Customer Reviews: The Satyricon and The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius (Penguin Classics)
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on July 16, 2002
It was not easy being a poet and scholar in Nero's day. Since the Emperor regarded himself as the poet par excellence, everyone else was ultimately disposable. Both Petronius and Seneca were ultimately requested to commit suicide and did so, lest the Praetorian Guard were called in to "assist" them.
In the earlier days of Nero's rule, when there was some possibility that his would be one of the rare enlightened reigns, Petronius and Seneca joined Nero in a regular after-dinner literary society where the humor was frequently raunchy and the sex more often than not perverted.
The SATYRICON was originally a fairly long episodic spoof of the ODYSSEY: its hero offends the God Priapus by ransacking his temple and is stricken with impotence. He and his friends and bedmates wander through Italy recounting their adventures. The only fairly intact sequence tells of a dinner by a nouveau-riche merchant named Trimalchio who holds an elegant banquet but whose base-born origins are always showing. All the rest of the episodes are fragmentary, though not without interest.
Seneca takes the recently poisoned Emperor Claudius down a peg by spoofing his deification. Starting with Julius Caesar, the Romans turned many of their leaders into gods upon their demise. Claudius -- who was by no means the nice guy portrayed in the Robert Graves books -- gets short shrift in the underworld. A clue: The title is usually translated as "The Pumpkinification of Claudius." Seneca was treading carefully here, as Nero's mother was Claudius' wife and is generally considered to have been the one who poisoned him.
These are not works that you can sit down and read as if they were novels. The introductions are not only helpful, but mandatory to understanding what follows. Both works, along with the works of Lucan, are essential to understanding this darkly fascinating period of Roman history.
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Petronius, according to the translator's notes, was a person of unidentified occupation and member of Emperor Nero's court. Chances are that Petronius got by ingratiating himself with the rich and famous, perhaps by amusing them with his stories. It's also fair to guess that he joined some of their debuaches - perhaps some of this is drawn from experience - and that the tales grew in the telling.

The story starts with the narrator Encolpius, with his friend Asclytus, and with the toyboy they share, Giton. What follows is a wandering series of encounters. They split and reunite a number of times, usually around some improbable scheme. Later on, the aging poet Eumolpus takes Asclytus' place in the story, in Giton's intimacy, and in the petty schemes with Encolpius.

At one point, Encolpius is found spying on the ecstasies offered up to one of the gods. The punishment for that lewd interlude is in kind, to have ecstasy thrust upon (and into) him beyond bearing. That's an early passage, and sets the tone for all the other adventures and escapes in this book.

Towards the end, his dissolute ways make him the Cialis poster boy. He seeks an aged witch for aphrodisiac treatment, and she gives it to him all different ways. To his dismay, many ways involve her own aged body in the treatment. A reader with a vivid imagination will see lots more humor than this 1965 translation would have dared put on paper.

But I wonder, is this really the best translation? Yes, it has some integrity - Sullivan has been careful to note breaks in the manuscript. He even adds a chapter of "fragments," too broken and disjoint to guess at. The reader doesn't get a false sense of continuity caused by the translator's patches. On the other hand, the reader doesn't get a full sense of continuity, either. On the scale from academic rendering to storytelling, I wish this were a bit more in the storytelling direction. No matter, it's a great story anyway.

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VINE VOICEon June 22, 2010
How much you appreciate THE SATYRICON depends on why you're reading it. If you're reading for a good story, look elsewhere. This is a fragment. The missing parts are gone forever. We can only imagine what the missing parts contained. But if you're reading for a glimpse into Roman life in first century AD, this is a treat. It's a very readable translation that is also very funny. I laughed out loud a couple of times. The introduction explains that it is a spoof of THE ODYSSEY. Odysseus gets blown around the Mediterranean as a result of having offended Poseidon. In THE SATYRICON the protagonist has offended Priapus and must suffer his wrath as the bounces around the Bay of Naples.

This work is famous for its depiction of the uber-freedman, Trimalchio, and his excessively vulgar banquet, and it lived up to my expectations. Oh how I wish that someone would miraculously discover the missing parts. What there is of this is great.

