The Wrath of the Gods: Surviving the Pandemic with Petronius, Fitzgerald, and Eliot

December 9, 2021   •   By Ted Scheinman

THE ERA OF COVID has prompted many strange adjustments, new obsessions, fresh habits, or a slippage back into old ones. My most bookish COVID obsession has been revisiting the Latin texts of my grad school years, especially Petronius, courtier to Nero and author of the Satyricon. For a long time, I wasn’t entirely sure why the Satyricon was exerting such a special pull on me; I just knew that it was perhaps the only book that reliably made me laugh out loud, even when I was at my lowest and gloomiest, despairing about the gray life of quarantine or depressed to live in a country that seemed to be collapsing into itself.

Put most briefly, the Satyricon is a picaresque Roman novel written in a mixture of prose and verse — a format known as Menippean satire — that takes the formulas of high epic and applies them to some of the lowest and most depraved behavior ever recorded in literature. Its title immediately alerts readers to the bawdy content: Satyricon is a plural Greek noun that basically means “a bunch of dirty adventures.” The title further suggests that the author’s attitude will be marked by the literary and moral playfulness of satura, or satire. And so it is. Thus, we have a picaresque, satirical anti-epic.

Aeneas is known for his piety, and was punished for angering Juno; Odysseus is known for his cleverness, and was doomed to wander 10 years because he angered Poseidon. In the same vein, the protagonist of the Satyricon, an aesthete and former gladiator named Encolpius, is known for his lust, and his inability to quench it because he has angered Priapus, the god of fertility, who robs him of his sexual function. Impotent in love but remarkably resilient in every other way, Encolpius is our antihero, and his unspeakably filthy exploits loosely echo those of his epic forebears, with non-stop slapstick results. Reading the Satyricon is like watching an episode of Looney Tunes that happens to be narrating a pansexual orgy. Virgil famously sings of “arms and the man”; Petronius sings of man and his third leg.

Yet the abundant laughter was not the only reason I kept returning to Petronius. There was something in his portrait of subjects as serious as slavery, wealth inequality, and imperial decline that made him feel particularly relevant in the darkest moments of the pandemic. Petronius rarely offers even the glimmer of a solution to any of the problems his characters lament — the corruption of politics, the way imperial expansion saps natural resources and undermines public morality — and yet I have continued to find him a deep comfort. I also wish we had more of the novel; most of the text has been lost, and the extant passages represent only fragments of the original, perhaps as little as one-sixth of Petronius’s full book. In a way, this loss may be fitting, making the work’s picaresque elements all the more staccato and jarring, and foiling fiction’s tendencies to wrap things up in a way that life itself rarely does.

Petronius is one of literature’s foremost chroniclers of society-wide deterioration and failure. And the Satyricon exerts a special magnetism in times of uncertainty — times when death and decline are uppermost in people’s minds. This is not mere projection on my part. It’s historically verifiable.

Consider: Two of the most widely read works from the 1920s, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), are both shot through with the anticipation of doom — and both take direct and open inspiration from Petronius. The Great War was over, and a period of frantic excess followed in America, a period of uncertain rehabilitation in England. In both countries, an era of new mechanization, new construction, new and sometimes dubious opportunities for financial investment, and millions of new consumer goods was upending the old class structures and creating new classes of people in danger of being mechanized themselves, while the one-percenters partied so profligately they eventually crashed the system. Accordingly, Fitzgerald (a romantic elitist with a disposition toward socialism) and Eliot (whose snobbery was existential in its scope and dire in its conclusions) chronicled the period with related forms of lyrical despair. For Fitzgerald, the new elite were crass, unlettered, and deeply cruel to their economic inferiors, while an idealized past was unrecoverable (and, frankly, probably not worth recovering). For Eliot, the present was a stale series of abortive encounters, while the future was a valley of bones, all omens pointing toward infertility and ruin. Just ask Tiresias.

