Writer from the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Author of the Satyricon. Also a governor and a consul. The only knowledge of him extant today comes from the Annals of Tacitus, who wrote, "Others achieve fame by energy, Petronius by laziness."

Tacitus, Annales 16.18-19:

18. In the case of C. Petronius, little is beyond reproach. For he spent his days sleeping, and his nights in pursuit of the pleasures of life; where others gained their success with diligence, he gained his with idleness, and wasn't held to be a common glutton and debauchee like many who destroy themselves, but one with a carefully practiced elegance. And however much his words and actions seemed to freely flaunt a certain carelessness, so much agreeably were they accepted as a kind of simplicity. Nevertheless, he was appointed proconsul of Bithynia, and scarcely made consul proved himself successful and more than equal to his duties. But returning to his vices, or the semblance of vices, he was accepted in the Nero's inner circle, as the arbiter of elegance, until Nero approved of nothing charming or in fashion unless it was something Petronius had recommended to him. This was the ultimate cause of the envy of Tigellinus, who turned him into a rival because of his superiority in the art of pleasure. And so he played upon the barbarity of Nero, who was given to certain excesses, charging Petronius with sympathy towards a certain Scaevinus, with a slave of his bribed to give evidence, and no chance to defend himself against the charges, the greater part of his household was taken away in chains.

19. It just so happened that at this time Caesar was on his was to Campania, and Petronius, following after, finally caught up with him at Cumae; but he achived nothing but a delay of the resolution of his anxieties or hope. But he didn't just rush into his death, but cut his veins and, as it pleased him, had them bound up again and began to converse with his friends, though not about serious matters or how he might attain stoic self-control. He refused to listen to anybody telling him about the immortality of the soul or the philosophical freedom of the wise, but light lyrics and baudy verses. And he rewarded some of his servants with beatings, others with fabulous cash prizes. And he enjoyed his feast and took a nap, and so died with the same casual air with which he lived. Nor did he flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any of the other people in power with a dedicated little work, like most of those dying, but recorded the disgraces of the emperor under the names of his male and female lovers and his sexual perversion, and sent a signed copy to Nero himself. Then he broke his signet ring, so that it couldn't be used to sign forgeries after his death.

Petronius, referred to sometimes under the dubiously assigned, fuller name, T. Petronius Arbiter, is the name given to the author of the most peculiar and original work of the ancient world, the Satyricon; that work is better described under its own entry. The work does, however, according to a dating based on internal characteristics, belong to the latter half of the 1st century of this era, corresponding to the dates of the reign of Nero (AD 54-68). Based on this, and the correspondence between the depictions and ideals of the Satiricon and the life of luxury and excess described by Tacitus, the Petronius Arbiter of Tacitus has been commonly equated with the author Petronius. While this is by no means universally accepted, and attempts to see the last, scathing work sent from his death bed to Nero in the Satyricon are, to say the least, laughable, the comparison seems quite justified. If we then accept that Tacitus describes our author, we have a truly unique portrait of the man to complement our reading.

A few notes on the text. Tigellinus is Ofonius Tigellinus, Nero's right-hand man and captain of the guards; for those I, Claudius fans out there, his position is comparable to that of Sejanus under Tiberius. Bithynia is a territory and Roman province in Asia Minor, the same to which Catullus had been assigned more than a century before. For Tacitus, of course, the story is not simply a eulogy to the oddities of Petronius, but an example of Tigellinus' abuse of power (three other senators were apparently charged at the same time) and the horrible tyranny which Rome endured under Nero.

A quick bibliography:

  • The standard Latin edition is that of K. Müller, 3rd edition printed in 1978. There is an excellent English translation by J.P. Sullivan, first printed in 1967.
  • Slater, N.W. Reading Petronius, attempts to interpret Petronius and the Satyricon under the influence of modern literary theory on the novel, as well as within the context of the Neronian age, but serves also as an excellent introduction to Petronius.

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