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“Trimalchio’s dinner” – work showing richness of Roman feasts

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ulpiano Checa y Sanz, Banquet in Nero's Palace
Ulpiano Checa y Sanz, Banquet in Nero's Palace

“Trimalchio’s dinner” (Cena Trimalchionis) is a preserved fragment of the Roman novel Satyricon, which in a mocking and realistic way depicts Roman society from the middle of the 1st century CE. The work itself it has been preserved only fragmentarily, and to this day there are disputes about its authorship.

It is suspected that the author was Gaius Petronius, who for the fascinated by Greek culture and considering himself an artist, Emperor Nero and his mannered court became an oracle in matters of good taste and artistic value. In the manuscripts of the preserved work, a certain Petronius Arbiter is mentioned.

Plot

The events in the novel and the preserved fragment of Cena trimalchionis are told from the perspective of a young freedman, Encolpius, who is angry with Priapus, the god of fertility; however, we do not know the deeper context of misfortune. Encolpius along with the other characters of the piece is invited to a feast at the house of Trimalchio, an extremely wealthy freedman who tries to provide guests with the most unique dishes and a wide range of entertainment. Trimalchio is shown as an arrogant, smart and all-powerful master of his house. The slaves are afraid of him, and there are said to be so many of them that some do not even know what their master looks like.

As the guests say, it is impossible to judge Trimalchio’s wealth and the amount of real estate. He was supposed to earn some money from a funeral home. His full name is Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus, what clearly refers to Gnaeus Pompey and Gaius Maecenas.

After staying in the bathhouse, the main characters go to the host’s dining room (triclinium). They are given water chilled with snow, and servants cut their toenails. There, extravagant dishes are served (including a pig with live birds sewn up inside), and the host “share” his knowledge with guests. In the meantime, the host goes to the toilet, and the guests talk to each other on everyday topics: about children’s education, weather and games. When Trimalchio returns to the room, guests are encouraged to use the toilet, as holding back is not beneficial to health. So he says:

You will excuse me, gentlemen? My bowels have not been working for several days. All the doctors are puzzled. Still, I found pomegranate rind useful, and pinewood boiled in vinegar. I hope now my stomach will learn to observe its old decencies. Besides, I have such rumblings inside me you would think there was a bull there. So if any of you gentlemen wishes to retire there is no need to be shy about it. We were none of us born quite solid. I cannot imagine any torture like holding oneself in. The one thing Jupiter himself cannot forbid is that we should have relief. Why do you laugh, Fortunata; it is you who are always keeping me awake all night. Of course, as far as I am concerned, anyone may relieve himself in the dining-room. The doctors forbid retention. But if the matter is serious, everything is ready outside: water, towels, and all the other little comforts. Take my word for it, vapours go to the brain and make a disturbance throughout the body. I know many people have died this way, by refusing to admit the truth to themselves.

PetroniusTrimalchio’s dinner

Trimalchio discusses the zodiacs with guests (even 12 dishes are served, each corresponding to one of the signs) and tells its stories from amazing encounters with the strigoi or the werewolf. Especially the second story is interesting:

It so happened that our master had gone to Capua to attend to some odds and ends of business and I seized the opportunity, and persuaded a guest of the house to accompany me as far as the fifth mile-stone. He was a soldier, and as brave as the very devil. We set out about cock-crow, the moon was shining as bright as midday, and came to where the tombstones are. My man stepped aside amongst them, but I sat down, singing, and commenced to count them up. When I looked around for my companion, he had stripped himself and piled his clothes by the side of the road. My heart was in my mouth, and I sat there while he pissed a ring around them and was suddenly turned into a wolf! Now don’t think I’m joking, I wouldn’t lie for any amount of money, but as I was saying, he commenced to howl after he was turned into a wolf, and ran away into the forest. I didn’t know where I was for a minute or two, then I went to his clothes, to pick them up, and damned if they hadn’t turned to stone! Was ever anyone nearer dead from fright than me? Then I whipped out my sword and cut every shadow along the road to bits, till I came to the house of my mistress. I looked like a ghost when I went in, and I nearly slipped my wind. The sweat was pouring down my crotch, my eyes were staring, and I could hardly be brought around. My Melissa wondered why I was out so late. “Oh, if you’d only come sooner,” she said, “you could have helped us: a wolf broke into the folds and attacked the sheep, bleeding them like a butcher. But he didn’t get the laugh on me, even if he did get away, for one of the slaves ran his neck through with a spear!” I couldn’t keep my eyes shut any longer when I heard that, and as soon as it grew light, I rushed back to our Gaius’ house like an innkeeper beaten out of his bill, and when I came to the place where the clothes had been turned into stone, there was nothing but a pool of blood! And moreover, when I got home, my soldier was lying in bed, like an ox, and a doctor was dressing his neck! I knew then that he was a werewolf, and after that, I couldn’t have eaten a crumb of bread with him, no, not if you had killed me. Others can think what they please about this, but as for me, I hope your geniuses will all get after me if I lie.

