Petronius, The Satyricon
Tacitus, Histories
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
Apuleius, The Golden Ass




Petronius, The Satyricon

He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement; by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and 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 governorships, and later when he held the office of Consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterward 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 (arbiter elegantiae) in connection with the science of luxurious living.

He excited the jealousy of Nero’s pathic, Tigellinus; an accusation followed, and Petronius committed suicide in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening his veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document that professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practiced. Just before his death he destroyed a valuable murrhine vase to prevent its falling into the Imperial hands.

Such is the portrait the Roman historian Tacitus gives of Gaius Petronius — one of the most startling candid miniatures in all history. Tradition has always said that this is the Petronius who wrote The Satyricon, the first and still the best picaresque novel. Tradition also has it that we possess only the fifteenth and sixteenth books and a few other fragments of the narrative. In addition, there are a handful of poems that customarily have been attributed to Petronius, although on no better ground than a haunting style unlike anything else in Latin literature. If The Satyricon holds its position as the finest tale of roguery in any language on the merits of only two out of a probable twenty-four books, what must the original have been?

Most likely it would have outranked Don Quixote as the greatest prose fiction of the Western World. There survive for us a few chaotic adventures in brothels and stews of Mediterranean ports which have changed little from that day to this, and a full-dress circus of vulgarity, a banquet given by the get-rich-quick freed slave Trimalchio.

Like The Iliad, The Aeneid, and the later Golden Ass of Apuleius (which may have been modeled on The Satyricon) but especially like The Odyssey, The Satyricon is an epic of a hero dogged and driven by the vengeful wrath of a god. In this case the god was Priapus, whose statue with its monstrous member stood guard over Greek and Roman gardens, marriage beds, and brothels.

Encolpius is a hero whose every advantage and opportunity is reduced to folly and shame by his impotence. At his moment of achievement the outraged god smites him in the part sacred to himself, as Poseidon smote Odysseus with the fury of the sea. Encolpius and his friends are all bohemians — unemployable, overeducated, miseducated members of the lumpen intelligentsia. They are the first of their kind in literature, but from Petronius’ day to this they will be the common characters of all picaresque romance. Kerouac’s On the Road differs vastly from The Satyricon in lack of insight, irony, and literary skill, but its characters are all drawn from the same unchanged class.

What most distinguishes The Satyricon is its extraordinary style, a style that is a conglomeration of every Greek and Roman style reduced to mockery and held together by that special quality which has led to the gathering of many minor poems and short fragments under the general attraction of the two surviving books. This quality is a melancholy like no other in literature. The Romans had a catch phrase — tristia post coitum: the sadness that follows sexual fulfillment.

As a living body is sustained and nourished by its bloodstream, the style of Petronius is suffused by a sense of indefinable sorrow which haunts and corrupts all possible achievement. The nostalgia of the gutter and the melancholy of grandeur flow together and wash away the very idea of accomplishment. Because The Satyricon rises above the classic definition of comedy as an eventful tale of the disasters and disgraces that beset vulgarians and fools, it engages us, the readers, in the same way in which we are personally involved in a tragic narrative. The Satyricon is all uproar, guffaws, rumpus, commotion, but behind its noise there is always present a long recurrent note — the ebb and flow of human irrelevance.

Although he was far from being a parvenu himself, Nero was the first Roman emperor to employ those guides to the culturally perplexed whom David Reisman calls ironically “engineers of taste.” The mentor of his youth was Seneca, the Stoic rhetorical philosopher, one of history’s outstanding hypocrites, whose sterile tragedies have never been equaled for bombast and falsity. Petronius, the adviser of Nero’s manhood, is a kind of anti-Seneca. He too is a master of all the flowers of rhetoric, but he knows they are paper flowers and he delights in showing them up by setting fire to them. Against Seneca’s pompous Stoic heroes, the perfect embodiment of melodramatic absurdity, the Epicurean Petronius deploys his farcical rogues, so like the Marx Brothers in a tragedy of the absurd. From Samuel Beckett to Charlie Chaplin, many people have attempted just such a comic answer to the ever-recurrent questions “Who am I?” “What can I believe?” “What can I do?” “What can I hope?” Petronius surpasses them all in the humor of his comedy and the cogency of his irony. Why? Probably because he was far more a man of the world than any such writer who has come after him.

