Ancient History Sourcebook:
Petronius Arbiter (c.27-66 CE)
The Banquet of Trimalchio from the Satyricon

[Introduction (adapted from Davis)]

The following is a  excerpt from a comic romance probably composed during the reign of Nero. The picture of Trimalchio, the coarse freedman parvenu, who has nothing to commend him but his money, and who is surrounded by countless parasites and creatures of his whims, is one of the most clever and unsparing delineations in ancient literature. .

At last we went to recline at table where boys from Alexandria poured snow water on our hands, while others, turning their attention to our feet, picked our nails, and not in silence did they perform their task, but singing all the time. I wished to try if the whole retinue could sing, and so I called for a drink, and a boy, not less ready with his tune, brought it accompanying his action with a sharp-toned ditty; and no matter what you asked for it was all the same song.

The first course was served and it was good, for all were close up at the table, save Trimalchio, for whom, after a new fashion, the place of honor was reserved. Among the first viands there was a little ass of Corinthian bronze with saddle bags on his back, in one of which were white olives and in the other black. Over the ass were two silver platters, engraved on the edges with Trimalchio's name, and the weight of silver. Dormice seasoned with honey and poppies lay on little bridge-like structures of iron; there were also sausages brought in piping hot on a silver gridiron, and under that Syrian plums and pomegranate grains.

We were in the midst of these delights when Trimalchio was brought in with a burst of music. They laid him down on some little cushions, very carefully; whereat some giddy ones broke into a laugh, though it was not much to be wondered at, to see his bald pate peeping out from a scarlet cloak, and his neck all wrapped up and a robe with a broad purple stripe hanging down before him, with tassels and fringes dingle-dangle about him.

Then going through his teeth with a silver pick, "my friends," quoth he, "I really didn't want to come to dinner so soon, but I was afraid my absence would cause too great a delay, so I denied myself the pleasure I was at---at any rate I hope you'll let me finish my game." A slave followed, carrying a checkerboard of turpentine wood, with crystal dice; but one thing in particular I noticed as extra nice---he had gold and silver coins instead of the ordinary black and white pieces. While he was cursing like a trooper over the game and we were starting on the lighter dishes, a basket was brought in on a tray, with a wooden hen in it, her wings spread round, as if she were hatching.

Then two slaves came with their eternal singing, and began searching the straw, whence they rooted out some peahen's eggs, and distributed them among the guests. At this Trimalchio turned around---"Friends," he says, "I had some peahen's eggs placed under a hen, and so help me Hercules!---I hope they're not hatched out; we'd better try if they're still tasty." Thereupon we took up our spoons---they were not less than half a pound weight of silver---and broke the eggs that were made of rich pastry. I had been almost on the point of throwing my share away, for I thought I had a chick in it, until hearing an old hand saying, "There must be something good in this," I delved deeper---and found a very fat fig-pecker inside, surrounded by peppered egg yolk.

At this point Trimalchio stopped his game, demanded the same dishes, and raising his voice, declared that if anyone wanted more liquor he had only to say the word. At once the orchestra struck up the music, as the slaves also struck up theirs, and removed the first course. In the bustle a dish chanced to fall, and when a boy stooped to pick it up, Trimalchio gave him a few vigorous cuffs for his pains, and bade him to "throw it down again"---and a slave coming in swept out the silver platter along with the refuse. After that two long-haired Ethiopians entered with little bladders, similar to those used in sprinkling the arena in the amphitheater, but instead of water they poured wine on our hands. Then glass wine jars were brought in, carefully sealed and a ticket on the neck of each, reading thus: "Opimian Falernia, One hundred years old."

[Davis: Presently one of the guests remarks, first on how completely Trimalchio is under the thumb of his wife; next he comments on the gentleman's vast riches.] "So help me Hercules, the tenth of his slaves don't know their own master.... Some time ago the quality of his wool was not to his liking; so what does he do, but buys rams at Tarentum to improve the breed. In order to have Attic honey at home with him, he has bees brought from Attica to better his stock by crossing it with the Greek. A couple of days ago he had the notion to write to India for mushroom seed. And his freedmen, his one-time comrades [in slavery] they are no small cheese either; they are immensely well-off. Do you see that chap on the last couch over there? Today he has his 800,000 sesterces. He came from nothing, and time was when he had to carry wood upon his back.... He has been manumitted only lately, but he knows his business. Not long ago he displayed this notice: "Caius Pompeius Diogenes, Having Taken A House Is Disposed To Let His Garret From The Kalends Of July."

[After a very long discussion in like vein and a vulgar display of luxuries and riches, Trimalchio condescends to tell the company how he came by his vast wealth.] "When I came here first [as a slave] from Asia, I was only as high as yonder candlestick, and I'd be measuring my height on it every day, and greasing my lips with lamp oil to bring out a bit of hair on my snout. Well, at last, to make a long story short, as it pleased the gods, I became master in the house, and as you see, I'm a chip off the same block. He [my master] made me coheir with Caesar, and I came into a royal fortune, but no one ever thinks he has enough. I was mad for trading, and to put it all in a nutshell, bought five ships, freighted them with wine---and wine was as good as coined money at that time--and sent them to Rome. You wouldn't believe it, every one of those ships was wrecked. In one day Neptune swallowed up 30,000,000 sesterces on me. D'ye think I lost heart? Not much! I took no notice of it, by Hercules! I got more ships made, larger, better, and luckier; that no one might say I wasn't a plucky fellow. A big ship has big strength---that's plain! Well I freighted them with wine, bacon, beans, perfumes, and slaves. Here Fortuna (my consort) showed her devotion. She sold her jewelry and all her dresses, and gave me a hundred gold pieces---that's what my fortune grew from. What the gods ordain happens quickly. For on just one voyage I scooped in 10,000,000 sesterces and immediately started to redeem all the lands that used to be my master's. I built a house, bought some cattle to sell again---whatever I laid my hand to grew like a honeycomb. When I found myself richer than all the country round about was worth, in less than no time I gave up trading, and commenced lending money at interest to the freedmen. Upon my word, I was very near giving up business altogether, only an astrologer, who happened to come into our colony, dissuaded me.

"And now I may as well tell you it all---I have thirty years, four months and two days to live, moreover I"m to fall in for an estate---that's prophecy anyway. If I'm so lucky as to be able to join my domains to Apulia, I'll say I've got on pretty well. Meanwhile under Mercury's' fostering, I've built this house. Just a hut once, you know---now a regular temple! It has four dining rooms, twenty bedrooms, two marble porticoes, a set of cells upstairs, my own bedroom, a sitting room for this viper (my wife!) here, a very fine porter's room, and it holds guests to any amount. There are a lot of other things too that I'll show you by and by. Take my word for it, if you have a penny you're worth a penny, you are valued for just what you have. Yesterday your friend was a frog, he's a king today---that's the way it goes."

[Trimalchio goes on to show off to his guests the costly shroud, perfumes, etc., he has been assembling for his own funeral; and at last] we, the guests were already disgusted with the whole affair when Trimalchio, who, by the way, was beastly drunk, ordered in the cornet players for our

further pleasure, and propped up with cushions, stretched himself out at full length. "Imagine I'm dead," says he, "and play something soothing!" Whereat the cornet players struck up a funeral march, and one of them especially---a slave of the undertaker fellow---the best in the crowd, played with such effect that he roused the whole neighborhood. So the watchmen, who had charge of the district, thinking Trimalchio's house on fire, burst in the door, and surged in---as was their right---with axes and water ready. Taking advantage of such an opportune moment . . . we bolted incontinently, as if there had been a real fire in the place.


From: William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. ??

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Paul Halsall, July 1998