The APOCOLOCYNTOSIS is an amusing brief work (once again fragmentary) by Seneca that gives some insight into the sensibilities of the time. Also included are several chunks of text that were perhaps part of the SATYRICON at one time. There are detailed notes and introductions for everything. I can't imagine anything better, other than complete texts. Five stars.
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on March 17, 2012
Rome, centuries ago..

In the vast and important Greek and Roman literature from which we still live, there are just a few novelists. Maybe for an overwhelming majority of illiterates it would be much more affordable the theater, which is enough to listen, that the written narrative which must be read. The same was true of poetry and the rhapsodies recited in public.

The fact is that in Greece there are only few examples of novels, apart from Daphnis and Chloe (Oxford World's Classics), and from the Romans only Apuleius and Petronius, whose work we offer here.

It appears that, at the time, the Satyricon enjoyed considerable popular success, for both Tacitus and Quintilian commented it in their manuscripts, although it is apparent that neither knew it directly, only from hearsay. It is likely that they did not grant it much literary value because its style and form collided with all the concepts in vogue.

However, the Satyricon was not lost and copies were kept in the Middle Ages, while jealously concealed because of its subject matter [pederasty] and for being the work of a pagan. The work continued to be ignored by the public to the point that only scholars knew its title, but believed it was lost.

Therefore, a scandal broke when, in 1664, appeared the first edition of Pierre Petit.

Soon after, the Satyricon was translated into several languages, including ours, with such success that has made it one of the great bestsellers in history. There were those who sought to take advantage that the work is incomplete, rewriting it to their liking. It was easy nevertheless to expose them.

Presumably, however, the author would not work at top speed like if we should go to a literary prize. He seems to have devoted years to this task. Do not forget that what is now known are only fragments of the original, estimated in twenty books. He might have started writing when Caligula reigned and Nero followed, to see the publication during the reign of the next emperor. It can be no coincidence that the book mentions contemporary events known to all, or that the author considered worth mentioning many names.

This is a job too conscientious not to be the work of a professional. Moreover, the action does not take place in Rome, but in the provinces and almost none of the men are Latins. It seems as if the author had had an interest in showing the reality of the empire, a reality ignored in the capital.

The novel consists merely of the travel story of Encolpius and his servant Gitone through different locations. The incidents, sometimes unrelated, their adventures and the people they encounter are the text of the Satyricon, which lacks a plot as was the style of the epoch. We could actually say that it consists of countless short stories of the two protagonists. This technique influenced many centuries later the books of chivalry, the picaresque and even Don Quixote (Penguin Classics). Throughout many incidents the author reveals us an extraordinary real view of the life in the Roman provinces, although tinged with irony.

Petronius simply tells us what he saw. In a way, his novel was an approach to realism, leaving aside the epic tone of the tragedies to focus on current issues, as Aristophanes did in Greece. And that was the pattern followed by Petronius. There is a huge difference between his style and that of other contemporary writers.

Poets, despite their undoubted genius, are pompous and in the tragedies the dialogues are extremely emphatic. Petronius by contrast, remains accessible to everyone. He expressed himself in a conversational tone, which justifies the use of a first person that conveys the feeling that someone is telling us a live tale. That's why today we can read his Satyricon with the same interest of his times and nothing of its freshness is lost.

Writing is, in a sense, a childbirth with the same joys and suffering. Both things must have accompanied Petronius in this trip with Encolpius and Gitone through the decline of Rome.

(by Jacinto Leon Ignacio)
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on February 17, 2010
The Satyricon is an interesting story on many levels. It includes a fascinating look into concepts of friendship and love in Rome, and is one important source we have for views of magic and witchcraft in Rome. The work has a great deal to tell us about Roman society, and perceptions of Roman society despite its satirical nature. Secondly, just as Livy and Virgil tend to draw a great deal from the Illiad, this work draws from the Odyssey but does so in what seems to be intended to be a humorous way. It is also an enjoyable read.

