Petronius, Satyricon

LCL 15: 4-5

Go To Section
Go To Section


or something calculated to win admiration for his courage . . . so that his death, though forced on him, should appear natural”). Much of our understanding of Petronius the person rests on Tacitus’ depiction of his character and suicide, one of the most famous in history owing to the power of Tacitus’ rhetoric, whose mastery of which we must always treat with caution, lest we take all that he says for fact and nothing for fiction. He notes that in Nero’s court Petronius held some sort of nonofficial post of elegantiae arbiter, and this title Arbiter sticks to Petronius as if it were a cognomen, whereas it is surely a sobriquet.

The tria nomina of Petronius are in doubt: Tacitus refers to him as Gaius Petronius, Pliny the Elder (NH 37.20) and Plutarch (Quomodo adulator, Mor. 60e) as Titus. If we grant that the Petronius of Tacitus wrote, but did not necessarily finish, the Satyrica by 66, and that he was proconsul in Bithynia (Ann. 16.18) in 60–61 (or 61–62) and then consul suffectus in Rome in 62 (mox consul), scholars have found a likely candidate in Titus Petronius Niger: so Sullivan1 (32), Walsh1 (244), Bodel1, Rose5 (47–55), the last of whom also notes that a Publius Petronius listed in the Fasti Consulares was condemned under Nero. Recent evidence from Ephesus (Eck, 227) dating to July 62 spells out a name in Greek, Publius Petronius Niger; for an agnostic view of the praenomen and the date of the Satyrica, see Völker–Rohmann. Both Pliny the Elder and Plutarch comment on the strained relationship between Nero and his Arbiter.

The dating of Titus Petronius Niger to consul suffectus in 62 and of his suicide about 66 is almost universally accepted. What is not so readily accepted and cannot be proved beyond a shadow of doubt is that this Neronian



Petronius can be identified as the author of the Satyrica. Back in 1856 Beck1 had argued for an Augustan date for the Satyrica; in his earlier days Marmorale1 held the traditional view, but then Marmorale2 posited a date of composition in the late second century; Smith believed that the Satyrica belonged to the principate of Tiberius or Caligula; Martin held to a date in the Flavian period; Roth has now argued strongly for a date of 115, in the reign of Trajan.

Among the remaining ancient testimonia regarding Petronius, Marius Mercator, who died after 431 (Liber subnotationum in verba Juliani 4.1 [Migne 48, p. 126], and 5.1 [p. 133]) links Petronius to Martial in the use of obscene language. The sixth-century Byzantine writer Johannes Lydus (de Magistratibus 1.41) links Petronius to Juvenal and accuses both of lowering the standards of satire. But it is with Macrobius (Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius), writing after 431, that we obtain our first connection of the name Petronius (Arbiter, actually) to a work of fiction (In Somn. 1.2.8): argumenta fictis casibus amatorum referta, quibus vel multum se Arbiter exercuit vel Apuleium nonnumquam lusisse miramur (“plots packed with the fictitious adventures of people in love, a genre to which the Arbiter applied himself a good deal and with which to our surprise Apuleius sometimes trifled”). Of Macrobius’ precise knowledge of the contents of these argumenta we can be fairly certain, because he groups Petronius with Apuleius, the same comparison we make today. We assume that Macrobius is referring to the Satyrica and to the Metamorphoses, and that only by knowing Tacitus’ description of Petronius as arbiter and having read his fiction could he make these observations.

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.petronius-satyricon.2020