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The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence: Emperors of Debauchery

Author: Geoffrey Farrington

Translator: Brian Murdoch   Cover illustration: Gustave Moreau  

From the Annals of Tacitus

XVI,18-20: The Death of Petronius Arbiter (The author of The Satyricon)

Petronius merits a few words to recall what he was like. He spent his days in sleep and his nights in official and social activities. Where others make it through hard work, Petronius got famous by being idle, but he was not thought of as a wastrel or as a dissolute, the way other layabouts are, but rather as a specialist in extravagant behaviour. His words and deeds were so unselfconsciously abandoned that they were freely accepted as 'refreshingly uncomplicated.' However, when he was proconsul and then consul at Bithynia in Asia Minor, he showed himself to be energetic, and well up to the job. But then he turned to a life of studied luxury - at least apparently so - and was admitted into Nero's close circle of intimates as his fashion consultant, his 'Arbiter of Elegance,' after which Nero pronounced nothing charming or fashionable unless it had Petronius' seal of approval. As a result, Tigellinus became envious of him, having found in him a rival who was more skilled in the arts of hedonism than he was. So Tigellinus exploited the emperor's cruel streak (which was Nero's predominant vice), and denounced Petronius on the grounds of his friendship with Scaevinus, bribing one of his slaves to turn informer, making sure no defence was possible, and arranging that most of Petronius' people were placed under arrest.
At the time Nero happened to be in the Campagna, and Petronius himself had reached Cumae before he was arrested. He refused to have anything to do with the hopes and fears associated with waiting. He cut his veins, but, as and when he felt like it he had them bound up or opened again; meanwhile he chatted with his friends, not on serious matters, or so that he would be famous for his great fortitude. He listened, not to expositions of the immortal soul or of the theory of knowledge, but to jolly songs and light verse. He gave some slaves presents and had a few of them whipped. He came to dinner and sat there in his half-dozing state, so that death (although it was forced on him) might look natural. In his will, too, he refused to behave like most similar compulsory suicides, and made no flattering noises about Nero, or Tigellinus, or some other important person. No, he wrote down all the emperor's vices, with the names of the dubious men or women that he had been to bed with, and went on to describe all aspects of the emperor's sexual inventiveness. He sealed the document and sent it to Nero, then broke his signet-ring so that no one else could use it to endanger other people.
Nero wondered how details of his more original bedtime activities had got out, and he thought of Silia, who was a senator's wife, and therefore not unimportant. She had partnered him in all his lustful goings-on, and she was, moreover, a close friend of Petronius. For failing to keep quiet about what she had seen and done, she was exiled.


RRP: £8.99

No. of pages: 240

Publication date: 23.05.1994

Re-print date: 01.01.2016

ISBN numbers:
Paperback 1 873982 16 X

Compilation and World English Translation Rights