The Apocolocyntosis is a humorous skit mocking the late emperor Claudius's ascent into godhood. The title includes a play on words (if Apotheosis is turning a person into a god, then Apocolocyntosis is turning a person into a gourd or pumpkin). The message seems to be that Claudius was a gambler who was more fit to be remembered for his gambling tools (made of gourd?) than honored as a god. There are subtle elements to this metaphor which are dependent on a good knowledge of the Hellenistic world (such as the widespread cult of Tyche, the goddess of luck).

The translations are easy to read and well put together. This edition also adds insightful introductions and copious end-notes to help the serious student get more out of these works. I would highly recommend it.
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on December 27, 2008
... or at least the Latin equivalent, one of those great Latin adjectives that are being dumped from English and replaced by raw slang. Scurrilous means roughly 'raunchy' or 'sleazy', but with a sharply disapproving tone to it. "Shameful' might also be a near synonym. The Satyricon is a scurrilous book - a collection of fragments, actually - a depiction of gluttony, pretentiousness, vulgarity, and sexual decadence: sodomy, pederasty, public intercourse, scatophilia, sadism, rape, all subjects to be laughed at uproariously. The challenges to any modern reader will be to decide whether Petronius meant his work as satire or pornography... or both... and whether he intended to censorious. Clearly the extravagance portrayed was perceived as "shameful", as scurrilous, or else it wouldn't have been funny. Another and greater challenge to the modern historian is to decipher just how realistic such a portrayal of bizarre perversion and vulgarity might be. The Roman Empire was unquestionably a marvel of administration and efficiency. It had to be, to survive the insanity at the center ... if even a tenth of the center were as corrupt as Petronius and Suetonius describe. With no means of transportation or communication faster than a man on foot or a ship with rowers, the Roman Empire was so much more secure and luxurious than any lands around it that every barbarian with a sharp stick was ready to fight his way in.

Yet Nero was real. We know that. We have archaeological as well as literary evidence of the scale of his excesses. Making sense of how an administrative empire with high internal security and general satisfaction could survive Nero, and the dozens of mini-Neros implied by Petronius, is half the fun of being a historian. And if you, dear reader, have any ambition of appreciating ancient Rome historically, you must see it through the obscene descriptions of Petronius.

The young Nero's personal tutor was none other than the austere stoic philosopher Seneca, and Seneca was capable of scurrility as shameful as Petronius, though never as lurid. The Apocolocyntosis (a title translated by Robert Graves as the "Pumkinification of Claudius") is a scurrilous semi-dramatic account of the efforts of the dead Emperor Claudius to claim his rights as a demi-god, with a place on Olympus. Like several of the plays attributed to Seneca, it was obviously written to amuse and to curry favor with Nero, Claudius's successor. We all know that Seneca's boot-licking failed in the end; Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

These two translations were done in the 1960s, a time when the late Victorian conventions of language still prevailed. The vocabulary of sexuality and body functions is a good deal less blunt here in English than in the original Latin, but perhaps our modern imaginations are more attuned to euphemisms.

This society of rich slaves, imperious freedmen, opulent prostitute priestesses, and the unchallengeable privilege of the super rich was the substrate of Christianity, and of Islam, and of the modern world. Get to know it. From Petronius's Trimalchio to the Renaissance Popes and to the Saudi Kings is a direct historical progression.
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on November 30, 2007
Lacking the complete text, which is probably forever lost, this surviving material is still a very entertaining look into Roman life and culture. It offers perspectives that you will find no where else in classical literature, often very humorous. I've wanted to read this text for many years and was not dissapointed when I final picked it up. Those who are reading this review are likely aware of how frequently this work has been cited and referenced by more modern writers, and upon reading it one can easily see why that is so. I recommend it to anyone who is into classics, satire, novels, Swift, etc.
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on March 26, 2001
This book, when, as here it is translated well (i.e. in a fashion that renders it valid to a modern reader as opposed to one in which it is more a word-for-word translation from the Latin), is one of the funniest books of which I know. Roman literature typically seems derivative-- less real, less well-thought out than Greek stuff-- this book is one of the major exceptions to this rule.
If you know of this book and want to read it, this translation here is a good place to start. This is the first novel (whatever that means!), and just an all-around good time....
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on October 16, 2015
Required for class. Interesting
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on May 24, 2016
Great book. Good prices
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