Ad Mortem Via: Death in the Satyrica of Petronius
The theme of death pervades the Satyrica, a Roman novel written by Petronius in the second half of the first century C.E. that exists today largely in fragmentary form. This dissertation investigates the role of death in the Satyrica, particularly its philosophical, sociological and symbolic representations of death. While other studies have addressed aspects of the subject, this dissertation seeks to synthesize much of the disparate scholarship and draw new conclusions. The chapters are thematic, ordered from the most tangible and concrete to the most abstract treatments of death in the Satyrica. In the first chapter, “actual death,” the characters’ own deaths and experiences of death provide insights into Roman perspectives on the relationship of the body and soul, views of the afterlife, and funerary practices. The second chapter, “apparent death,” examines the purposeful staging of death—a frequent occurrence in the narrative that reveals, in particular, the influence of the mime genre on the Satyrica. Petronius’s satirization sheds light on such subjects as suicide in ancient Rome and the expected and actual sexual behavior of Roman widows. The third chapter, “anticipating death,” focuses on the philosophical, spiritual and practical methods employed and satirized by its characters, such as the Stoics’ methods of death preparation, initiation into mystery cults and the building of tombs. The fourth chapter, “symbolic death,” examines less obvious evocations of death, especially impotence and infertility, and how these are rooted in the real anxieties caused by the high death rates and the decreasing populations of small Roman towns in the imperial period. This study concludes that one may focus on the serious philosophical, sociological and literary aspects of death without losing sight of the fact that the Satyrica was meant primarily to entertain. For Petronius, death and humor were entirely compatible.