It would be easy to say that the Satyricon itself offers a similarly bleak picture of decadence in the Neronian period, if the novel itself weren’t so much damned fun. Yet one can’t deny that Encolpius is beating against the current, that his tour through Campania and Crotona and various other southern Italian towns represents a doomed quest: to overcome the curse that Priapus has leveled against him, to regain the love of Giton (his boy-toy), and to find some refuge in the empire where he will be safe from witches, creditors, sophistic teachers, and especially reciters of atrocious poetry, all while cadging free dinners from jumped-up freedmen, the nouveaux riches of the Roman Silver Age. The most conspicuous of the latter is Trimalchio — a former slave turned millionaire known for his coarse excesses, which exemplify the decadence of his class, his emperor, and his age — who would become a crucial figure for Fitzgerald.

Petronius wrote the Satyricon in the mid-60s CE. Rome’s Golden Age has verifiably passed; Virgil’s imitators, for the most part, are cultural parasites; and the protagonists of the novel are deeply ashamed of the cultural decline their dreadful behavior can only hasten. It is, of course, a gloriously comical work. But the elegant cynicism that makes it so fun would emerge as a darker influence for future chroniclers of decline. In Fitzgerald, the Petronian influence contributes to the spectacle of a perilously decadent generation and class, and eventually to the death of dreams. In Eliot, it contributes to the sense that the future is barren, that no matter how far one travels, one is headed somewhere irredeemably desolate — perhaps toward “rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones,” or else somewhere much worse. The two farthest-seeing speakers in Eliot’s poem, Tiresias and the Sybil, seem to crave nothing so much as death.

Of course, the Petronian strain in each of these works is hardly a secret. Gatsby was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg, and The Waste Land opens with a direct quotation from Trimalchio himself: “I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’” Yet not a single critic I’m aware of (and I have searched widely) has looked at these two works together through a Petronian lens, or considered why the consistently light-hearted Petronius might cut such an important figure among narrators of despair and decadence. “[A]ll life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald writes in the opening of his 1936 Esquire essay “The Crack-Up.” In the context of the essay, the observation is deeply personal — Fitzgerald had already experienced numerous breakdowns and would go on to suffer a string of even worse ones that ended with his dramatic collapse and death in December 1940 — but it applies equally to his doomstruck and romantic fascination with the decline of whole generations of people, of communal dreams. (Not to mention the crushing realization that death has, as Eliot puts it, undone so many.)

Anyway, I found myself indoors one day, laughing over a scene in which Encolpius has shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows, and branded his forehead as though he were a prisoner, all to escape being recognized by a furious man whose wife he once seduced. These humiliating efforts are to no avail — the man reaches out, fondles our antihero’s apparently unmistakable nether regions, thereby recognizing him, and says, with a sneer of vengeance, “Greetings, Encolpius!” It was raining outside, and there was nowhere for me to go. So, I thought I would take a brief tour through the impression Petronius makes in these two works, while lobbying, gently, for more people to read the Satyricon — in times of despair, certainly, but also, one hopes, in times of optimism and prosperity, whenever they may come.

Petronius Arbiter

A Roman bureaucrat, statesman, and eventual courtier to Nero, Gaius Petronius served in the early 60s CE as proconsul and then consul of Bithynia, in modern Turkey. On his return to Rome, having by all accounts acquitted himself well as an overseer of Rome’s expanding and increasingly decadent empire (the Roman historian Tacitus, born a decade before Petronius’s death, writes that Petronius “showed himself a man of vigor and equal to business” in Bithynia), he established himself as an aesthete famous for sleeping away his days and spending his nights in refined luxury.

The Emperor Nero soon hired Petronius to be his arbiter elegantiae, the court’s referee in matters of culture and pleasure, who told the notoriously tasteless emperor what was good and bad in everything from poetry to haute cuisine. Tacitus notes that “the Emperor thought nothing charming or elegant in luxury unless Petronius had expressed to him his approval of it.” The great historian records Petronius’s ascent at court with abundant censure in the Annales: “Indolence had raised him to fame, as energy raises others, and he was reckoned not a debauchee and spendthrift, like most of those who squander their substance, but a man of refined luxury.” Yet others have found Petronius’s stylish idleness worthy of emulation. Roused by Tacitus’s line about “indolence” (ignavia), Oliver St. John Gogarty, the Irish poet and polymath — famous for having inspired the character of Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses — elevated Petronius as a role model in a 1923 poem:

Proconsul of Bithynia,
Who loved to turn the night to day,
Yet for your ease had more to show
Than others for their push and go,
Teach us to save the Spirit’s expense,
And win to Fame through indolence.

