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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


(tr. Gareth Schmeling)

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Satyricon

Title: Satyricon
Author: Petronius
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 66 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 451 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: Satyricon - US
Satyricon - UK
Satyricon - Canada
Le Satiricon - France
Schelmengeschichten - Deutschland
Satiricon - Italia
Satiricón - España
  • Latin title: Satyricon
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Gareth Schmeling
  • This 2020 Loeb edition supersedes the previous one, Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation (with both translation and Introduction revised (1969) by E.H.Warmington)
  • The Loeb edition includes: Fragments and Poems, as well as Seneca's Apocolocyntosis (also in Gareth Schmeling's translation)
  • There are many other translations of the Satyricon (as well as of only the Cena Trimalchionis), including the editions from Penguin Classics (tr. J.P.Sullivan, 1965) and Oxford World Classics (tr. P.G.Walsh, 1997), both as The Satyricon
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Latin text facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good entertainment in a solid edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Classical Philology* . (10:3) 7/1915 Keith Preston
The Classical Review* . (29:3) 5/1915 S.Gaselee
The Guardian* . 18/12/2009 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent* . 18/12/2009 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books* . 6/6/1996 James Davidson
The Spectator* . 22/11/1913 .
Sunday Times* . 28/10/1962 Michael Ratcliffe
TLS* . 4/12/1913 Charles Whibley
TLS* . 4/6/1954 Michael Swan
TLS* . 11/9/1959 Peter Green
TLS* . 14/6/1996 Erich Segal

[*: refers to a different translation]
  From the Reviews:
  • "We need regular retranslations of the Satyricon, for two significant reasons: the first is that worthy approximations of the original racy, slangy, deceptively slapdash yet densely allusive Latin are going to need constant updating in order to maintain their freshness. And the second is that it is always going to be a good idea to have the piss taken out of the excesses of the vulgar rich. (...) The more one contemplates Petronius, in fact, the more attractive he becomes. (...) For despite the straightforwardness of its narrative (it's a romp, and so wonderfully easy to read), the Satyricon is multi-layered. Only the most alert of its contemporary readers would have picked up on every literary reference it packs in." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Andrew Brown's terrific new translation captures Petronius' comedy of sex and class -- and his relentless parody of Roman imperial pomp and pretence -- with all the mischievous swagger that the tale demands. The perfect present for pagans." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "A new rendering into contemporary American English by Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney allows all the bright images to get through the murk of another language, providing a decent imitation of Petronius’ blend of classical clarity and colloquial reality in a web of fast-moving poetry and prose. More or better editorial attention would have weeded out some occasional solecisms and infelicities of style. P.G. Walsh, a great Petronian scholar, has produced a rather more careful version in English that hugs the Latin more closely. The translation is less engaging than the Americans’, the book itself more attractively produced. (...) To be sure, the Satyricon that was then written is very different from the Satyricon that is now read, and cultural historians must make great efforts to see past the lacunae if they want to capture its original mood. Modern readers, however, don’t have that obligation. We can be confident we have missed some wonderful moments, but the gaps also add something, utterly changing the story’s tone. Pícaros are often tamed by their endings; it suits an episodic novel to end up in pieces. If ever a novel was meant to be half-eaten, Satyricon is it." - James Davidson, London Review of Books

  • "Inspired pornography or sublime satire. New readers begin here." - Michael Ratcliffe, Sunday Times