Irony is a gift of experience, and only the most comprehensive experience can provide a truly solid foundation for irony that claims to be a diagnosis of being itself. The Existentialists can talk of ontological irony. The Satyricon as we have it, a hundred or so pages torn from the rubbish heap of five Mediterranean civilizations, embodies in action just such a judgment of the meaning and destiny of man. Its author realized his comic vision at its fullest in his own life, and seems to have written with the foreknowledge of his own end as it is told by Tacitus. Petronius, the most worldly-wise courtier of Nero, would of course have written with just such foreknowledge.



Tacitus, Histories

In the popular mind, the history of Imperial Rome consists of the scandalous biographies of Emperors at the center and the battles of military textbooks at the periphery, linked by marching and countermarching iron-shod legions building bridges and roads, and constantly revolting and hoisting one of their number aloft on their shields and onto the Imperial throne — rather without meaning as we understand history. The life and works of Tacitus are themselves a revelation of meaningful history in the first generations of the Empire. He was born in the onset of the collapse of the first principate, grew to maturity in the dark days of the reign of Domitian, wrote his greatest works under the benign Trajan, and probably lived on into the reign of Hadrian, the first Roman Emperor to achieve the omnipotence of the Hellenistic King of Kings, Basileos Soter, which the passionately philhellene Nero had so barbarously failed to even understand.

In Tacitus, Senatorial history reaches its anticlimax, for he is the propagandist of the caste that in Chinese affairs we call the scholar-gentry, which would never again, if the plot of the historical drama is the shifts and conquests and losses of real power, play a major role on the stage of Western history. After the Punic Wars, Roman Senators were hardly gentry. They certainly never were scholars. On the face of it, each book of Tacitus — The Germania, The Agricola, The History, and The Annals — is a party pamphlet; yet we believe them because of their unparalleled trenchancy. Succeeding ages assumed that his Histories suffered only from the commendable virtue of Republican party enthusiasm and took it for granted that the perverts and gangsters of Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars were figures of embittered, comic romance. Tacitus persuades us that Tiberius and Claudius must have been the sort he says they were.

Modern historians and the experience of a century more embittering than the first of the Christian era prove us wrong on both counts. Today we know that clowns and blood-drinking perverts climb to the summits of power, pushed on by the enthusiastic applause of the majority; nor is it now unbelievable that a Roman Emperor enjoyed being sodomized on the public stage. But the destructive policies of morose Tiberius, the sloth and foolery of Claudius, the lunacy of Nero are not substantiated by research.

In Tacitus’s day the economic, social, and political system against which his work is a polemic came to its full power. Devoted to the imaginary frosty virtues of the Republic of Livy, he lived to see the midsummer of Empire. He first appears as the prosecutor in the Senate of the crooked Proconsul Marius Priscus for “conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” In youth he visited Germany and married the daughter of Agricola, the Governor of Britain. In the first work attributed to him, he bemoans the decline of oratory and says flatly that the art of persuasion has passed from the halls of justice to the study of the historian. His life of his father-in-law is a celebration of an ideal Roman gentleman of the oldest school, a Cincinnatus reborn; his description of the heir-apparent Germanicus, the romance of a new aristocrat, stainless, decorative, and as politically ineffectual as Sir Philip Sydney.

Roman history as Tacitus knew it in his own time began with the last days of the struggle to reorganize the Republic, while preserving its ceremonial forms, into an imperial-palace system of the Mesopotamian-Egyptian-Chinese-Byzantine type. It was necessary to deprive the senators and all other Republican castes of every vestige of real power. Before Tacitus was born they had already lost all power; but he was to establish for posterity their oligarchic mysticism as it expressed itself in impotent resistance two generations after actual total defeat. The social role, the moral qualities, the political competence the Senate imagined it still might reclaim, Tacitus sculptures out of granite into an image for all time.

The real Roman oligarchy — the gentleman-farmers, scholar-statesmen, amateur but indomitable warriors of legend — in Tacitus’s day were precisely the new technocrats, proprietors of immense slave-operated estates, court poets, holders of imperial franchises. They were creatures of the court, eunuchs and freedmen, mostly highly cultivated Greeks and Levantines who had never heard of the right and wrong defined in the pages of aristocratic history and were beyond the good and evil of the heroes of oligarchic myth.

It is because Tacitus knew this bitter truth in his heart, although every word he wrote was devoted to countervailing it, that his is perhaps the most mordant style in the history of prose. It was as though he sensed that long legend of martyrdom working out in pitiful reality which lay ahead of him — Boethius defying Theodoric, Arnold of Brescia, Rienzi, Daniele Manin, Matteotti. So his prose gnaws and chews with a grimness unknown to Burke, Gibbon, and their French congeners, for these men believed that a European scholar-gentry, which in reality was to play so fleeting a role, would succeed and all the world would be united under the benevolent sway of enlightened Whigs and Girondins, brave and learned landlords.

In Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, and, above all, Tacitus, we willfully suspend disbelief and enjoy the ceremonial stateliness of the drama and, in Tacitus’s case, the grandeur of his malice, a style like a tray of dental instruments. So deeply is this style embedded in the narrative, in every inflection of perception and judgment, that even the most inept and donnish translators have never been able to erase it. We read it for its relentless bite. Tacitus’s images of two great Roman emperors are mirrors of contemporary figures who have created out of aristocratic republics the all-encompassing structures of the oriental palace systems, the imperial bureaucracies, of our own day. Tacitus too speaks against The Palace and for his Founding Fathers, although he certainly never met a contemporary Roman who bore the slightest resemblance to one, just like our own Jeffersonians.

In spite of disaster, Thucydides had the confidence of a man who could see no threat to his own kind on any horizon. Alexander and the constellations of perfumed and jeweled Ptolemys and Antigonids were rising slowly from the nadir of time and some day would dominate the Greek empyrean, but of this Thucydides never dreamed. His heroes, for all their folly and pride and covetousness, are like the self-determining personalities caught in the dooms of Sophoclean tragedy. The figures of Tacitus act out a melodrama in which powerless men are whirled through catastrophe by impersonal force. The mask that garbs such force, the Emperor as the embodiment of a dark, inscrutable Imperial will, can never be more than a figure of gruesome farce, like the Fu Manchus, Mad Scientists, and Master Bolsheviks of our own fictions; his opponents can never rise above the condition of marionettes of pathos. Neither can be fully fleshed as complete men, as heroes of a tragic history like Thucydides’s, because they can never generate their own motives. The sharpness of Tacitus’s bite makes it easy to forget that melodrama prevents him from being a writer of the first rank, from having a genuine political morality or philosophy. Many a disgusting old fraud in Roman literature managed to convince himself he was a Stoic. Even this was not permitted Tacitus. His personal life attitude must have been like that of one of the gloomier Existentialists of the present day — a clerkly individual who has discovered that his kind is no longer useful and who therefore has lost hope in the future, faith in natural process, and charity toward his fellows. Tacitus, writing in the Empire’s most halcyon season, could survey its human relationships and come only to the judgment: no exit.



Plutarch, Parallel Lives

It would be easy to write abusively about Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. They could be called “The Myth of the Ruling Class Dramatized,” “The Social Lie Personified.” More perhaps even than Plato, Plutarch is the founding father of the notion of a heroic elite. His great Greeks and Romans, with few exceptions, do not only seek power, they assume responsibility. As he compares them, from Romulus and Theseus to Mark Antony and Demetrius, he judges them always according to the degree to which they successfully assumed, as leaders, unlimited liability for the commoner men they led.

Although succeeding ages have believed Plutarch, it is doubtful indeed if human affairs are put together or if political morality functions as Plutarch conceived it, or even if nobility can be found at all amongst generals and politicians — Greek, Roman, Russian, American, or Chinese, then or now. Yet, like the Bible and Shakespeare, Parallel Lives is a desert-island book. Classical literature contains a good many greater works of art, and many truer pictures of the ways of men. But Plutarch never palls. He is always engaging, interesting, and above all else, to use a word that will provoke smiles today, elevating. Men as they are described in Homer’s Iliad are like the quarreling chiefs of a predatory war band. They are like the neurotics who destroy one another in Euripides. But they are not like the heroes of Plutarch. Some men may be noble — John Woolman or Martin Buber or Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King. Our common sense tells us that men who came out on top of political systems far more corrupt than those of Kansas City, Newark, Memphis, or Chicago in their heydays and at least as merciless as that of Moscow may have been heroic in a sense, but they were not noble by either Plutarch’s definition or ours. They were not great and good men as judged by Greek, Jewish or Christian standards. They were not by the standards of Plutarch’s Romanized Stoicism.

It has been said that Plutarch was simply a propagandist for the truculent Roman Senatorial caste and for their traditional ancestors, the Athenian partisans of the Spartan despotism. It could be said, too, that out of the legendary materials provided by Plutarch we still construct the legendary idols of our own rulers — Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower.

