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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


(tr. Michael Heseltine)

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

To purchase Satyricon

Title: Satyricon
Author: Petronius
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 66 (Eng. 1913; rev. 1969)
Length: 470 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: Satyricon - US
Satyricon - UK
Satyricon - Canada
Le Satiricon - France
Schelmengeschichten - Deutschland
Satiricon - Italia
Satiricón - España
  • Latin title: Satyricon
  • The edition under review is now out of print, having been superseded and replaced in the Loeb-series by Gareth Schmeling's translation (2020)
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Michael Heseltine; both translation and Introduction revised (1969) by E.H.Warmington
  • This Loeb edition includes: Fragments and Poems, as well as Seneca's Apocolocyntosis (in W.H.D.Rouse'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+ : frustratingly disjointed, but good fun bit by bit

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:
  • "(I)n translating the complete works of Petronius, Mr. Heseltine had an unusual opportunity to deserve well of his author and the reading public. This opportunity has been partially realized. Mr. Heseltine's style is, generally speaking, adequate, and, while consistent and thorough in expurgation, he has preserved practically all that is of real value in the Satyricon. (...) In point of accuracy, this translation not infrequently leaves something to be desired." - Keith Preston, Classical Philology

  • "Mr. Heseltine has a virile and attractive style, and his English is pleasant, straightforward, and readable; but his knowledge is altogether on a lower plane." - S.Gaselee, The Classical Review

  • "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

  • "As for his translation he has had a difficult task, and on the whole his version may be called successful. One has the feeling sometimes that the idiom of the original has become rather unnecessarily diluted, and now and then there is definite clumsiness. But this is almost inevitable. The translation succeeds in being independently readable, and that is all that one has a right to expect." - The Spectator

  • "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 other version 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 Loeb Classical Library series edition (15) from Harvard University Press, in Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation, as revised by E.H.Warmington (1969); this edition has now been superseded and replaced in the Loeb-series by Gareth Schmeling's translation (2020). 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).]

       What we have of Petronius' Satyricon is, as translator Heseltine acknowledges in his Introduction: "a fragment, or rather a series of excerpts ... we know not how representative of the original whole". (Bonus points to revisor E.H.Warmington, for eliding Heseltine's sentence there, giving readers a good idea of what is to come: the text is dotted with elision, beginning to end.) Narrated by Encolpius, the work begins with him mid-argument with a teacher of rhetoric named Agamemnon, and while there are several stretches of sustained story there are also a large number of gaps, small (a few words) and large (huge chunks of story) throughout the text (including numerous episodes and adventures referred to in the existing text but otherwise lost); the original work was clearly much, much longer and it is safe to assume considerably more was lost than preserved.
       The Satyricon is also a rare (partially) extant example of a classical work of prose-fiction -- there are very few Latin (or classical Greek) works resembling the modern novel, but this is one of them.
       The most famous section of the Satyricon is its longest, the Cena Trimalchionis, describing a feast at the house of the very wealthy Trimalchio; many translations are of only this section. While it is also the longest, most coherent episode (though also spotty in places), there's quite a bit to the rest of the novel, too, and a complete translation (insofar as possible) such as this one is certainly preferable to the further diminished highlight-version.
       Encolpius is a somewhat hapless guy -- a 'silly fool' (homo stultissime), as often as not --, and he has more than his share of moments of bad luck as he stumbles through his story (occasionally quite literally, complete with pratfalls) -- though fortune certainly also shines on him repeatedly (such as in escaping a shipwreck). Much of the drive of the novel -- certainly in this form -- comes from how he is, intentionally or not, a somewhat wayward soul, adrift, in a way: the opening scene of debate with him and Agamemnon finds him slipping away from the crowd and immediately lost (and led then, of course, into trouble), while even at Trimalchio's fabulous feast he tries to flee but, with his young companion Giton finds: "we were victims enwound in a new labyrinth" and is soon back in the middle of Trimalchian excess. His inability to find his way (in any respect) is a recurring theme of the novel, as each attempt at escape leads to yet further (and often embarrassing) adventures.
       Encolpius is a friend and rival of Ascyltos -- with young slave Giton getting between them, as they maneuver for his favor and possession. There's quite a bit of sex in the novel, and much of it is of the homosexual variety, Encolpius and Ascyltos both keen on Giton -- though Petronius has them play an apparently less accustomed role early on, an episode about which they then take: "a solemn oath that the dreadful secret should die with us two", as:

