Maecenas and Trimalchio: More in Common Than Meets the Eye

Shannon N. Byrne

Xavier University

Scholars have long noted the literary traditions behind Petronius' Trimalchio, such as Nasidienus of Horace Sat. 2.8. Equally apparent are similarities between Trimalchio and figures in Seneca's Epistles, such as Calvisius Sabinus and Pacuvius. Most obvious of all literary and historical analogues for Trimalchio is Maecenas, in particular Seneca's portrait of him. I will examine qualities between Trimalchio and Maecenas that stem from Seneca's memorable criticisms, some of which have passed unnoticed. In addition I will discuss several correspondences that result from the renewed interest in Augustan authors under Nero, especially Horace, which provided Petronius' audience with knowledge about Maecenas that Seneca did not mention.

            Petronius' Trimalchio and Seneca's Maecenas share numerous physical characteristics: at Sat. 32 Trimalchio, in the company of two eunuchs, wears a purple Greek cloak that exposed his bald head, which echoes Ep. 114.6 where Maecenas appears in public attended by two eunuchs and wearing a Greek cloak that left his ears exposed. Maecenas looks like a runaway slave found in mime, and Trimalchio's performances are mime-like in presentation. Both Maecenas and Trimalchio have difficult relationships with their wives, and both are bad poets with Alexandrian tastes. Psychologically they share a deep preoccupation with death, which triggers womanly fear in Maecenas (Ep. 101.10–14), and causes death to be a constant focus at Trimalchio's banquet (cf. Sat. 27, 34, 42, 71). Too much success causes Trimalchio to make flashy displays of luxury that exceed good taste, just as Seneca claims Maecenas' good fortune caused him to promote a perversely notorious public image (Ep. 114.4–8).

Contemporaries could not fail to recall Seneca's recent portrait of Maecenas as an extreme decadent when encountering Trimalchio, which was one of Petronius' intentions. But Petronius' audience would have spotted more of Maecenas in Trimalchio than what Seneca had criticized. For example, Trimalchio declined to accept higher honors (Sat. 71.6), very much as Maecenas had decided against taking on a senatorial career (Vell. 2.88.2). While the word "-malchio" clearly recalls the Greek malakos ("soft"), another derivation stems from a Semitic word for "king," and Maecenas' royal descent was greatly praised by Augustan poets, in particular Horace. Horace twice presents Maecenas as playing ball (Sat. 1.5.48–47; 2.6.49), which is what Trimalchio is doing when the reader first encounters him. The emphasis Horace places on Maecenas' wealth in Odes 3.16 and 3.29 further connects him with Trimalchio, as does the banquet context of so much of Horace's poetry dedicated to or involving Maecenas (Sat. 1.9.43ff; 2.7.32ff; 2.8; Odes 1.20; 3.8; 3.16; 4.11). As Roland Mayer observed (AJP 103:305–18), certain Augustan authors that had been neglected for decades experienced renewed popularity under Nero. Horace especially enjoyed a sudden revival, as did certain literary productions of Maecenas, which Seneca quotes (Epp. 19.9, 101.10, 92.35, 114.5). Coupled with Seneca's scathing criticism, the recent rediscovery of Maecenas and his works as well as his appearance throughout Horace's poems made Petronius' depiction of Trimalchio all the more humorous and topical to his audience.


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