It doesn’t make Plutarch any the less absorbing. Nobody has ever been so foolish as to believe society would ever be ruled by the wise, the philosopher-statesmen of Plato’s Republic. We hope of the human social structure that somewhere — far away, long ago, or in ages to come — it may rise at its summit into regions of nobility. Society would not be better if its masters were like Plutarch’s heroes. It would certainly be more satisfying. This is the great secret. His characters may be bloodthirsty, lustful, treacherous, hut they are never trivial. They are always purposive. Plutarch’s is a world in which men do not live at random, as we learn in our hearts that, in fact, they do.

The Parallel Lives are lives of adults of the kind we all thought we would meet when we grew up, which we never did meet, and which we have ceased ever to expect to encounter. Or have we? Perhaps we always hope that we will meet nobility and responsibility walking together just around the corner. We can accept sin in our fellows and even learn to forgive it, but it is a bitter and endless chore. We never really learn to accept gratuitous meanness, least of all in our masters.

Plutarch compels us to believe of his characters that they are masterful because they are never mean. Although this is diametrically opposed to the facts, it is not a falsehood. It is the kind of truth that, like “The School of Athens,” the Jupiter Symphony, or the Saint Matthew Passion, provides life with meaning which it does not in the least deserve. It is obvious why Plutarch gave Shakespeare some of his greatest characters. They had similar life attitudes. Even Bottom is not mean. Coriolanus was an arrogant traitor. Mark Antony was a bloody demagogue infatuated with an aging nymphomaniac. There is nothing whatever trivial about them.

Plutarch’s book is a kind of antonym to Petronius’ Satyricon. Petronius knew power. His hands were on the levers of decision until they were cuffed away by the fasces of Nero’s lictors. His view of human motivation was dim and bawdy. Plutarch did not know power but only honors, and so he believed that the wielders of power were men of honor. I think he really believed it, as certainly many of the Stoic mythographers — Seneca, for instance — of Greek and Roman upper-class morality did not. He is nothing if not persuasive. There are few more convincing narrators in all literature.

We need to be persuaded. If we accept the fiction that society is put together this way, we are likely to find ourselves perpetually duped; but it is good for us to believe that even if we aren’t noble we can hope that we ourselves might possibly be so put back together. If we accept the testimony of experience with too much pessimism, we demean ourselves. Alas, that pessimism continually forces itself upon us and we need such reassurance as Plutarch provides. It may lead to role-playing — Roger Casement or his caricature, T.E. Lawrence, or our own tedious adulteries elevated to the barge of Cleopatra — but role-playing is better than nothing. In acting-out there is hope. In the words of Gabriel Marcel, “Without hope, nobility is impossible.”

* * *

No modern translations of Plutarch’s Lives compare with North’s Elizabethan version from which Shakespeare transcribed almost verbatim great sections of his Roman Plays. If North’s English is too strange for your taste, Dryden’s, in the plain but elevated style of the late seventeenth century, seems today much more like our own speech as well as more like Plutarch’s Greek. This is complete in the Modern Library Giant and is to be preferred to any of the many paperbacks of selections. Get the complete Parallel Lives. They are endlessly satisfying. Sooner or later you will read them all — and besides, you never know when you might find yourself on a desert island.



Apuleius, The Golden Ass

The accidents of the centuries have left us only two great prose fictions from classical antiquity. They are both in Latin. The much larger body of Greek Romance is definitely inferior, prolix and formularized. We have only fragments of The Satyricon of Petronius, but we have all of The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The complete Satyricon must have been one of the greatest novels ever written. The Golden Ass is a lesser production, but still a major work.

Apuleius has been called serene and genial, and rightly so. Pythagorean, Platonist, initiate mystic of Isis — he has none of Petronius’s secret agony, his melancholy of the rich and corrupt, and none of the Greek Lucian’s astringent and atrabilious cynicism. It was from Lucian that he took the story of a well‑bred but too curious and randy scholar turned into an ass while meddling with witchcraft.

Lucius, the hero of Apuleius’s novel, certainly has an abundance of comic and bawdy adventures before he regains his human shape. Ridiculous, horrible, lewd, gruesome — the episodes succeed one another at a dizzying pace; but they are all told with the most innocent humor, the most apparent desire to please. The Golden Ass is a remarkably good‑tempered book, far removed from the solemn or bitter comedy of most great comic writers. Neither Tristram Shandy nor Pickwick is so easily, so unselfconsciously narrated. If Apuleius is a typical representative, the paganism of the period following the collapse of belief in the official religion turns out not to suffer from the “Failure of nerve” and “schism in the soul” attributed to it by modern philosophers of history. Quite the contrary. Apuleius is a confident inhabitant of a homogeneous world. There is even less sense of spiritual disunity in his view of life than in a Chinese adventure-romance like The Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers. It is the Christian Saint Augustine, his fellow North African and contemporary, who is torn and distracted and frightened by the crisis of classical civilization. He writes of Apuleius with admiration and even something close to poorly concealed envy.