While the Satyricon apes various conventions of epic poetry, it also partakes in the tradition of Greek romances, and of lowbrow theater. Petronius was exalted in his taste and in his literary abilities — even some of the poems in the Satyricon that are meant to be bad are rather good, and his allusive prose is often beautiful, however filthy its meaning. But he was also fascinated with all things low and decadent, and had an ear for the conversations of the lower classes, which lends the Satyricon much of its glorious variety of tone. It is true that he found the emperor himself to be low and decadent, and Nero eventually demanded his death, not for Petronius’s biting satire, but for his allegedly conspiring with the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso in an assassination plot. Tacitus tells us that Petronius was uninvolved in Piso’s scheme, but Nero was not known for mercy, and Petronius, as we shall see, ended his life with what is likely the most elegant suicide in history.

Fitzgerald and Petronius

In the last two decades, when critics discuss Petronius’s often-overlooked influence on The Great Gatsby, they tend to write with a regret verging on mournfulness. Among the authors who help form the moral and literary texture of that famous novel, “[p]oor Petronius, the sage of Rome […] has received little attention,” the scholar Nikolai Endres lamented in 2009. One can almost hear the sigh. But it is easy to sympathize with Endres, and with the sage of Rome. Poor Petronius indeed! A century ago this year, it looked as though the old fellow might enjoy a cultural rebirth that never quite came about.

In 1921, the famous publisher Horace Liveright, who had founded the Modern Library in 1917 (a perennial ​​source of cheap, reliable versions of important texts), was preparing to release the first full translation of Petronius to appear in English, including the raciest bits, through his imprint Boni & Liveright. The Classicist Ward Briggs offers an excellent description of Boni & Liveright’s M.O. during this period and of the authorities’ small-c conservatism over some of the house’s more ribald offerings: “Liveright made money publishing deluxe unexpurgated editions of oft-banned literary classics on a subscription basis, on the understanding that these books were available only to those who could afford them and therefore stood no chance of corrupting the general public.” (Between these expensive volumes and the affordable ones of the Modern Library, Liveright was cannily catering to every pocketbook.) W. C. Firebaugh, an English historian and Latinist, produced the translation, which appeared the following year, including various apocrypha (which Firebaugh, to his credit, sequestered from the original bits).

Soon enough, the volume prompted a high-profile obscenity case when the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought a suit seeking to ban sales of the book. The case was not exactly a national scandal, but it reverberated throughout New York’s literary world, and the Times even weighed in on the side of the arbiter elegantiae: “The extant fragments of what must have been a long book reveal a brilliant talent,” the paper wrote in an editorial on July 27, 1922. “They contain excellent writing, some admirable literary and artistic criticism; above all, they afford evidence such as can be found nowhere else as to the social conditions in certain classes of society at Rome in the first century A.D. It would be a serious loss to human knowledge to suppress Petronius.”

Judge Charles Oberwager agreed, coming down firmly on the side of Petronius when he dismissed the case in late September. Oberwager also offered an admirably succinct description of the novel: “The Satyricon is a keen satire on the vulgarity of mere wealth, its vanity and grossness. […] The author of which was interested in the intellectual pursuits as well as in the vices and follies of his own evil times. The worship of the flesh and its lusts alternately disgusted and fascinated him.” (The accuracy of this overview suggests that the judge had actually read the book, which makes him an even more endearing figure — though it is possible that he drew this thumbnail sketch of the work from the 80-plus tributes to Petronius that Liveright had supplied him by way of defense.)

