Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Satyricon by Petronius

I suppose it would be nice to say that this week’s choice was the product of a Classical education, but the prosaic truth is that I picked up The Satyricon after references to Trimalchio in The Great Gatsby (q.v.) and thought it would worth investigating further.

A quick précis of the plot: Encolpius, a former gladiator is travelling with Ascyltos, a former lover, and Giton, Ascyltos’s slave, whom Encolpius has a crush on. Their journey takes them through various ribald adventures, including the famous Cena Trimalchionis (Diner at Trimalchio’s). Trimalchio himself is a freedman now immensely rich. The epitome of crass wealth and moneyed vulgarity, he holds spectacular dinners, serving extravagant food and (allegedly) expensive wines:

At that moment glass winejars, carefully sealed with gypsum, were brought in. On their necks were fastened labels, with the inscription: ‘Farlernian wine of Opimian vintage. One hundred years old.’ As we scrutinized the labels, Trimalchio clapped his hands exclaimed: “So wine, sad to say, enjoys longer life than poor humans! So let us drink and be merry. Wine is life-enhancing. This is a genuine Opimian that I’m serving. Yesterday the wine I provided was not so good, though the company at dinner was much more respectable.” So we got started on the wine, taking the greatest pains to express our wonder at all the elegance.

Trimalchio disappears for a comfort break, and while he’s in the toilet, the rabble he’s invited round the supper wax lyrical about the warming effects of wine:

So Dama spoke up first. After demanding larger winecups, he said: “Daylight’s just non-existent. Turn round and it’s nightfall. So there’s no better order of the day than to get out of bed and to make straight for the dining-room. What a sharp spell of frosty weather we’ve had! Even after my bath I’ve hardly warmed up. But a hot drink’s as good as a topcoat. I’ve had a basinful, and I’m absolutely pissed. The wine’s gone to my head.”

The response is this nugget of wisdom from a man by the name of Seleucus:

“Myself, I don’t take a bath every day. Taking a bath is as bad as being sent to the cleaner’s; the water’s got teeth. My blood gets thinner every day. But once I get a jug of mead inside me, I can tell the cold to bugger off.”

Trimalchio returns from the khazi and the feast continues, or as the great man puts it himself:

“Out with the water, down with the wine!”


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