Author: Petronius Arbiter


Realism, as we are concerned with it, may be defined as the literary effect produced by the marshaling of details in their exactitude for the purpose of bringing out character. The fact that they may be ugly and vulgar the reverse, makes not the slightest difference. The modern realist contemplates the inanimate things which surround us with peculiar complaisance, and it is right that he should as these things exert upon us a constant and secret influence. The workings of the human mind, in complex civilizations, are by no means simple; they are involved and varied: our thoughts, our feelings, our wills, associate themselves with an infinite number of sensations and images which play one upon the other, and which individualize, in some measure, every action we commit, and stamp it. The merit of our modern realists lies in the fact that they have studied the things which surround us and our relations to them, and thus have they been able to make their creations conform to human experience. The ancients gave little attention to this; the man, with them, was the important thing; the environment the unimportant. There are, of course, exceptions; the interview between Ulysses and Nausiskaa is probably the most striking. From the standpoint of environment, Petronius, in the greater portion of his work, is an ancient; but one exception there is, and it is as brilliant as it is important. The entire episode, in which Trimalchio figures, offers an incredible abundance of details. The descriptions are exhaustive and minute, but the author’s prime purpose was not description, it was to bring out the characters, it was to pillory the Roman aristocracy, it was to amuse! Cicero, in his prosecution of Verres, had shown up this aristocracy in all its brutality and greed, it remained for the author of the Cena to hold its absurdity up to the light of day, to lash an extravagance which, though utterly unbridled, was yet unable to exhaust the looted accumulations of years of political double dealing and malfeasance in office. Trimalchio’s introduction is a masterstroke, the porter at the door is another, the effect of the wine upon the women, their jealousy lest either’s husband should seem more liberal, their appraisal of each other’s jewelry, Scintilla’s remark anent the finesse of Habinnas’ servant in the mere matter of pandering, the blear-eyed and black-toothed slave, teasing a little bitch disgustingly fat, offering her pieces of bread and when, from sheer inability, she refuses to eat, cramming it down her throat, the effect of the alcohol upon Trimalchio, the little old lady girded round with a filthy apron, wearing clogs which were not mates, dragging in a huge dog on a chain, the incomparable humor in the passage in which Hesus, desperately seasick, sees that which makes him believe that even worse misfortunes are in store for him: these details are masterpieces of realism. The description of the night-prowling shyster lawyer, whose forehead is covered with sebaceous wens, is the very acme of propriety; our first meeting; with the poet Eumolpus is a beautiful study in background and perspective. Nineteen centuries have gone their way since this novel was written, but if we look about us we will be able to recognize, under the veneer of civilization, the originals of the Satyricon and we will find that here, in a little corner of the Roman world, all humanity was held in miniature. Petronius must be credited with the great merit of having introduced realism into the novel. By an inspiration of genius, he saw that the framework of frivolous and licentious novels could be enlarged until it took in contemporary custom and environment. It is that which assures for him an eminent place, not in Roman literature alone, but in the literature of the world.

a—INFLUENCE OF THE SATYRICON UPON LITERATURE. The vagrant heroes of Petronius are the originals from whom directly, or indirectly, later authors drew that inspiration which resulted in the great mass of picaresque fiction; but, great as this is, it is not to this that the Satyricon owes its powerful influence upon the literature of the world. It is to the author’s recognition of the importance of environment, of the vital role of inanimate surroundings as a means for bringing out character and imbuing his episodes and the actions of his characters with an air of reality and with those impulses and actions which are common to human experience, that his influence is due. By this, the Roman created a new style of writing and inaugurated a class of literature which was without parallel until the time of Apuleius and, in a lesser degree, of Lucian. This class of literature, though modified essentially from age to age, in keeping with the dictates of moral purity or bigotry, innocent or otherwise, has come to be the very stuff of which literary success in fiction is made. One may write a successful book without a thread of romance; one cannot write a successful romance without some knowledge of realism; the more intimate the knowledge the better the book, and it is frequently to this that the failure of a novel is due, although the critic might be at a loss to explain it. Petronius lies behind Tristram Shandy, his influence can be detected in Smollett, and even Fielding paid tribute to him.


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Chicago: Petronius Arbiter, "III Realism.," Satyricon, trans. W. C. Firebaugh in Satyricon (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922), Original Sources, accessed March 21, 2019,

MLA: Arbiter, Petronius. "III Realism." Satyricon, translted by W. C. Firebaugh, in Satyricon, New York, Boni and Liveright, 1922, Original Sources. 21 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Arbiter, P, 'III Realism.' in Satyricon, trans. . cited in 1922, Satyricon, Boni and Liveright, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 21 March 2019, from