The Society for the Suppression of Vice lost the case, but there was another notable result of the trial: Petronius likely reappeared on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary radar. This reappearance, Briggs suggests, would have been due in part to Fitzgerald’s friend and frequent correspondent Thomas R. Smith, who as Liveright’s chief editor had commissioned Firebaugh’s translation. It was a timely rediscovery. If we take Amory Blaine, the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s 1920 debut, This Side of Paradise, as a stand-in for the novelist — which in most circumstances we should — then Fitzgerald was already aware of Petronius in a secondhand sense. After Amory loses his star status at Princeton following his romantic defeat with Isabelle Borge, “even [his] reading paled […] he delved further into the misty side streets of literature: Huysmans, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, and the racier sections of Rabelais, Boccaccio, Petronius, and Suetonius.” Thus, the Satyricon would have been familiar to Fitzgerald in a distant way, until the obscenity scandal brought it more vividly to his attention, while offering him his first chance to read the whole thing. His Latin, by all accounts, was nearly as bad as his Greek. As the scholar Rose MacLean wrote in 2016, having inspected Fitzgerald’s Loeb edition of Petronius, with facing-page Latin and English, at Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, “The markings in Fitzgerald’s Loeb evoke the image of a curious reader whose appetite has been whetted by turns in the narrative that are clearly salacious but in a language he barely understands.” In those days, the Loeb editions tended to leave passages of explicit sexuality untranslated, and so, MacLean continues, “these expurgations may have prompted him to seek the help of Firebaugh’s more thorough translation.”

In any case, Fitzgerald that year was beginning notes for The Great Gatsby, while also experiencing much of the high-class decadence that influenced some of its most memorable scenes. Whatever bits of the Satyricon he read, then, would have presented him with an ancient model for many of the same critiques of elite decadence and cultural decline that appear in his most famous novel, itself set in 1922. It would be far too much to say that Jay Gatsby was directly inspired by Trimalchio, even though the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, identifies the two right at the end: “It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night — and as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.” Carraway is referring to the costly parties for which both men were famous, though it’s also notable that Trimalchio’s first success in business came from exporting wine, while Gatsby is eventually revealed as a high-flying bootlegger. The characters’ similarities begin and end with these two points. Fitzgerald was clearly fired by the parallel, but more so by Petronius’s sweeping satire of wealth in an era of dissipation.

The Satyricon’s influence on Fitzgerald almost certainly goes beyond Trimalchio, as several scholars have recently observed. “Upon closer inspection, other Petronian figures shed light on Fitzgerald’s depiction of mortal desires and failings,” MacLean writes, noting that Petronius’s depiction of Encolpius and his ill-fated attraction to a Crotonian woman named Circe “could easily describe Gatsby’s delusional pursuit of Daisy Buchanan.” Further, after Gatsby is assassinated in his pool, Nick Carraway sees the corpse floating among “little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves”; MacLean draws our attention to a strikingly similar scene in the Satyricon following a shipwreck, when Encolpius spots a sailor’s body “turning around in a gentle eddy” and laments: “Such is the end of mortals’ plans, such is the outcome of great ambitions!” Beyond these smaller moments, MacLean dwells on the similarities between Encolpius’s participation in one particular orgy and Nick’s experience at a coarse party in Manhattan with Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Mrs. Myrtle Wilson.

These are close, vivid readings and worthy of praise for directing our attention beyond Trimalchio’s presence in Gatsby. They also emphasize the more ambient Petronian sense of ugly futility that lurks beneath the apparent glitter of both epochs, and the corrupted classes dominant in each. Fitzgerald would return often to this sense of economic and cultural doom, which attends nearly every instance of supposed gaiety in Gatsby. In his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” he reminisced without a glimmer of nostalgia about the extravagant coarseness of the elite during the boom years of the ’20s: “It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.” It’s a telling line, communicating both snobbery and inverse snobbery, the very same admixture that makes Petronius, a nobleman with equal distaste for Nero as for Trimalchian arrivistes, such a rich arbiter of the decline of Rome under the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

Eliot and Petronius

While Fitzgerald was alternately partying and taking notes about the failings of the one percent of which he longed to be a part, 1922 also gave us The Waste Land, wherein the evocation of cultural doom is even more explicit. In Eliot, the Petronian influences are less surprising; unlike Fitzgerald, Eliot can almost be called a Classicist, and though he used translations, he didn’t need them in the way Fitzgerald did.