  • "The Satyricon of Petronius, which Mr. Michael Heseltine has translated with admirable zest and courage, is a literary invention in the same sense that the epic of Homer is an invention. (...) The Satyricon is a romance, then, but a romance inverted. Picaresque in the truest sense, it deals only with rogues and vagabonds. Petronius lashes the world about him with the biting storm of cynicism. (...) The personages of his drama are, as we said, rogues or vagabonds; but by another perversity they are rogues and vagabonds tinctured with learning. They are ready at all seasons and with the smallest provocation to quote poetry or display their skill in rhetoric." - Charles Whibley, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His mind was undoubtedly of the decadence, yet his racy cheerfulness and cynical common sense are rarely unattractive. (...) (O)n the whole Mr. Dinnage has produced a version which is tactfully modern and colloquial, if it lacks some of the bite of Burnaby's Restoration prose." - Michael Swan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Petronius' Satyricon is one of the oddest, most tantalizing and least typical works to have survived from Graeco-Roman antiquity. (...) Professor William Arrowsmith's brilliant new translation, which at one stroke renders every otehrversion obsolete. It is written in colloquial, fast-moving American idiom; this proves surprisingly apt for bringing out the last ounce of colourful slang or back-street double entendre, and dispenses altogether -- except where the characters themselves indulge in such regrettable tricks -- with Wardour Street cliché or stuffy pedantry. Almost alone among classical translators, Professor Arrowsmith has an accurate ear for the subtle demands of spoken dialogue." - Peter Green, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like the love it chronicles, Petronius' Satyricon is a many-gendered thing. It encompasses every literary genre from epic to graffiti. (...) Picaresque, parodic and pornographic, a comprehensive anthology of Latin poetry and prose, it is also a veritable chimera for the translator. (...) Petronius' novel (as most regard it) is like a magnificent piece of wreckage. (...) It is a masterpiece of vulgarity, a garish panorama of bad taste brought to high art." - Erich Segal, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[This review is based on the 2020 Loeb Classical Library series edition (vol. 15) from Harvard University Press, in Gareth Schmeling's translation, which supersedes and replaces Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation, as revised by E.H.Warmington (1969). Other widely available editions include the Penguin Classics edition, in J.P.Sullivan's translation (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), and the Oxford World Classics edition, in P.G.Walsh's translation (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk).]

       Satyricon was, in Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation, among the first works presented in the Loeb Classical Library -- volume 15. E.H.Warmington's 1969 revision was a welcome update, but another half a century on a completely new edition seems appropriate (if not downright necessary), the old volume now replaced in 2020 by that translated and edited by Gareth Schmeling. (Readers should note that while the old edition is now officially out of print, second-hand copies still circulate widely and some care should be taken when purchasing the book, especially online, so that the readers actually get the edition they are looking for, old or new. Helpfully, the official Loeb series site makes both the (revised) 1913 edition and the 2020 edition available.)
       Schmeling's is an entirely new edition, and presented as such, with Schmeling not referring much less comparing his work to the predecessor-volume. (So also in his bibliography he mentions only five other: "recent and potentially useful translations with notes", implying that the old Loeb edition has outlived its usefulness.) The introductory material on the text as well as the references to the secondary literature are naturally now more up-to-date -- with Schmeling particularly thorough in his presentation of textual documentation. The listings of secondary material are conveniently divided up by category ('Bibliographies'; 'Studies on the Manuscript'; etc.) and succinctly presented (the full references then found in the General Bibliography); noting the vast number of translations Schmeling, as noted, only mentions a few (and without specific comments on them) where an updated version of Warmington's overview of other 'Plain Translations without Text' from the previous edition -- nearly two pages worth, with more extensive discussion of the translations by W.Arrowsmith (1964) and J.Sullivan (1965) -- or something similar would have been welcome. (The Index of Characters in the Schmeling is, however, a notable improvement over the earlier edition.)
       The introduction to text and author, as well as the synopsis ('Short Overview') -- more freely told than the 'Summary of the Story' of the previous edition's Introduction, but a similarly useful quick reference -- are kept fairly short and to the point, but are certainly sufficient introductions. They also reveal some of the editor/translator's approach to the text -- notably, for example, in Schmeling's turning away from the long popular view of the Satyrica (as Schmeling prefers to refer to it as): "as Menippean Satire, with Varro's Saturae Menippeae as the reference point". Instead, he suggests:

