Caius Petronius was a notorious dandy-figure in Nero’s court. Pronounced “arbiter of elegance” by the emperor himself, he acted as the yardstick for all matters of courtly taste. However in his writing Petronius took a double-edged attitude to upper class revelry, indulging in razor-sharp satire and farce. His satirical-erotic fragmentary work the Satyricon – soon to be published in a new translation by Andrew Brown for Oneworld Classics – gives the reader a rare chance to confront Roman life face to face, in all its fragrant, flatulent reality. The Satyricon depicts all strata of society, from the hustle-bustle of seedy small town life to the sumptuous (equally seedy) excesses of the Roman court. The protagonist Encolpius and his beautiful boy-lover Giton enjoy rambunctious adventures of mock-heroic derring-do, punctuated by sexual liaisons that would make John Wilmot blush; along the way they are assaulted by drag queens, get lost in brothels, and attend sumptuous feasts. The work is never silent, its soundtrack brimful with cacophonic eruptions of flatulence, boisterous lewd banter, street noise and squeals of delight or pain.
Unprecedented in its fidelity to the tone and texture of Petronius’s original, Andrew Brown’s translation conveys the energized colloquial chatter, and untiring bawdiness of the original. Brown uses a blend of modern colloquialism and dirty slang, patchworked with turns of phrase from French, Spanish and Italian to mimic Petronius’s own freestylings. He manages to retain the rough-and-ready nature of the original, whilst preserving its fluid free flow between prose and poetry, replicating its myriad of tones, voices, dialects, languages and accents.
Masterfully rendered by Andrew Brown, the most striking scene in the Satyricon is the description of a lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a wealthy patron of the arts. Here, Petronius displays his ability to move effortlessly between biting satire on courtly pursuits and reverence for displays of lavish aestheticism. Course after course of fantastic culinary excess is interspersed with anecdotes told by the diners – tales of sexual seduction and werewolves – and recitals of hilariously appalling verse. The scene is fascinating for its surreal comedy and beauty. Cooked animals are dressed as soldiers, cakes and fruit spurt saffron at the guests, tarts are drowned in honey, a chef appears who apparently can make fish from sow and chicken from pork, a hare is decorated with wings to look like a Pegasus, a flock of thrushes fly from the belly of a roasted boar…
These moments of courtly entertainment rise above mere satire, and the dazzling descriptions are truly captivating.