PETRONIUS — J.P. SULLIVAN — THE SATYRICON — 1965–1986
Despite what the translator says in his notes that we are supposed to take many episodes and details with a grain of salt, we are in Rome and the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero, and I may consider that the grain of salt is maybe only a way to smoothen the horror of some descriptions or allusions. This is quite clearly a depiction of this time in Rome and some elements are just coming out as clearly as they are horrifying. When a country, an empire, what’s more, is falling that low in its daily life, the end is close, and yet the Roman Empire was not even near the beginning of its end and it was going to go on for at least two more centuries. For such an entity to continue when overwhelmed with such decay, they have to use pretty strong physical and mental terror to impose the status quo. The Roman Empire was based on war, conquest, terror, colonization, and the turning of any act of violence into a both entertaining and frightening show for the public, respectively entertaining for the elite and frightening for the simple audience.
But, and this is clear in this text, society is based on slavery. Slaves are everywhere and many of those we would consider as servants, and who are called from time-to-time servants, are in fact slaves. Slaves have no rights at all. You can be born a slave. You can become a slave to compensate for your debts. You can become a slave for any small mistake you may have done in your serving free people. You can of course become a slave when you are captured as a prisoner in some war. All industry, a great part of agriculture, many trades, and a vast section of work in urbanized areas are performed by slaves. Most people working on ships, hence sailors, are slaves. And for slaves, in this Roman Empire, there are only two punishments possible: whipping for menial or small mistakes and crucifixion for stealing or simply displeasing the master of this particular slave who has the power to decide such a punishment performed then by … and the question is to know by whom, though always under the surveillance of the army. Note by the way that most soldiers were slaves and in their case, that enslavement could be temporary, for ten years or more. Then they were freed back into life, or back into the position of gladiators. Julius Caesar’s secretary was a slave. Page 120, the story of the Lady of Ephesus is typical as for that: three thieves had been crucified next to the tomb of the Lady’s husband. One body was stolen while the soldier who was supposed to look after them at night was frolicking with the lady in her husband’s tomb. One of the punishments for the careless soldier could have been whipping or crucifixion. The rebellion of slaves under Hannibal ended up with thousands of crucifixions along the road leading to Rome.
And yet this brutality and cruelty of this society are often dressed up with some religious beliefs often founded on old historical events, like the destruction of Troy. So, you have gods and goddesses, temples for all these gods, including some altars in various homes, and of course priests and priestesses operating their divine power onto society in the name of these gods. Such divine characters are justifying violence and cruelty as the decisions and the doing of gods and goddesses. Then it is seen as normal, acceptable, civilized even since it shows a high level of conceptualization. This ever-pervading presence of some religious discourse or reference in this society that is described from the point of view of the free elite, is folkloric in a way, for us today, but at the time it must have been awe-inspiring if not fright-nurturing. It is nothing else but fascism of the worst possible type. We do not seem to understand those ever-present horror, violence, cruelty create in society, including among the free elite, a constant presence of fear, fright, and even panic in some extreme and yet common and banal situations.
The third element in this society is the existence of a whole system of sexual exploitation of some types of people who are not free really since they are free within their total submission to the “duties” of their professions. They are servants of a certain type and it is their activity that holds society at bay, a little bit, because of the appeal of their trade. They are sex slaves of some type or other, male and female prostitutes who work both with male and female customers. If you enter a brothel of some type, you are the customer, but you hardly have the right to choose. You are there to have some acts performed on you and for you to perform some acts on the “servants” who are there at your disposal. Thus, a male entering a brothel may be served by a male prostitute first in his backside and then by a female prostitute on his front side. In the same way, it is quite normal for a young man, or at times not so young, to have a child attached to him as his own pleasure boy (girls are available in brothels) following his master, sleeping with him, and doing all he was told to do. Such a sex-toy boy can be very young, and there is at least one allusion to boys and girls being used like that by adults as young as seven. The concept of pedophilia — it is a Greek word after all — existed but it was entirely normal and accepted in this society. This accepted pedophilia will be considered as normal up to the 19th century and it started — only started — being frowned upon and then criminalized at the beginning of the 20th century, though in the mines or textile factories in France, children started working at the age of twelve — at times earlier, even when education was compulsory and it was compulsory at best five years, hence up to eleven, and twelve was the beginning of adult working life — and it was the responsibility of the father to take his son on the day when he got his first paycheck to the local café and to introduce him to the easy ladies working there. You find such traditions still in the 1930s and I have met people who told me that their father did it for them in the 1950s, though generally at an older age like fourteen or fifteen.
The main boy used a sex-toy is Giton from beginning to end. Such a boy can be stolen or borrowed by some other man than his master for a short while or for a longer period. Children were not in any way protected sexually in this society. Even girls, mind you, apart maybe for elite families, and this is definitely not sure or general.
