The Satyricon by Petronius offers modern readers the unique opportunity to examine the class structure in this partially real, somewhat imagined Roman society by depicting characters from all levels of society. The harsh and dark streets haunted by the poor stand in sharp contrast to the extravagant dinner party of Trimalchio and even more revealing is that there are guests at the successful man’s manor who, like him, were once slaves. In this world, the freeman, slaves, and the nouveau riche interact and it is possible to see the differences between upper and lower class societies through these dialogues as there appears not only to be material differences, but even differences in the levels of education in this Roman society tableaux. Within The Satyricon by Petronius there are also several examples of class mobility and there are instances in which men who were once slaves become free as well as cases where an upper-class gentleman is brought down by creditors, demonstrating that in such a society, class was not a stagnant or set element.
In relation to these ideas and themes in “The Satyricon” by Petronius, it is interesting to explore the ways in which no one is quite what they seem—in other words, the mutability of class depicted in the novel makes it difficult to tell if a character is “true" or born upper class or if they are like Trimalchio and his recently freed companions. On the one hand, there are a few characters, most notably the narrator, who seem able to transcend class boundaries without buying or earning any type of freedom, thus showing that class markers (speech, clothing, education) are just as important as actual wealth. There are also instances which demonstrate that the class system is fluid since there are ex-slaves entering society and working their ways to the upper class, just as there are cases like the one described by a freedman at the dinner party of Trimalchio, who is said to have “eaten like a king" but is now horribly in debt and pursued by creditors. Although there is class mobility on either side of the spectrum, the fact remains that the lives of the poor and enslaved are dramatically different than the excessive and almost grotesque wealth and decadence of the rich.
When Sullivan’s Satyricon opens, the reader is transported into a world of beggars, thieves, whores, and any number of other undesirables. This is the sphere of the poor, whether they are slaves, freedmen, or other impoverished peoples, and it is full of chaos, dark alleys, and shady establishments. The lower classes in Roman society are represented as being cutthroats looking to make money at the cost of others. The street merchants sell discarded beggar’s clothing and are willing to fight over the smallest item and everyone distrusts one another. Even more prominent in this opening depicting the lower classes is the feeling that nothing is what it seems and being undereducated Roman citizens. For example, lost and frustrated, Ascyltus asks someone where his lodgings are and describes what happens as, “then a respectable-looking gentleman came up and very kindly offered to show me the way. He led me down various pitch-dark turnings and brought me to this place" (40). The place he was led to was a dirty and chaotic whorehouse and the “gentleman" was merely a low-class pimp looking to making some cash. This is a disturbing scene because it demonstrates how no one can be trusted. With food shortages and so many poor wandering in the city there is no sense of relief from the constant barrage of tricksters, troublemakers, and con artists. Unfortunately, one can’t discount the narrator, Encolpius, or his friends from the following list since they, much like the other impoverished citizens around them, are also looking for their next meal.
Encolpius has his foot in both worlds of Roman society. Because he is educated and well spoken he is thought to be a member of the higher class, yet by his actions and lack of money he is obviously associated with the lower ones depicted in the opening. Even though he and some of his more educated companions are able to cross class boundaries, it is still important to realize that Encolpius is equally guilty in committing crimes common among those poor people he is surrounded by—even if it is to pay for food. In a poetic response to the world that surrounds him, he ponders, in verse, “What use are laws when money is king / where poverty’s helpless and can’t win a thing…There’s no justice in law—it’s the bidding that counts / and the job of the judge is to fix the amounts" (43). He sees the inequities of the class system around him and in many ways, it almost seems as though he is justifying his own criminal actions by claiming that the leaders do the same thing as they do—that the corruption is at all levels thus his own actions are balanced out.
