Arguably the first novel ever written, the Satyricon is the picaresque tale of Encolpius, his lover the beautiful boy Giton, and his friend and rival (and former lover) Ascyltus and their various adventures together and apart, including a lot of fighting over Giton. The novel, written circa 60 A.D., exists only in significant fragments, but is remarkable in its portrayal of everyday conversation of ordinary Romans. The most famous segment is the Feast of Trimalchio, set at the villa of the nouveau riche Trimalchio – perhaps a stand-in for the emperor Nero – where copious amounts of food are served, the host speaks fatuously about culture and revealing his crudity, and the guests tell stories and the section ends with a mock funeral for the host.
The book is most likely written by Gaius Petronius, Nero’s arbiter elegantiae or arbiter of taste. Petronius was a party animal, apparently, and has plenty of style and sass. Ultimately a rival turned Nero against him and he was forced to commit suicide. But he managed to write a final lampoon of the emperor and it was delivered to Nero after his death according to his will.
Other Roman writers made reference to the book, and it was first translated into English in 1694. It has captured the imagination of many, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose original preferred title for The Great Gatsby was Trimalchio. In 1969, Federico Fellini made a film, Fellini Satyricon, which follows the episodic nature of the film and to a non-Italian at least, is one of the few costume dramas (if you can call it that) that feels utterly removed from our time, that the habits and tastes of 2,000 years ago are truly foreign, a bit inscrutable, a bit frightening. And quite sexy, of course. You can get a taste in this clip.