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The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Petronius
 
Bust of Nero

A contemporary of Seneca, Petronius (died AD 66) was very different to the philosopher, preferring to write about society in first century Rome and to satirize the pretensions of the newly-rich.

Although we know that Petronius was born to a noble, wealthy family, most of his early life remains a mystery. With such a background, he would have been expected to achieve high office.


Party animal

Instead, he preferred to party, belonging to a group of pleasure seekers whom Seneca described as "men who turn night into day". However, he was appointed to a number of official positions: he was governor of a province in Asia and, later on, served as consul – the highest position in Rome. In these posts, he showed himself to be energetic and up to the job.

But Petronius preferred to write about Roman society. He took particular pleasure in targeting the vulgar rich, particularly freedmen and women who, in his view, had made good money without gaining either taste or class.

Satyricon

In his famous comic novel, "Satyricon," Petronius mocks the lifestyles of these former slaves. In one famous scene – the Banquet of Trimalchio – a dinner party is given by Trimalchio, an incredibly rich but vulgar freedman.

Taking the part of a fictitious guest at this party, Petronius savagely mocks the pretensions and ignorance of Trimalchio and his friends, who try so hard to be more Roman than the Romans themselves, but keep on getting it wrong.

Director of elegance

The novel delighted the status-conscious Romans, who could easily recognize the sorts of people Petronius ridiculed. Having also served as consul of Rome, Petronius was a well-known figure around court and the Emperor Nero invited him into his closest circle of advisors. He acted as 'director of elegance', or arbiter elegantiae, where he had the last word on matters of taste and style.

However, this friendship made other courtiers very jealous. In 66 AD, the commander of the Praetorian Guard accused Petronius of being involved in a plot to assassinate Nero. Petronius was arrested.

An unusual death


Rather than wait for his trial and inevitable execution, Petronius dealt with the matter himself. After writing a letter to Nero that detailed the emperor’s orgies and affairs, he slashed open his veins.

He then bandaged them to prolong his life and spent his last few hours as he would any other day – talking to friends, listening to music and dealing with his slaves. Later on, he hosted a luxurious banquet of his own, slowly bleeding to death over dinner. Finally, Tacitus writes that he went to bed to die in his sleep, "so that his death, though forced upon him, should seem natural."


Where to next:
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – Slaves and Freedmen
Life in Roman Times – Home Life


Virtual Library: Read an excerpt from Petronius.

Slave          



 
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The Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire - In The First Century