It is clear that there are some ways of surpassing the class markers—namely education and presenting a refined appearance, but it is also worth nothing that class mobility was certainly possible. Slaves were able to buy their freedom and some of them, Trimalchio for instance, were able to work themselves out of their lowly station. Ascyltus defends his decision to change his station when provoked by the freedmen at Trimalchio’s dinner party by stating, he voluntarily entered into slavery because he “wanted to be a Roman citizen, not a subject with taxes to pay" (73). He also mentions that he purchased his wife’s freedom as well and adds the additional insult of explaining it was so no one could wipe hands on her hair—an overt jab at the decadent Trimalchio who wiped his fingers in his slave’s hair after urinating and washing his hands. This statement is sly but conveys how he really feels about the excessive nature of Trimalchio—especially in regards to his treatment of slaves.
It is hard to reconcile the fact that Trimalchio was once a slave and even he seems to glorify his humble origins through the mural with the story of his rise to power and wealth. After demonstrating his great wealth through vulgar displays of excess, he scolds his guests, “But mind you, don’t look down on the other freedmen here," and points out a freedman on a couch “it’s not long since he was humping wood on his own back. They say—I don’t know, I’ve heard it—they say he found a hobgoblin’s cap and found its treasure. I don’t begrudge anyone what God has given him. Besides he can still feel his master’s slap and wants to give himself a good time" (58) (about the almost supernatural implications in acquiring wealth as well as reacting with excess in the face of freedom). This is one of the most remarkable statements about class in the novel for two main reasons. First of all, it exposes the way the supernatural was though to be involved in the process of generating wealth, thus showing that people like Trimalchio considered themselves to be worthy of the god’s protection and divine influence. More importantly, however, it discusses what might be his motivations for displaying his wealth in such gaudy ways since perhaps he too still feels the pain of being of a slave (even though he mentions that he was hard-working). What is ultimately most disgusting about Trimalchio—if one had to choose from the host of possible character traits—is that he was once in the lowly position of slave and now he treats other slaves with the utmost cruelty and even seems to make a great show about how badly he can treat his many slaves. He has several of them perform ridiculous and unnecessary tasks and seems to have hired them on account of their appearance (eunuchs, Ethiopians, boys from Alexandria) as though they were mere adornments. He has become everything that the lower classes consider wrong in Roman society and has completely forgotten about his own history. By his statement, it also seems that Trimalchio is justifying his excessive behavior since he cannot blame anyone for living a life of ease after they have been subjected to the harsh life of a slave.
Trimalchio has several friends that are also freedman that are around his home and while many of them complain about the state of the class system, they are still companions to a man that represents the problem. It is difficult to think that these freedmen are faced upon entry to their “friend’s" house by a large sign that states, “He has a sign on the door that says “Any slave caught leaving the house without his master’s approval will receive one hundred lashes" (51) especially since they are obviously well aware that Trimalchio was once one of those people subject to the lashing. This discrepancy in interests is mostly ignored and although one cannot help but think these freedmen he associates with are merely using him to gain access to food, the fact remains that there are huge class conflicts under the surface. The tension is slightly broken when Trimalchio gets up to use the restroom. The conversation between the freedman, our narrator, and his friends grows more realistic. They begin talking about the food shortages (which is ironic considering the extravagant feast they have just been served) and the basic inequities of the poor classes in Rome. Ganymedes says, “I’ve already sold the clothes off my back for food and if this food shortage continues, I’ll be selling my bit of a house" (63) which has a large impact on the reader since he is surrounded by such luxury (albeit though it belongs to another man) but these sentiments are quickly forgotten in the wake of more extravagant foods and entertainments.
Ultimately, The Satyricon is an excellent historical document in viewing the way class structures functioned in Roman society during Petronius’ time. Even though there are definite moments of unmistakable satire about wealth and class, it seems that the key point in this text is that the rich and poor lived drastically different lives. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground, at least as presented in the novel, and throughout the descriptions of the lives of these opposing classes the modern reader is able to learn much about the lives of Roman citizens, how it society functioned (especially in terms of bondage and freedom) and how one could transgress the line between upper and lower class.
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