The beginning of the end

Fellini’s Satyricon (1969)

It’s not a coincidence that the first European novel is also one of the weirdest pieces of literature.

Petronius’ Satyricon, a work of the 1st century AD, features gay threesomes, warewolves, twisted dinner parties, leather sex toys and cannibalism. It is a monument built on and around irony, but it is also a labour of pleasure, Petronius having certainly enjoyed writing it as much as we enjoy reading it. It is also a work of deeply distressing decadence. Its title, rooted in the genre of satyre and no doubt advocating it, is completely powerless to conceal the sensibilities of an ancient Roman culture which felt itself, 2,000 years ago, already too old, in many ways obsolescent and decrepit. A kind of ancient postmodernism, the cynicism of a kind of the end of historical meaning or the meaningless of history taking over those who had spent too much time around the centre of power and had seen everything culture had to offer.

We read the Satyricon with so much excitement that it’s hard to slow down and maybe arrest the narrative orgy to which the reader is invited and stare at a declining culture, a fading civilization whose only pastime worthy of investment is to ‘pastichize’ the values which had given Rome its strength and ensured its solid, though limited, success: honour, hospitality, curiosity, pietas, frugality and a disavowal of oriental affectation.

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