[Ed. note: In case you missed our totally hilarious and charming introduction to MAN, I FEEL LIKE A WOMAN: Dude Week that was posted yesterday, this here is our first installment by JAF’s pal PF. Enjoy, buttons! And look forward to THREE MORE dudeposts this week!]
Premised on the notion that the pleasures of the flesh are corrosive and ultimately fatal, the concept of “decadence” imbues sex, drugs and even certain types of violence with an intoxicating gothic aura they would otherwise lack. Puritan scolds, whether Victorian or Leninist, have been unwise to use this most attractive of words as a slur. Indeed, there is no better way to make something irresistible than to insist that it is evil, sinful, or wrong; better yet, that it is in fact the first step on the path of a slow, majestic decline. For when we embrace decadence, we stare death in face and laugh, and who but the most timid does not wish to mock death, and confront that most cosmic of outrages with transcendental ambivalence?
At least Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the subject of this post, seems to have felt this way. He was the most fabulous member of the imperial court of Nero, and the story of how he lived while Rome literally burned makes the Rolling Stones look, in the words of Charlie Sheen, like “droopy eyed armless children.” If there is heroism in indulgence, and for the purposes of this blog post there is, then Petronius is like the Superman of dandies, a man who gleefully celebrated the vanity of an age that was bringing civilization to the brink of collapse. Or no, Superman wouldn’t do that, he is a clean living dork. Petronius is more like Iron Man, or…this is a more difficult metaphor than I expected. He is probably Aquaman because of his (presumable) enthusiasm for skin-tight, sequined outfits.
Not much is known of Petronius’s early life among the writers of his Wikipedia entry. From Tacitus, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder we learn that Petronius was the elegantiae arbiter, or arbiter of elegance in the court of Nero, the infamous last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Basically, this means that he was Nero’s foremost fashion adviser and party planner. As a lifelong member of the 1%, Petronius lived a life totally devoted to debauched fabulosity, and in this regard he was second to none. Like Dorian Gray, the name of Petronius was known throughout Rome as a synonym for the relentless pursuit of hedonistic excess. Tacitus describes him best:
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 in connection with the science of luxurious living.
When I die, I can only hope that someone describes me as an “accomplished voluptuary” or a man of “vicious indulgence,” but I think my tombstone is more likely to read something much less glamorous, like “Guest Blogger.”
Today, Petronius is probably best known for writing the Satyricon, a work that captures the world in which he lived in all its decadent glory. While officially a satire, Satyricon is not a (lame, boring) condemnation of a ‘corrupt’ or ‘fallen’ world but rather a humorous, amoral presentation of a specific time and place that makes no claim to moral authority. In this it is like Seinfeld. If Petronius condemns anything in this sprawling work, it is the bad taste of the nouveau rich. For him, an ugly dress is much less forgivable than, say, his employer’s decision to burn down half of Rome to make way for an enormous palace. The most famous character in Satyricon is a guy named Trimalchio, a self-made millionaire (n.b. I didn’t know this was possible in Ancient Rome) who is famous for throwing dinner parties that feature elaborate, impractical dishes, most of which involve live birds. One chapter finds an impatient Trimalchio hosting the elaborate funeral he planned for himself prematurely — as in, before his death — with his party guests performing all the necessary rites for the purpose of his own entertainment. (Remember what I said earlier about decadence being the ability to laugh in the face of death? No? That’s fine, don’t worry about it. Sorry I brought it up again.)
Trimalchio’s dinner is not the only notable part of Satyricon. Much like college, this book involves SEX in addition to roasted pigs stuffed with live birds. In a memorable section, the protagonist Encolpios and some of his ‘homies’ — to borrow the terminology used in the most recent translation — are kidnapped and sexually ‘tortured’ by a foxy lady named Quartilla and her maidservants after they are caught prying into the secrets of an ancient cult, or something. (n.b. I have never actually read this book.) Anyway, the torture quickly evolves into something more consensual, and the chapter ends with Encolpios making out with Quartilla as both of them spy on Encolpios’s friend through a keyhole as he ‘plows’ a ‘virgin’ ‘field.’ (This is a metaphor)
As with most things, though, the truth about Petronius is even CRAZIER than the fiction he wrote, and the story of the last days of his life is more glamorous than that of any heroin addicted rock star. Like all wealthy, important, and fashionable men, Petronius eventually attracted his share of haters. This problem was magnified by Petronius’s refusal to flatter his superiors, as his penchant for candidness earned him many powerful enemies. One of these, a guy named Tigellinus who served as commander of the emperor’s guard and probably hated fun, was somehow able to successfully accuse Petronius of treason. Rather than sit around waiting to be executed, Petronius decided to take matters into his own hands and, at a lavish party surrounded by his friends, committed the most elegant, non-melodramatic suicide in history. Again I return to Tacitus for an authoritative description of this most fabulous of deaths:
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.
I don’t quite understand how flogging servants fits into this scene, or why “many” would choose to flatter their bosses “in their last moments” as Tacitus suggests, but otherwise this is an extremely memorable and, dare I say, beautiful passage. Like Steve Irwin, Petronius died as he lived, in his case on a velvet divan engaged in idle and catty gossip about the leaders of Rome. In my personal image of the scene, a naked young man is feeding him grapes. Also, in my mind, Petronius looks exactly like Sir Elton John.
After the death of his arbiter of elegance, Nero was absolutely lost. Try as he did, he was never again able to pick out jewelry that was both seasonally appropriate and flattered his complexion and eye color. This caused him to go mad, and the last three years of his reign were marked by the irrational, self-destructive, and tyrannical behavior he is known for today. Satyricon, on the other hand, has grown in reputation since the author’s death. Now considered one of the most innovative and original works of Latin prose, it continues to be read and studied. In 1969, Federico Fellini made a film version of Satyricon that is supposed to be a classic or whatever.