A search for satire in Petronius should probably be replaced by a search for parody of contemporary writers such as Seneca and Lucan. The present editor would set aside any label of satire and read the work as a resourceful clash of understanding and misunderstanding reality.
       Satyricon is fragmentary, with chunks of episodes; as Schmeling notes; "the episodes are not always organically connected". It is narrated by Encolpius and begins with him in dialogue with a teacher of rhetoric named Agamemnon -- who complains about how teachers have to play for an audience, undermining, among other things, the loftier standards they aspire to. These early, rhetoric-focused scenes also give some sense of how Schmeling approaches translation, with word-choices that are often not quite as expressive as Heseltine's. So, for example Agamemnon notes how teachers: "have to act like madmen and play their part with lunatics" where Heseltine had, for qui necesse habent cum insanientibus furere: "They are in a madhouse, and they must gibber", and in Schmeling Agamemenon argues: "Elevated and what I would call a pure style is not full of highly colored and bombastic phrases" where Heseltine has, for non est maculosa nec turgida, that great style: "is never blotchy and bloated".
       Many of the characters Encolpius encounters have a high opinion of themselves and their knowledge and talents -- and, often, moan about how they and these are misunderstood or under-appreciated. The wealthy Trimalchio, the host of the elaborate dinner that makes up the biggest single piece of the novel, the Cena Trimalchionis, can afford to spout his ignorance without much concern that he'll be called out on it, but the struggling intellectuals don't have it as easy -- one of Petronius' points that's repeatedly hammered home over the course of the novel. The poet Eumolpus -- very certain of his (dubious) talents -- makes for the most amusing example, then, observing not only that: "passion for the intellect never made anyone rich" but also finding his poetry not only under- but downright unappreciated. As Encolpius soon learns first hand, in some of the novel's most comic scenes, the reactions to both actual examples of Eumolpus' poetry or even just the knowledge that he is a poet is enough to provoke strong, even violent reaction.
       Trimalchio might not be taken seriously by many of the guests at his grand meal, but he is treated differently and deferred to, no matter what he holds forth on. Given the speaker, one might have doubts about the assessment, but it's noteworthy how that he considers it a given when he poses the question:
"What profession," he asked, "do we think is the most difficult after that of writing ?"
       Trimalchio seems to respect scholarship and learning -- after all, as he boasts: "I have three libraries, one Greek, a second one in Latin, –" -- but, of course, his many mistakes and mix-ups regarding even popular myth and history show he is anything but learned and certainly indifferent to details. As Schmeling suggests in a footnote: "Trimalchio's confusion about items of Roman history are more entertaining than actual history". Beginning with the debates about rhetoric, Petronius clearly makes the point that the craft of writing is a challenging one, but he repeatedly shows that the author's lot is also per se a difficult one -- not least how even admired work is twisted by those incapable of properly appreciating it.
       Despite the various characters' defenses of rhetoric, poetry, and learning more generally, in the numerous debates or what amount to lectures in the novel, Satyricon is also very much an entertainment. Much is of a sexual nature, as Encolpius has a "boy-partner", Giton who is variously also lusted after by sometime-companion Ascyltos and then Eumolpus. (Schmeling explains that: "Boy-partner is my rendering of frater. By this I indicate the younger-boy homosexual lover of the pair. The word frater is also used to mean "partner, homosexual lover of the same age"." Heseltine generally opts simply for 'brother', the role and relationship being clear enough from the context and action.) Encolpius' repeated efforts to win over and hang onto Giton in the face of considerable competition serve for both some of the more dramatic action and comedy (as well as some of the more explicit scenes)-- culminating in the shipboard scene where (melodramatically rather than seriously, one must assume):
Giton in a very brave act turned the menacing razor to his genitals, and threatened to cut off the cause of so many troubles
       Warmington's 1969 revision of Heseltine promises that: "All hitherto untranslated or "bowdlerized" passages have now been translated" -- and so, for example, he also has: "Giton turned a razor against his genitals" where Heseltine had him turn it only "on himself" -- but still shows some restraint, whereas Schmeling's translation is freer and (not always successfully) more modern. The shifts can be seen in, for example, the translations of frigori laecasin dico: Heseltine's original has it as: "I let the cold go to the devil"; Warmington's revision is: "I let the cold go to hell", and Schmeling flat-out goes for: "I say fuck off to the cold". (Schmeling is probably right in trying to capture the force of laecasin -- from the Greek, λαικίζειν --; like many expletives, it's hard to get the right feel across in translation.)
       Even sometimes where Schmeling gets it right it can sound a bit off. A hapax legomenon (a word of which there is only one recorded use) makes for a particular challenge, and Heseltine's translation of "Apoculamus nos circa gallicinia" -- as: "So we trotted off about cock-crow" -- seems a safe but weak choice. Warmington's effort -- "So we bummed ourselves off about cockrow" -- can feel a bit forced, but is helpfully footnoted, providing a good explanation of the word-choice:
If we have this word right, it is some slang for going away, formed of apo, Greek ἀπό "from," and culus "arse," or Greek ἀποκυλίω, ἀποκυλίνδω "roll away" ?
       Schmeling clearly follows this reading, but without a similar explanatory footnote his (clever) version -- "At about cockrow we hauled ass" -- is rather jarring. (If the rest of the translation had a similar tone -- a possibly interesting approach -- it might work, but as is it just stands out as uncomfortably different. One of the few other examples is a translation of "Quid ergo est ?", which Heseltine (too) simply makes: "Well, well" (with Warmington unable to come up with anything better, leaving it unchanged), while Schmeling went for: "What's the big deal ?".)
       Nevertheless, particularly in the final sections, in which Encolpius has a number of opportunities for sex but can't rise to the occasion among other often very explicit scenes, Schmeling's renderings generally read less awkwardly than the older, more dated versions.
       As a final comparison of (the Loeb) translations, an example from the (word-)playful apophoreta -- "a short text attached to a departure gift for the guests" -- from Trimalchio's banquet gives a good sense of each:
“muraena et littera”: murem cum rana alligata fascemque betae accepit

