Guest Blog: Tacitus: On The Life And Death Of Petronius

Petronius deserves a word in retrospect. He was a man who passed his days in sleep, his nights in the ordinary duties and recreations of life: others had achieved greatness by the sweat of their brows— Petronius idled into fame. 

Unlike most who walk the road to ruin, he was never regarded as either debauchee or wastrel, but rather as the finished artist in extravagance. In both word and action, he displayed a freedom and a sort of self-abandonment which were welcomed as the indiscretions of an unsophisticated nature. Yet, in his proconsulship of Bithynia, and later as consul elect, he showed himself an energetic and capable administrator.

 Then came the revulsion: his genuine or affected vices won him admittance into the narrow circle of Nero’s intimates, and he became the Arbiter of Elegance, whose sanction alone divested pleasure of vulgarity and luxury of grossness.
His success aroused the jealousy of Tigellinus against a possible rival—a professor of voluptuousness better equipped than himself. Playing on the emperor’s lust for cruelty, to which all other lusts were secondary, he suborned a slave to turn informer, charged Petronius with his friendship for Scaevinus, deprived him of the opportunity of defence, and threw most of his household into prison.

At that time, it happened, the court had migrated to Campania; and Petronius had reached Cumae, when his detention was ordered. He disdained to await the lingering issue of hopes and fears: still, he would not take a brusque farewell of life. An incision was made in his veins: they were bound up under his directions, and opened again, while he conversed with his friends—not on the gravest of themes, nor in the key of the dying hero. He listened to no disquisitions on the immortality of the soul or the dogmas of philosophy, but to frivolous song and playful verses. Some of his slaves tasted of his bounty, others of the whip. He sat down to dinner, and then drowsed a little; so that death, if compulsory, should at least be natural. 

Even in his will, he broke through the routine of suicide, and flattered neither Nero nor Tigellinus nor any other of the mighty: instead, he described the emperor’s enormities; added a list of his catamites, his women, and his innovations in lasciviousness; then sealed the document, sent it to Nero, and broke his signet-ring to prevent it from being used to endanger others.

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