Last there arrived a sodomite in a fine brown suit with a waistband ... and one while almost dislocated our buttocks with his poking, other while slobbered us with his nasty kisses

[     Ultimo cinaedus supervenit myrtea subornatus gausapa cinguloque succinctus….
     Modo extortis nos clunibus cecidit, modo basiis olidissimis inquinavit]
       (The original 1913 Loeb edition decorously omits the English translation of this passage, leaving the Latin in its place ....)
       The humor does tend to wards the rawly ribald and, as in everything, the text and language are plain and direct; Petronius is to the point, even about the basest matters (as the variety of bodily functions mentioned and described soon prove), and also always quick to the next point (even where there aren't gaps in the text).
       Among the amusing episodes late in the work is then also one which finds Encolpius romantically involved with Circe, to the extent that:
     We lay together there on this grass and exchanged a thousand light kisses, but we looked for sterner play ...
       That 'voluptatem robustam', however, eludes him -- much to Circe's disappointment (and then anger) -- and his impotence becomes the subject of extend concern and discussion, as he notes -- as if he hasn't been through enough --:
I do not realize that I am a man, I do not feel it. That part of my body where I was once an Achilles is dead and buried.
       Sex and jealousy certainly figure prominently in many of the adventures and confrontations, some of which get quite out of hand. Giton is in the middle of several of these -- thoroughly mixing up Encolpius when both draw the attentions of Tryphaena, but she pays more to Giton ...:
Tryphaena was now lying in Giton's lap, covering him with kisses one moment, and sometimes patting his shaven head. I was gloomy and uneasy about our new terms, and did not touch food or drink, but kept shooting angry looks askance at them both. Every kiss was a wound to me, every pleasing wile that the wanton woman conjured up. I was not yet sure whether I was more angry with the boy for taking away my mistress, or with my mistress for leading the boy astray: both of them were hateful to my sight and more depressing than the bondage I had escaped. And besides all this, Tryphaena did not address me like a friend whom she was once pleased to have for a lover, and Giton did not think fit to drink my health in the ordinary way, and would not even so much as include me in general conversation. I suppose he was afraid of reopening a tender scar just as friendly feeling began to draw it together. My unhappiness moved me till tears overflowed my heart, and the groan I hid with a sigh almost stole my life away ...
       The actions veer towards the melodramatic repeatedly -- so also in the actual conflicts, including one where:
the gallant Giton turned a razor against his genitals and threatened to put an end to our troubles by self-mutilation