The Waste Land’s primary literary creditors are well known: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1919), plus Dante and the requisite ancients, Chaucer in the opening, and too many more to name here. But it is Petronius who supplies the poem’s epigraph about the Sybil’s imprisonment at Cumae and her longing for death. The drowning of Phlebas the Phoenecian in poem’s fourth section, “Death by Water,” is generally acknowledged as a callback to the shipwreck Encolpius experiences toward the end of the extant chapters of the Satyricon. Similarly, Eliot’s fortune-teller who prophesies Phlebas’s drowning recalls several specific instances of divination in Petronius.

Yet as with Fitzgerald, Eliot’s debt to Petronius is less revealing in its explicit allusions than in its general attitude. (Indeed, it can sometimes feel like mindless bookkeeping merely to list the borrowings.) As the scholar Francis Noel Lees wrote in 1966, the Satyricon “contributed to the propulsive mixture of [The Waste Land], or at least to the process of ignition.” This is a lovely and fiery sentence about a poem dedicated to ashes, and one would be hard put to disagree with Lees. Eliot’s general aim of crafting poetry that echoed real speech recalls the demotic tendencies of Petronius’s apparently casual narration in the Satyricon. A well-traveled man of the world, Petronius mixes slang with erudite allusions in a way that I cannot recall in any other Classical author, and, among the moderns, perhaps only in Eliot. Alongside Eliot’s colloquialisms and fragments of everyday dialogue, there is “about one allusion every two lines” in The Waste Land’s first section, per Pericles Lewis’s calculation. I haven’t run the numbers, but Petronius is not terribly far behind Eliot in his allusive frequency.

Equally important, Petronius’s mixture of prose and verse, when set alongside Eliot’s most famous poem, seems a critical forerunner. Just as April mixes memory and desire, Petronius mixes genres and combines high language and low, while Eliot veers vertiginously between conversational free verse, hexameter, pentameter, etc., not to mention his alternation between English, Italian, French, and German (a “propulsive mixture” indeed). The general staccato quality of The Waste Land, with its series of abortive encounters (Madame Sosostris, Lil, Mr. Eugenides, and so forth), seems also to mimic the travels of Encolpius, Giton, and the rest of Petronius’s hedonistic crew.

The effect of Eliot’s variations, for the reader, is at once intimate and alienating, and this central quality in The Waste Land, I would argue, owes a major debt to Petronius. By the same token, I have found that rereading the Satyricon has opened up previously closed doors in Eliot’s poem, has made me more comfortable sitting with the speakers’ despair and general estrangement. It has also helped me appreciate the abundant allusions as more than a parade of erudition or the stubborn instantiation of a poetic philosophy. For the first time, thanks to Petronius, I have found reading The Waste Land to be more than a largely intellectual exercise; I have learned to read it not as a critic but as a human being, subject to strange emotional reactions. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot writes toward the end, a line that stirs in my breast a thoroughly unexpected sense of hope — followed by a briefer sense of peace that echoes the Sanskrit with which the poet ends things. Indignity and despair subside, for a moment, and predicaments of various kinds suddenly seem less cruel.

Petronius and Hope

A question I have been mulling this year: How do Petronius’s characters muster the gumption to carry on? And how do they retain a shred of optimism as indignity piles on top of indignity?

One of Fitzgerald’s most famous lines comes from “The Crack-Up”: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” But the sentence that follows is even more important: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Encolpius is a man of remarkable taste, especially for a gladiator — not a class of Romans known for their aesthetic discernment — but he is hardly a “first-rate intelligence.” Indeed, his bumbling foolishness is what leads him into so many wonderfully slapstick debacles. Yet he remains the perfect literary embodiment of the sort of mind Fitzgerald is describing: though he recognizes his own cursedness, he inevitably decides to persevere. The Satyricon throws its characters into an unremitting sequence of hopeless and humiliating scenarios. By the end, Encolpius, dressed ludicrously in a wig and fake eyebrows, must pretend to be the slave of a poet whom he despises as part of an elaborate scheme to hoodwink the residents of Croton out of enough money to secure safe passage out of town. Throughout the novel, he contemplates suicide — the mode of death that Petronius himself chose not long after completing the Satyricon. Encolpius is never so deluded as to expect a permanent rescue from the series of tragicomic episodes that make up his life. Yet he always looks to the next thing — the next petty intrigue, the next free dinner, the next sexual opportunity. He is one of the most resilient characters in all of literature.