PetroniusTrimalchio’s dinner

There are also quarrels between revellers. At one point, even the housekeeper’s wife Fortunata, noticing Trimalchio kissing the young slave, was thrown with a cup on her. Meanwhile, the stonecutter Habinnas and his wife arrive at the domus; Trimalchio explains to the stonemason what he would like his amazing tombstone monument to look like. Finally, the drunk Trimalchio encourages everyone to recreate their funeral.

The main characters are getting more and more disgusted and plan to leave the Trimalchio house. The situation arises when vigils burst into the house at the sound of trumpets, which they took for a fire signal.

Why was such work created?

The author certainly knew what he was writing about and had the opportunity to learn about the extravagance of the rich part of society. Exaggerated wealth or bizarre manners show us how a former slave joins a rotten world. What is noteworthy, he does not hide the fact that he was previously in a slave state, and he speaks warmly about his ex-master. The author mockingly shows the falsehood of such a life; a man, having a hard slave life, becomes a torturer himself. As stated by the Roman writer Macrobius from the 4th-5th centuries CE, the work was created to entertain, hence a lot of humorous and exaggerated behaviour can be found in the work.

Many researchers claim that the entire novel “Satyricon” is in fact a blow against Nero himself. Gaius Petronius had to commit suicide after he was accused of plotting against the emperor. It is possible that the reason was the work itself, in which the characters could refer to Nero himself and his court.

Comment

Let me also include a comment Mr. Michał Kubicz.

The preserved fragments of Petronius’s “Satyricon” are very interesting and show the extremely colourful world of the ancient Romans. And yet this work should be read with great caution and with some criticism. Why? Because after almost 2,000 years, Petronius’s intentions are not entirely clear. Does he show the world as it was in his time? Is it the reality shown in the crooked mirror? Is there any hidden bottom? When writing his piece, did he want to make fun of specific people? If so, is it only Nero? Did he make any political allusions there? Unfortunately, we only have a dry text, and twenty centuries have deprived us of the entire context in which the work was created and which certainly had an impact on how “Satyricon” was perceived by Petronius’ contemporaries.

Certainly, the debauchery depicted in this, perhaps the oldest novel, cannot be taken literally. They should be read with the awareness that Petronius deliberately exaggerated all that he and the entire aristocracy made fun of and detest. Let us remember that the times of Claudius and Nero are a period of changes in the style of state management. This is a time when more and more power and riches are in the hands of a group of liberators associated with the imperial house. It is the time of the omnipotence of Pallas, Narcissus, Callixtus, and Polybius, who during Claudius made dizzying careers in the imperial administration and retained enormous influence in the first period of Nero’s reign. In the second half of Nero’s reign, Agrippina fell, Seneca and Burrus passed away, and the emperor elevated a younger generation of liberators, far less talented than his predecessors.

The privileges of former slaves, who concentrated power and money around them, must have stung the eyes of the old aristocracy, forced on the one hand to seek the favour of the emperor’s close associates, and on the other hand, the disgusting behaviour and habits of former slaves. When we know this context, the meaning of Petronius’ novel and the exaggeration of all the vices of rich liberators becomes very clear.

Let us take one example, first from the shore: in the novel, there is a scene in which Trymalchion urinates into the potty, then symbolically moistens his hands with a few drops of water and wipes them on the hair of a young slave. Was that what the Romans did? Of course not. This scene is to show that a former slave, after gaining power and money, is capable of humiliating those who are unlucky. Petronius shows this to show that a true aristocrat should respect his domestic service and treat it as his household (it is worth recalling what recommendations Seneca gave about the treatment of slaves in his Moral Letters to Lucius). The intention of Petronius is to show that liberators are unable to exercise their power over slaves in a moderate manner, with the restraint characteristic of true Romans.

This is how I think “Satyricon” should be read: a real aristocrat does exactly the opposite to the heroes of the novel1.

Footnotes
  1. Own translation of Michał Kubicz comment.
Sources

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