[fortissimus Giton ad virilia sua admovit novaculam infestam, minatus se abscisurum tot miseriarum causam]
       (The 1913 edition has him only turn the razor 'on himself'.)
       At another point, Encolpius decides -- rather suddenly and rashly -- that the only option left is the final one:
I made up my mind to hang myself and die. I had just tied a belt to the frame of a bed which stood by the wall, and was stowing my neck into the noose, when the door was unlocked, Eumolpus came in with Giton, and called me back to light from the very bourne of death.
       Eumolpus is among the more amusing characters in the novel, much of which he spends in Encolpius' company. An old poet, he won't let anyone forget it, breaking out in verse at the slightest provocation. Typically -- and at considerable length, and not that anyone was asking for it --:
Well, I will try and explain the situation in verse
       He is certainly dedicated to his art, to the near-complete denial of everything else -- as when Encolpius and Giton are rescued from the sinking boat, and:
     We heard a strange noise, and a groaning like a wild beast wanting to get out, coming from under the master's cabin. So we followed the sound, and found Eumolpus sitting there inscribing verses on a great parchment. We were surprised at his having time to write poetry with death close at hand, and we pulled him out, though he protested, and implored him to be sensible. But he was furious at our interruption, and cried: "Let me complete my thought; the poem halts at the close." I laid hands on the maniac, and told Giton to help me to drag the bellowing bard ashore. . .
       In his translation, Heseltine both renders and presents the verse -- of which there is quite a bit -- in prose. This seems like a fair approach, but in the reading does make for a more compressed text; readers have the facing Latin to compare, where it is printed and verse, and can see line breaks and the (ostensible) poetry, but some of this is lost in how the English translation is presented. (Indeed, on the whole the text feels a bit crammed: with so many ellipses and gaps, it would have been preferable to make these missing bits -- the presence of all this absence -- even clearer.)
       The centerpiece of the Satyricon is the grand banquet hosted by Trimalchio, 'nummorum nummos' -- "millionaire of millionaires" -- who has: "more plate lying in his hall-porter's room than other people have in their whole fortunes" (as well as: "two libraries, one Greek and one Latin"). A full-of-himself blowhard, Encolpius complains also that Trimalchio's "filthy bragging" proves almost impossible to escape -- but then much of the fun of the scene is in how Trimalchio goes on and on, about everything from his bowel movements (he's having trouble with them) to his fortune. The feast is one of great excess -- of food and pleasuring --, with Trimalchio holding forth at considerable length not only about today's pleasures but the future, as he goes on at great length about his plans for his death and estate, including grand designs for a memorial (to him, of course). He even has the inscription already planned -- which includes, for example, the claim:
God-fearing, gallant, constant, he grew from very little and left thirty million.
       And among his ideas for the oversize tomb is to:
have a broken urn carved with a boy weeping over it. And a sundial in the middle, so that anyone who looks at the time will read my name whether he likes it or not.
       Trimalchio's basic philosophy -- which is certainly the philosophy of that night -- is the ultimate in carpe diem. Early on he notes:
Let us live then while it goes well with us.

[Ergo vivamus, dum licet esse bene.]
       And he's no less convinced near the end:
Well, well, if we know we must die, why should we not live ?

[“Ergo” inquit “cum sciamus nos morituros esse, quare non vivamus ?]
       It is indeed an extended entertaining blow-out -- complete with Encolpius' attempts to escape -- but the other episodes, if generally not as sustained, are also strong, and there's generally enough of them to make for an actual story -- i.e. Satyricon is not so fragmentary as to feel entirely piecemeal, even if it does not ever really shape into a novel-whole.
       Heseltine's translation is brisk and tight, in keeping with the original -- though there's certainly something to be said for a more expansive rendering in English (and it's no surprise that many authors (and the occasional filmmaker) has created work based on but not limited to this source material). But Petronius' style in the original is compact, too, the embellishment limited (in Latin that, intentionally, stretches and plays with the classical -- yet another complicating factor in both reading and translating it in contemporary times). Satyricon is also an incredibly allusive text, including in borrowing of phrase and verse, and despite notes and the Introduction, that's hard for the casual reader to get much sense of; a shame, because it seems to be a significant part of the text's appeal and value (Petronius appears to have been very good at this).
       Several of the original reviews of Heseltine's translation point out (apparent) errors; it should be noted that E.H.Warmington's 1969 revision -- the currently circulating edition -- appears to address most of these, as well as making additional changes (including in some of the passages quoted above (all quoted in the 1969 revised version)). Arguably, other, newer translations, including those of Sullivan, Walsh, and Arrowsmith provide sufficient alternative renderings, but it is curious that there has been no truly modern version of the Satyricon in the Loeb Classical Library series; very few volumes in the series have lasted (or been kept) for so long .....
       The Introduction -- also revised -- is helpful, not least in the (updated) discussion of other editions; the summary of the story is also a useful guide, given the jumps and gaps in the story.
       The Satyricon seems worth tackling in a bilingual edition, and so the handy Loeb edition seems the obvious choice, with Heseltine's translation a solid if not entirely satisfactory one. As noted, the presentation of the text might also be made more reader-friendly -- as it is in some of the other translations, if only by making clearer chapter breaks, and presenting the declaimed verse in actual verse form (rather than blocks of prose, as here). Still, overall, this is a handy version to work with -- of a novel that has considerable rewards, including many beyond the Trimalchio-centerpiece (that, at least in reputation, too much overshadows the often very good rest).

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 October 2019

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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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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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