The plotting of the many adventures of Lucius the Ass may be simple. The prose is not. Petronius, like Ernest Hemingway in our time, made a rhetoric out of anti‑rhetoric. Apuleius blows up rhetoric until it explodes. His is one of the most extraordinary styles in all literature, comparable to the fantastic obscurities of medieval Irish, or the invented language of the Japanese erotic novelist Saikaku, or James Joyce’s Ulysses or even sometimes Finnegans Wake.

The Classicist taste of even the recent past found the prose of The Golden Ass barbarous, “full of affectation and meretricious ornament and that effort to say everything which prevents anything from being said well.” Only Walter Pater knew better, and the fifth and sixth chapters of Marius the Epicurean, which include a superlative if somewhat dreamy translation of the Cupid and Psyche episode, is the best appreciation of Apuleius’s style until recent times. Today, we who read Latin return far more often to the exuberance of Apuleius than to the carefully molded platitudes of Cicero. Apuleius ends his preface to the reader with the words “Read on, and enjoy yourself.” His book was written both to amuse the author in writing and to delight the reader.

Although the Greek romances which he imitated are devoid of characterization, and the plots are strings of the stock situations of serial melodrama, Apuleius, like Petronius, is a psychologist, a quick and accurate portrait painter gifted with that Roman sense of the uniqueness of the individual person which gives Roman portrait sculpture its unforgettable impact. There is actually very little description in The Golden Ass; yet in the straight narration of events, nights under the stars, robbers roistering in caves, slaves toiling at the millwheel, any number of witches and warlocks and monstrous mysteries all come to life and carry a conviction of reality. Apuleius gives the impression of a photographic fantasy. When we go back and read him over, we discover that this impression is due to the incisiveness of the narrative and not to a descriptive imagism.

The Golden Ass is not just literature of entertainment. Lucius lives in the body of a donkey from June to June, from roses to roses. Inserted early in his story, apparently gratuitously, as a tale told by an old woman to a captive beauty in a robbers’ cave, is the story of Cupid and Psyche, an ideal allegory of the soul redeemed by love. Many critics have been unable to account for its presence in the novel. It is not a gracious idyll intruded into a series of coarse and bawdy adventures. It is the distilled concentration of the meaning of the trials and redemption of Lucius, the man who spent a year as an ass. It is the idyllic microcosm of a comic macrocosm, like a pearl in an oyster, a crystalline lattice from which the roughhewn real world of Lucius’s metamorphosis is constructed.

The Magic Flute and The Tempest are stories of similar import and have been called thinly disguised occult rituals. Critics have denied that The Golden Ass is an allegory. What story of this kind is not? To the anagogic eye, any tale of man in the grip of vicissitude is a reenactment of the Great Mystery. Certainly Lucius the Ass goes through the Zodiacal houses of the Perils of the Soul and is about to play the role of the sacrificed king in an obscene and comic hierosgamos, a parody mystic marriage, when he is saved from all his trials in animal form, transformed into a better man, and devoted to Isis, the queen of heaven.

Even though his hero is saved, Apuleins cannot quite stop his good‑humored mockery. There is the subtlest irony in his description of the way the priests mulct Lucius of all his money in one expensive initiation after another: with the result that after he has become an impoverished devotee of Isis of the third degree, he then forms such profitable connections that he ends up richer than before — not at all unlike a modern businessman or lawyer member of a fraternal organization. Irony or no, the final chapters of the book are the purest expression of Late Classical ritual mysticism — more moving, more illuminated than Plutarch’s essay on the cult of Isis. Over the page of Apuleius lies the radiance of his own deep, unbreakable happiness, and his metamorphosed donkey on his comic pilgrimage shares with Christian of The Pilgrim’s Progress the abiding sense of joy of the saved.

The most famous English translation is by William Adlington, one of the finest examples of Elizabethan prose. This is the version, with many mistakes corrected, in the Loeb Classical Library. Robert Graves did a translation for Penguin Books which abandons the aureate Latinity of Apuleius for a dry, sharp, plain style, which is, however, itself a small masterpiece of twentieth‑century prose.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

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