His own work, the Satirae, tells us nothing directly of his fortunes, position, or even century. Some lines of Sidonius Apollinaris refer to him and are often taken to imply that he lived and wrote at Marseilles. If, however, we accept the identification of this author with the Petronius of Tacitus, Nero's courtier, we must suppose either that Marseilles was his birthplace or, as is more likely, that Sidonius refers to the novel itself and that its scene was partly laid at Marseilles. The chief personages of the story are evidently strangers in the towns of southern Italy where we find them. Their Greek-sounding names (Encolpius, Ascyltos, Giton, etc.) and literary training accord with the characteristics of the old Greek colony in the 1st century AD. The high position among Latin writers ascribed by Sidonius to Petronius, and the mention of him beside Menander by Macrobius, when compared with the absolute silence of Quintilian, Juvenal and Martial, seem adverse to the opinion that the Satirae was a work of the age of Nero. But Quintilian was concerned with writers who could be turned to use in the education of an orator. The silence of Juvenal and Martial may be accidental or it is possible that a work so abnormal in form and substance was more highly prized by later generations than by the author's contemporaries.
A comparison of the impression the book gives us of the character and genius of its author with the elaborate picture of the courtier in Tacitus certainly suggests the identity of the two. Tacitus, it is true, mentions no important work as the composition of his C. Petronius; such a work as the Satirae he may have regarded as beneath that dignity of history which he so proudly realized. The care he gives to Petronius's portrait perhaps shows that the man enjoyed greater notoriety than was due merely to the part he played in history.
"He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial governorship, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigour and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero's intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste (arbiter eleganliae) in connexion with the science of luxurious living"Tacitus goes on to say that this excited the jealousy of Tigellinus, an accusation followed, and Petronius committed suicide in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document which professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practised.
A fact confirmatory of the general truth of this graphic portrait is added by the elder Pliny, who mentions that just before his death he destroyed a valuable murrhine vase to prevent its falling into the imperial hands. Do the traits of this picture agree with that impression of himself which the author of the Satirae has left upon his work? That we possess therein part of the document sent to Nero is an impossible theory. Our fragments profess to be extracts from the fifteenth and sixteenth books of the Satirae: Petronius could not have composed one-tenth even of what we have in. the time in which he is said to have composed his memorial to Nero. We may be sure too that the latter was very frank in its language, and treated Nero with far greater severity than the Banquet treats Trimalchio. On the other hand, it is clear that the creator of Trimalchio, Encolpius and Giton had the experience, the inclinations and the literary gifts which would enable him to describe with forcible mockery the debaucheries of Nero. And the impression of his personality does in another respect correspond closely with the Petronius of the Annals--in the union of immoral sensualism with a rich vein of cynical humour and admirable taste.
The style of the work, where it does not purposely reproduce the solecisms and colloquialisms of the vulgar rich, is of the purest Latin of the Silver ages Nor would there be any point in the verses on the capture of Troy and the Civil War at any other era than that in which Nero's Troica and Lucan's Pharsalia were fashionable poems. The reciting poet indeed is a feature of a later age also, as we learn from Martial and Juvenal. But we know from Tacitus that the luxury of the table, so conspicuous in Trimalchio's Banquet, fell out of fashion after Nero (Ann. 3. 55).
Of the work itself there have been preserved 141 sections of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps. The name Satirae, given in the best manuscripts, implies that it belongs to the type to which Varro, imitating the Greek Menippus, had given the character of a medley of prose and verse composition. But the string of fictitious narrative by which the medley is held together is something quite new in Roman literature. This careless prodigal was so happily inspired in his devices for amusing himself as to introduce to Rome and thereby transmit to modern times the novel based on the ordinary experience of contemporary life--the precursor of such novels as Gil Blas and Roderick Random. There is no evidence of the existence of a regular plot in the fragments, but we find one central figure, Encolpius, who professes to narrate his adventures and describe all that he saw and heard, whilst allowing various other personages to exhibit their peculiarities and express their opinions dramatically.
The fragment opens with the appearance of the hero, Encolpius, who seems to be an itinerant lecturer travelling with a companion named Ascyltos and a boy Giton, in a portico of a Greek town, in Campania. An admirable lecture on the false taste in literature, resulting from the prevailing system of education, is replied to by a rival declaimer, Agamemno, who shifts the blame from the teachers to the parents. The central personages of the story next go through a series of questionable adventures, in the course of which they are involved in a charge of robbery. A day or two after they are present at a dinner given by a freedman of enormous wealth, Trimalchio, who entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance a number of men of his own rank but less prosperous. We listen to the ordinary talk of the guests about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, about the education of their children. We recognize in an extravagant form the same kind of vulgarity and pretension which the satirist of all times delights to expose in the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of the age. Next day Encolpius separates from his companions in a fit of jealousy, and, after two or three days' sulking and brooding on his revenge, enters a picture gallery, where he meets with an old poet, who, after talking sensibly on the decay of art and the inferiority of the painters of the age to the old masters, proceeds to illustrate a picture of thu capture of Troy by some verses on that theme. This ends in those who are walking in the adjoining colonnade driving him out with stones. The scene is next on board ship, where Encolpius finds he has fallen into the hands of some old enemies. They are shipwrecked, and Encolpius, Giton and the old poet get to shore in the neighbourhood of Crotona, where, as the inhabitants are notorious fortune-hunters, the adventurers set up as men of fortune. The fragment ends with a new set of questionable adventures, in which prominent parts are played by a beautif ul enchantress named Circe, a priestess of Priapus, and a certain matron who leaves them her heirs, but attaches a condition to the inheritance which even Encolpius might have shrunk from fulfilling. If we can suppose the author of this work to have been animated by any other motive than the desire to amuse himself, it might be that of convincing himself that the world in general was as bad as he was himself. Juvenal and Swift are justly regarded as among the very greatest of satirists, and their estimate of human nature is perhaps nearly as unfavourable as that of Petronius; but their attitude towards human degradation is not one of complacent amusement; their realism is the realism of disgust, not, like that of Petronius, a realism of sympathy. Martial does not gloat over the vices of which he writes with cynical frankness. He is perfectly aware that they are vices, and that the reproach of them is the worst that can be cast on any one. And, further, Martial, with all his faults, is, in his affections, his tastes, his relations to others, essentially human, friendly, generous, true. There is perhaps not a single sentence in Petronius which implies any knowledge of or sympathy with the existence of affection, conscience or honour, or even the most elementary goodness of heart.
For the whole question of possible predecessors and Petronius's relation to the extant Greek romances see W Schmid, "Der griechische Roman" in Jahrbücher far das klass. Altertum, etc. (1904). One would certainly have expected the realistic tendency which appears in the New Comedy, the Characters of Theophrastus and the Mimes, to have borne this fruit before the first century of our era.