It happened that the master had gone to Capua on some errands, so I persuaded our guest to come with me to the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, see, brave as hell. We headed off around cockcrow, but with the moon full it was as bright as noon. We came to the graveyard … my guy starts making for the tombs so I stand back and count them, singing. Then as I turn round I see he’s stripped and put all his clothes by the side of the road. My heart was in my mouth, I was standing there petrified. Then he pissed round his clothes, and suddenly turned into a wolf! Don’t think I’m joking …
That’s just a little bit of a Latin ghost-story, taken from the Satyricon of Petronius; it seems the man has made sure to protect his clothes so he can pick them up again when he resumes human form in the morning. The Satyricon is a kind of comic novel, recounting the adventures of two friends as they travel through Italy. It survives today only in fragments, the most famous of which is the Cena Trimalchionis, or ‘Trimalchio’s Dinner Party’, which tells of a strange and drunken evening at the house of a very wealthy ex-slave by the name of Trimalchio. The guests are treated to the idiosyncratic behaviour of their host and to a whole range of exotic dishes: hors-d’oeuvres done in the twelve signs of the zodiac; a pig wearing a freedman’s cap, roasted and stuffed with live thrushes. As the evening goes on and the wine keeps flowing, there is gossip and story-telling, pranks and amateur dramatics, as appearance and reality begin to blur together. It’s only when the fire-brigade arrive thinking that the house is on fire that the two friends, Encolpius and Giton, decide to hit the road.
The Cena is of interest here for two reasons. Firstly, because when Trimalchio’s guests – freedmen, or former slaves, themselves – sit around chatting, they speak in a peculiar kind of Latin, full of colloquial phrases (‘brave as hell’, above), borrowings from Greek, and even grammatical mistakes (if mistake is the right word). Now the main narrative in the novel is written in a high, classical, style, so scholars think that in these sections Petronius is deliberately trying to write or to imitate what he perceives to be a kind of ‘lower-class’ Latin (a strategy that has a politics of its own). So this is not ‘real’ everyday Latin, as it were, but an upper-class author’s version of it: Petronius is believed to have been a courtier to the emperor Nero; his Trimalchio a satire of emperor himself. If correct, that means we have to be careful with using it as evidence, but the evidence for everyday Latin is so slim that it’s a case, I think, of using what we can. And linguistics aside, the Cena makes a nice change to the rhetoric, philosophy, and high politics that dominates classical Latin prose.
The other reason for talking about the Cena here is that, like many Latin works, it’s had a big influence on later writers and artists, particularly in the twentieth century. You’ll find it used in the epigraph to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), for instance, and on screen in a version by Federico Fellini (1969). But where the Cena really shines is as a major influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) which, right up until the last minute, was to be called Trimalchio in West Egg. There are lots of similarities between the two works which can help to illuminate them both: a naïve but observant narrator, a mysteriously wealthy host, a raucous social set, a sense of after-hours nihilism, and appearances that deceive. And both works hold a mirror up to high society, leaving you to draw conclusions about the ethos and ethics of that society, but only if you want to. I recommend them both, and leave you with the one clue left in Gatsby as to the novel’s Roman ancestor, the Satyricon of Petronius.
It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night – and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.
Note: In this post I’ve drawn on M. S. Smith, Petronius: Cena Trimalchionis (Oxford, 1975) and J.N. Adams, The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC – AD 600 (Cambridge, 2007); I’ve quoted from chapter 7 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). The Satyricon has been translated into English for the Oxford World’s Classics series by P. G. Walsh.