal (The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1982) pp.315-319
• Schmeling G., ‘Trimalchio's Menu and Wine List’ in Classical Philology (The University of Chicago Press, 1970) pp.248-251
• Slater N. W., Reading Petronius (John Hopkins University Press, 1990)
• Starr R. J., ‘Trimalchio’s Libraries’ in Hermes 115 (1987), pp.252-3
• Sullivan J. P., The Satyricon Of Petronius – A Literary Study (London: Faber and Faber, 1968)
• Rosati G., ‘Trimalchio on Stage’ in Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel, ed. by Harrison S. J. (Oxford University Press, 1999) pp.85-104
• Rose K. F. C., The Date And Author Of The Satyricon (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1971)
• Walsh P., The Roman Novel (Cambridge University Press, 1970)
• Zietlin F. I., ‘Petronius as Paradox: Anarchy and Artistic Integrity’ in Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel, pp.1-49