"Men on an endless journey, with no heroes or villains, no monsters or gods.
Just life. In the gutter, not the stars."
You can find almost every aspect of human existence in The Satyricon, although some themes are more obvious while others are buried deep in the narrative. Starting at the top
and burrowing down, we have:
Epic / Picaresque
An epic was originally a long poem that narrated the deeds and adventures of a hero or heroes, real or mythological. In classical times there were
The Odyssey and The Iliad (by Homer, in Greek) and The Aeneid (by Virgil, in Latin). In English we have
Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), The Faerie Queen (1590-96) and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).
Modern epics seldom include monsters and gods or be set in far-off days or lands, as in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which sets Homer's Odyssey in contemporary Dublin. Whether or not every new title today described by its publisher as "epic" deserves the term is something that future generations will have to decide.
Epics deal with heroes, while picaresque (from the Spanish for rogue or bohemian) stories concern themselves with anti-heroes, who combine love of life with an element of trickery and dishonesty. To modern eyes The Satyricon is picaresque not epic, but, given that all educated Romans would have been aware of The Odyssey, it is tempting to think that Petronius had that tale of wandering heroes at the back of his mind when creating Encolpius and his companions on their endless journey.
Satire uses various forms of humour (ridicule, irony, exaggeration etc) to poke fun at individuals or a group of people. The many satirists in classical times range from Aristophanes (Greek) to Juvenal and Apuleius (Roman). Near the top of the list comes Petronius, whose memorable characters include with the the rhetorician Agamemnon, who tells the Forum where Roman education has failed, the wealthy Trimalchio, whose feast Encolpius and his companions attend is a never-ending line of exotic foods and entertainments and the impoverished and lecherous poet Eumolpus. When the satire fades into the background, it is usually to give way to episodes of . . .
Satyre* / Desire
A satyr is a drunken, lustful woodland spirit, half human, half goat - think Narnian faun with a leer and a prominent phallus. There are no satyrs in The Satyricon but much of the story is driven by sex - sex between men, sex between men and women, sex sought, sex offered, sex denied, sex imposed and the frustration of impotence.
To modern eyes the frequent sexual activity in The Satyricon is both familiar and foreign - we know what is going on, but it sometimes takes place in situations that today would not be tolerated. Our biggest challenge in adapting Petronius' work is presenting these scenes in a way that combines both the first and twenty-first century points of view.
* No, you won't find that word in a dictionary, but we think you should.
Bromance & Love
Outsiders can never know the true nature of the emotion that binds two people in a strong friendship or intense love affair.
We can only commit ourselves to what we observe.
We can see that the relationship between Encolpius and Ascyltos is as strong
as any modern bromance, as the pair fight and argue and separate and come together again, but we can only guess
what quality each sees in the other. Nor can we be sure how much Giton cares for Encolpius; which of the two is
the lover with the greater need for the other and which is the beloved who, consciously or not, determines the course of the affair?
And why does Ascyltos constantly attempt to seduce Giton - is it lust or love or a desire to annoy Encolpius or a mixture of all three?
Whatever emotion binds these three young men, it is the driving force at the heart of The Satyricon.
Are these three in a mosaic in Lebrija Palace, Spain our heroes? Almost certainly not, but they look like good companions
* Petronius, Act Two