Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake,
And long since ready forth his maske to move . . .
Edmund Spenser, “Epithalamion”
It was Federico Fellini who first turned me on to Petronius the Arbiter, the Oscar Wilde of Nero’s reign, a witty hedonist famed for his exquisite taste. In fact, Petronius’s official function in Nero’s court was to determine what was tasteful (or not), hence his title arbiter elegantiarum, judge of elegance.
Scholars don’t know much about him. Here’s a snippet from Tacitus’s Annals copped from Wikipedia:
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.
Unfortunately, however, like so many in Nero’s circle, Petronius was tried and convicted of treason. Rather than waiting for the inevitable sentence, the Arbiter took matters into his own hands.
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.
At any rate, none of this would be of any interest if Petronius had not written the Satyricon, a fragmentary mishmash of verse and prose that satirizes Roman life in the first century BC. I actually wrote a paper on this picaresque “novel” in the spring semester of my senior year, but alas, like many sections of the Satyricon itself, that work of genius has been lost to the ages [cue sarcastic cough].
Click below, if you dare, to watch the trailer of Fellini’s Satyricon.
Although “Trimalchio’s Dinner” is the most famous section of the Satyricon (Fitzgerald at one point thought about entitling The Great Gatsby as Trimalchio in West Egg), my favorite section is the vignette “The Widow of Ephesus,” an oft-repeated tale that traditionally has been interpreted as an invective against the fickleness of women; however, in Petronius’s version, sophisticated readers might see it, to quote Douglas Galbi, as showing “the imperatives of the living trumping respect for the dead.”
In other words, reading it as “pro life” in the best sense of that phrase,
A widow renowned for her chastity goes apeshit after her husband dies, and with over-the-top historonics (exposing her breast and beating it, e.g), she follows his corpse’s funeral parade into an underground crypt.
There, attended by a “most loyal slave-woman,” the widow keens, gouges her face, and yanks out her tresses with the intention to starve herself so she can join her husband in Oblivionville.
Impervious to the pleadings of her parents and her loyal slave, for five days, without food or drink, the widow continues her frenzied mourning, out-Niobe-ing Niobe, “tearing her hair, plac[ing] the tresses on the corpse of her dead husband.”
Meanwhile, a soldier stationed to guard two crucified robbers hears the widow and abandons his post to see what’s going on. Once he’s hip to the scoop, he returns with food, which she refuses, but the slave woman “seduced by the odor of wine,” indulges, and once renourished, starts in on her mistress.
”What good will this do you, if you will have been undone by starvation? — if you will have buried yourself alive? — if you will have poured forth your life’s breath when you have not yet been condemned to die, before the fates demand it?”
As Margaret Atwood once noted, “Hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience,” and the widow gives in. Once she’s sated, the soldier starts cajoling her to ditch her chastity. Though we don’t get to hear his love talk, it must have been Barry-White-like and coming from the mouth of one sexy [insert noun from two-word Prince title that begins with “Sexy.”]
Click arrow below for an example of what I mean by “Barry-White-like”:
So they as my mother would put it, “shack up” in the sepulcher, he sneaking out now and then to procure food and presents.
During his frequent absences from his station, a relative snatches one of the crucified men and buries him. When the soldier notices the missing body, he knows he’s a goner, so he decides to dispatch himself before the judge’s sentence comes crashing down.
He informs the widow and asks “her only allot him a place, since he was doomed to die, and make the fatal tomb common to both her friend and her husband. “
Here’s the key passage:
The woman, who was no less merciful than chaste, [my italics] said, ”May the gods not allow that — that I should at the same time look upon the deaths of the two men most dear to me. I prefer to sacrifice the dead man rather than to kill the one who is alive.” In accordance with this pronouncement, she orders the corpse of her husband to be lifted out of its coffin and affixed to that cross which was empty. The soldier made use of the ingenious scheme of that most judicious woman, and the next day all the townspeople marveled at how the dead man had gone onto the cross.”
As Horace Walpole famously said, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy for those who think.” One equipped with a tragic vision might turn this story into a heartbreaker, the widow refusing to the very end, her gaunt body wild-eyed as she hallucinates tender scenes from her married life. However, there’s something deep down in every living thing that prompts it to live. Even if buried beneath the cement of a sidewalk, a weed will attempt to push its way through the cracks towards the sun.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Gerard Manly Hopkins, excerpt from “God’s Grandeur”
He’s guarding them so their relatives won’t remove the bodies to give them proper burial. Some scholars claim this alludes to Jesus’s crucifixion story, but if it does, then it doesn’t jive with Petronius’s dates.