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This article is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

The Satyrica Frederic Raphael

In his essay Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino defines a classic as the kind of work which, at a certain age, one claims to be re-reading. A more prosaic definition is that classics are books habitually studied in class. By the latter standard, the Satyrica scarcely qualifies. I spent many hours a week at Charterhouse conning Latin and Greek texts during my enforcedly monastic teens, but Gaius Petronius Arbiter had no part in our very proper curriculum. Grammatical curiosities and antique piety were more suitable for youthful attention than scandalous narratives.

Even 'out of school', Carthusians' lives were so closely hedged that, on free afternoons, the rules forbade us to ride our bicycles across a railway line. Anything on the other side of the tracks was out of bounds. In scholarly terms, the Satyricon (as it was called in those days) belonged in the same outlawed territory. No one denied that it was racily written. What marooned it on the wrong side of the tracks was its subversively amoral tone. How could anyone excuse a self-indulgent fiction in which boys were at least as attractive to its sex-obsessed anti-heroes as the shameless women who propositioned them?

The modern preference for calling Petronius's sprawling and cynical masterpiece 'The Satyrica' alerts us to its affinity to Greek sentimental novels of the Hellenistic period: many of them had titles ending in -ica. Petronius's lascivious parody of such chaste romances was written during the reign (AD 54-68) of ...

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