Gaius, or (possibly) Titus. A Roman novelist probably to be identified with an accomplished voluptuary at the court of Nero. He was one of the chosen companions of Nero, and was regarded as director-in-chief of the imperial pleasures, the judge whose decision upon the merits of any proposed scheme of enjoyment was held as final (elegantiae arbiter). The influence thus acquired excited the jealous suspicions of Tigellinus. Petronius was accused of treason; and believing that destruction was inevitable, he resolved to die as he had lived, and to excite admiration by the frivolous eccentricity of his end. Having caused his veins to be opened, he from time to time checked the flow of blood by the application of bandages. During the intervals he conversed with his friends, and even showed himself in the public streets of Cumae, where these events took place; so that at last, when he collapsed from exhaustion, his death (A.D. 66), although compulsory, appeared to be the result of natural and gradnal decay. He is said to have despatched in his last moments a sealed document to the emperor, taunting him with his brutal excesses ( Tac. Ann.xvi. 18Tac. Ann., 19; Pliny , Pliny H. N.xxxvii. 20).
The remarkable work which is traditionally ascribed to this person and which has come down to modern times in an incomplete form, was originally written in at least 16 books, with the title Satira or Satiricon. It is in prose, with many passages in verse scattered through it as quotations, or as compositions of characters introduced in the novel. The book is a sort of comic romance, in which the adventures of a certain Encolpius and his companions in the south of Italy, chiefly in Puteoli or its environs (on the place see H. W. Hayley in Harvard Studies in Class. Philology for 1892), are made a vehicle for exposing the false taste and vices of the age. Unfortunately the vices of the personages introduced are depicted with such fidelity that we are perpetually disgusted by the obscenity of the descriptions. The longest section is generally known as the Dinner of Trimalchio (Cena Trimalchionis), presenting us with a caricatured account of a fantastic banquet, such as the gourmands of the Empire were wont to exhibit on their tables. Next in interest is the well-known tale of the Ephesian Matron, which is really older than the time of Petronius, and is found in various forms in the literature of many peoples, even in the Chinese; and which in English is introduced into one of the sermons of Jeremy Taylor. It is probably the best if not the only remaining specimen of a Milesian Tale. (See Novels and Romances.) The novel is also remarkable for its pictures of low life, and for the specimens which it gives of the Latin of the uneducated classes (sermo plebeius), of which it is the most important literary example. The dialogue is amusing, abounding in idiomatic expressions, popular maxims, ungrammatical language, and slang. See Sermo Plebeius.
A remarkable attempt at fraud by one Franois Nodot in the seventeenth century is associated with the history of the text of Petronius. Nodot professed to have got possession of a complete copy of Petronius with no lacunae, found, he said, at the sack of Belgrade. His text was printed at Rotterdam in 1693, but was at once seen to be a forgery; yet as it gives a continuous narrative instead of the fragmentary one of the genuine text its additions are sometimes printed (in different type) in editions of Petronius.
There are twenty-one existing manuscripts of Petronius, the most important being the Codex Traguriensis in the Bibliothque Nationale at Paris. It was found at Trau in Dalmatia in 1663, and contains the Cena Trimalchionis. See Beck, The Age of Petronius (Cambridge, Mass., 1856), and the account of the MSS. in Bcheler's large edition.
The best editions are those of Burmann (2d ed. Amsterdam, 1743); Reiske (Leipzig, 1748); Bcheler, ed. maior (Berlin, 1862); and Bcheler, ed. minor, text only (Berlin, 1886; last ed. 1895); De Guerle, with translation into French (Paris, 1862); of the Cena, with German translation and notes (Leipzig, 1892); and Waters, with English notes (announced, 1895). On the language, see Ludwig, De Petronii Sermone Plebeio (Leipzig, 1870); von Guericke, De Lingua Vulgari apud Petronium (Knigsberg, 1875); Cesareo, De Petronii Sermone (Rome, 1887); Schuchardt, Der Vokalismus des Vulgrlateins (Leipzig, 1866-68); and Cooper, Word Formation in the Roman Sermo Plebeius (N. Y. and Boston, 1895). For criticism, etc., see Ptrequin, Rcherches sur Ptrone (Paris, 1869); Gaston Boissier in the Revue des Deux Mondes for November, 1874; Thomas, La Socit Romaine d'aprs Ptrone (Paris, 1892); and H. W. Hayley, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, iii. pp. 1-40 (1892).