“The muræna and a letter”; he took a mouse and a frog tied together, and a bundle of beetroot. [Heseltine]

“ A murry muraena and a letter ”: he received a “ murry ”-mouse with a rana-frog tied to it and a bunch of beet. [Warmington]

“Lamprey and a letter” – a mouse with a frog tied to it and a bunch of beets. [Schmeling]
       [The Latin text in the 2020 edition omits the 'accepit'.]
       The Cena Trimalchionis -- Trimalchio's grand feast -- is enjoyably amusing, both in its excess (and Trimalchio's tendency to (great) exaggeration) and creativity, especially regarding some of the fantastical food-courses and how they are presented. Encolpius claims: "It would be tiresome to go through everything that happened", but what he does relate is good fun and moves along at a good pace. There's solid drama to later episodes involving Giton -- though the flight that brings Encolpius, Giton, and Eumolpus aboard a ship suffers some from missing the manuscript-parts that have been lost -- "where Encolpius seems to have robbed Lichas, stolen a sacred robe and rattle dedicated to Isis, and seduced his wife", as Schmeling suggests in a footnote (i.e. a lot happened -- and a lot that also bears on this action).
       Eumolpus' "monstrous flow of verbiage"-- the long Civil War poem he recites -- remains a somewhat odd bit of the novel, very different from the many shorter stories that are related; presumably it was a better fit in the complete novel. As Schmeling notes in his Introduction, Satyricon: "is a mixture of prose and poetry" (with many of the characters poets), but he has also followed Heseltine and Warmington in rendering all the verse, including the Civil War poem, in prose. This is reasonable enough -- though one might wish for someone to have a go at trying to make English poetry out of this Latin verse.
       Many of Schmeling's footnotes (191 for the text-proper, along with 785 regarding the Latin text) are explanatory but several pass judgment where explanation might have served readers better, as when he observes: "The description of Trimalchio's confusion in retelling myths is brilliant" rather than explaining the myth and/or mistake. (In this case -- "Dedalus is shutting Niobe in the Trojan horse" -- the stories might be familiar enough; nevertheless .....) Another instance offers some explanation of a scene but then also concludes: "This is supposedly amusing", which readers surely can be left to judge for themselves. (Occasionally, the more editorial comments in the footnotes are welcome, as in the suggestion that: "the reader will witness throughout the Cena not so much a dinner as a dinner theater".) Overall, more explanatory footnotes would have been welcome -- as well as more that, as in Warmington's revision, explain some of the word choices in the original and translation.
       This new edition of Petronius would seem to have the more reliable and up-to-scholarship-date Latin text, and thus be more useful to the serious Latin reader. (The textual difference are not major, but the annotation and sourcing are presumably of use to the serious scholar.) For the more casual reader -- such as this reviewer -- the translation itself is not quite as great an improvement as might have been hoped for (and, again, the more explanatory footnoting of the Warmington is missed). Nevertheless, the awkwardness of the translation tends to be limited to a few specific jarring choices, and overall reads well enough, with particularly the more explicit scenes successfully handled.
       The hope for a definitive edition of Satyricon is perhaps too much to ask for, given the difficulties of the text (including the fact that it is a fragmentary text). This new Loeb edition doesn't render the earlier (revised) edition entirely obsolete (as one might have also hoped for), but it's a solid volume that will certainly do for most readers. What improvement there is over the Warmington revision is probably of most use to the serious Latin scholar, while the casual reader might miss some of Heseltine and Warmington's more creative turns of phrase (and Warmington's footnotes). Certainly, Schmeling's rendering is good too -- but it also merely joins a large number of other solid translations, rather than supplanting them.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 June 2021

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Satyricon: Reviews (*: refers to a different translation): Petronius: Other translations of Satyricon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gaius Petronius Arbiter lived in the 1st century.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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