Like Encolpius, Petronius did not shun the idea of suicide. Unlike Encolpius, he followed through with it after being charged with treason. Such was the fate of many of Nero’s courtiers; other Neronian casualties included the historian-poet Lucan and the philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger, both of whom Petronius ridicules in various episodes of the Satyricon. Yet even in his final hours, Petronius eschewed a tragic attitude. The situation was hopeless, but the condemned man was not. Tacitus’s vivid description is worth quoting in full (not least to emphasize the contrast with the iconically self-serious death of Socrates as narrated by Plato in the Phaedo):

Yet he [Petronius] 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. […] 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 Emperor’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.

How does one find hope in moments of decline or doom, whether in fiction, politics, or one’s own life? The shortest answer, if we take Petronius’s example, is art. Art offers the understanding that all life involves contradiction, and teaches us to pluck snippets of beauty from the direst of moments. We may be listening to elegant verses while waiting for the blood to make its leisurely way out of our wrists. We may be rowing frantically against a current that threatens to engulf us. We may have only fragments to shore against our ruins. We may be holding fast to a rose amid a tempest.

April, Eliot writes, is the month that “stir[s] / Dull roots with spring rain.” It was also the month, this year, when I decided to begin electroconvulsive therapy to treat a months-long depression that was verging on the paralytic. The decision has largely paid off, and I am no longer immobilized the way I was this spring. But in my desire to escape the stony rubbish of depression, I chose a treatment famous for corroding memory. Accordingly, my recollections of the past year and a half are now a patchwork of broken images, blurry moments of fear and tenderness, of kindnesses from the friends who kept me sane and whom I fear I can never fully repay. When you have forgotten so many things — so many moments of love and adventure, rivers and trees and books and albums, all the joys and desires and commitments that collaborated to make you who you are, or were — you are left to reconstruct yourself based on nothing but the irreparably damaged present. The task, then, is to recognize that you are more than the fragments you have gathered to shore against your ruin. The effort to reactivate as much of my memory as possible led me back to the Latin texts that had been so central to my work in college and graduate school, and particularly to the precious fragments of Petronius’s remarkable novel that remain. Soon, I remembered why I had loved the Satyricon so much, and who I had been when I first loved it. If the broken pieces of this novel, much of which is now lost to time, can still evoke the pleasures and humors and insights of the irretrievable whole, I thought, then perhaps my own fragmentary memories could be enough. Indeed, perhaps it would be greedy to ask for more.

It is easy to understand why writers obsessed with despair (and, in Fitzgerald’s case, with the beauty of tragedy) should find a model in Petronius. Yet the Satyricon itself is not a work of despair. On the contrary, the chaotic world that Petronius creates, a world slipping fast toward disaster, can stand as an odd but powerful source of solace even in the darkest times, as it has done for me during the pandemic. With its remarkably resilient characters, whose droll attitudes in the face of adversity make their resilience possible, the novel remains ruthlessly, shamelessly, obscenely fun — a genuine consolation, matched only, for me, by Laurence Sterne’s fiction. (Sterne was himself a gleeful Petronian, and W. C. Firebaugh used the final lines of the introduction to his 1922 translation of the Satyricon to pay tribute to the author of Tristram Shandy: “To me, personally, the fact that Laurence Sterne did not undertake a version [of the Satyricon] has caused much regret. The master […] would have drawn Trimalchio and his peers to admiration.”)

Today, with things falling apart, many of us feel adrift or cursed, and in Petronius we find the unlikely — and thus all the more delightful — possibility that such periods of doom and chaos can inspire their own sort of cockeyed optimism; that however hemmed-in or pursued or damned we might feel, art (along with, yes, sex and laughter) can prove stronger than terror. This has been Petronius’s gift to me in the past few months, one I wish to share. By surveying how he helped guide these two writers so preoccupied with decline, I wish to throw light on another possible path, one of improbable yet sturdy hope.

¤

Ted Scheinman is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His first book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, is available now via FSG Originals.