This society is described as entirely dominated by money and property, the possession of anything, and keep in mind you can possess slaves, workers, servants, sailors, farmworkers, etc. Is there an end to property or possession? None at all. You can possess gods, temples, priests, and priestesses. If you have money, we are told in the last section, you can commit the worst sacrilegious act against some god or temple, and the proper amount of gold coins will enable you to be purified, excused, and even covered up, whitened if you prefer. And all along, particularly in the section called “Dinner with Trimalchio” food and drink are shown as being always in excess. A Roman banquet was an orgy in many ways: a culinary orgy in all the cooking going along with such an event; an eating and drinking orgy with a couple of allusions to the visits to an outside site which probably is a vomitorium where you empty your stomach to be able to eat and drink more; a sensuous and sexual orgy in all possible ways and if you are taking part in this banquet, you are supposed to be defenseless as for all the other participants who can practically do what they want with you, and do not forget that in such a situation a gentleman, rather than a lady, always protests too much; and of course you can always have an orgy of music, poetry, dancing, always seen as a show or a performance to entertain the guests or participants with shocking performances either in words or actually in acts.
It is quite obvious that in those days they did not have the famous blue pill, and it meant that constant and excessive sexual activities, with boys, girls, men, and women, freely and without any limitation must have led a few to some breakdown pauses. One is depicted in length in the book and I must say the solutions are not particularly attractive, including some severe physical stimulation that does not seem to lead to much. This sexual dimension among the elite is definitely disturbing for a society that is supposed to be a model for us in our elected institutions, and our legal systems or judicial functioning. We are not here dealing with the Marquis de Sade’s literature, and yet it is more or less stated that such extreme and excessive activities are normal. It is the type of sexual slavery that Anne Rice imagined in her Beauty’s novels, though Anne Rice has taken the religious costumes away (as a Catholic she couldn’t imagine such divine justification) and she tried to get the extreme cruelty leading to crucifixion or other chastisements of this type, meaning leading to death, out of her tale in the lethal dimension though she loved the concept of crucifixion.
But I must say this total soaking and even drowning in such slavery and orgiastic never-ending enjoyment based on and justified with religious considerations is properly sickening and only leaves the reader with one solution, fast reading. Happy are the Asperger fast readers. The insane and totally unethical titillation of this work can be fast-tracked to the end. But we definitely need to read this book to just be able to think that anything that is not done in liberty, any society that is not based on freedom, leads to all sorts of slavery that are definitely in our modern world sickening and disgusting. But keep in mind that in those older centuries, millennia maybe, it was absolutely banal and normal. As long as the Marquis de Sade only played around with maids and servants, that was absolutely fine, as long as he did not touch members of the aristocracy. His being an aristocrat himself, he had the right to take anyone who was not an aristocrat and do what he wanted with them, sexually of course, with or without their consent. The French Revolution did not change much as for that, though it started stating some protection for girls of the elite classes, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie.
Have a good dive into the foundations of modern western civilization.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
FELLINI — SATYRICON — 1969
This is a film of its time 1968–69 when the world completely changed from the worst moralistic possible concentration camp (criminalized homosexual practices, very much frowned upon prostitution of any kind, and at the same time total blindness on what was happening in some “catholic” institutions with priests and other personnel: the idea that love from a priest was love from Jesus himself and Jesus loved everyone, thus a priest could love everyone, as long as it did not in any way get close to matrimony, but all peculiar relationships, meaning not concerned by any heterosexual dimension, went just unseen) to something finally slightly livable or starting to be livable. Can you imagine the emergence of sexually mixed schools? Of course, but not gender-mixed schools. We were still living in “fag”-land and LGBTQX was so far away that we couldn’t imagine what it was. To engage in any behavior that could be interpreted as gay — with another more odorous word for it — was considered as a crime and happy were those who could just go through it with a fine. Prison terms were actually written down in the law. 1968 just started to lift the leaden lid that had been imposed onto society for so long.
Fellini, and some other Italians, heavily sweating under the moral cast-iron cassock of the Catholic church, and the dominance of the Christian Democratic Party in the political sphere, and in a way most of the Christian churches in the world with few exceptions when there was no official dominant Christian Democratic Party like in France, tried to use the holy water of the church to extinguish their desires and fire, or at least to sanctify the flames with some Christian moderation, like the benediction a collaborative priest could provide the boys with. Boys will be boys, but let me be a boy with you, boys. And this Satyricon film is exactly that, the beginning of liberation by going back to ancient Rome when everything was so different in a decadent and permissive, at times more than a permissive society that considers cruelty and sex as the two mammary glands of the slave cow the Roman society was. Take it the way you want, but in the end, what’s left from this Roman Empire is that slavery is a very interesting subject and status for those who have power since they can do what they want with their slaves, including free them, why not? And they can use some legionnaires to go to some not very clear places and raid them and bring back a shipful of young people, mostly males, to be deported into some slavery adventure, including the Roman Legions.
It is so easy to trap these male human rats in their desires for the first women available or visible, no matter what they look like or stink like or fart like or belch like, provided they are women, and some outside forms correspond to the concept. Male humans are like that, most of them. Of course, as long as they are young to have some older male friends is nice, adventurous, fattening, and whatever you can imagine you can do to make the older male trepidate with what he will call pleasure, meaning what he may remember as a climax of some density, especially since if that climax does not come and the younger male is more or less a slave or at least not a Roman citizen or the son of one, the older male can get into other pleasures that always have to do with cutting off, amputating if you prefer, something that is protuberant. And if this male is a real slave, then the older man can crucify him in a way or another in his front garden to see him dying slowly and then being eaten up, bit by bit, by some distasteful ravens, crows, or other carrion-eaters, including human carrion-eaters. It does not require much appetite to eat human flesh when you are starving and haven’t had anything to eat or drink for three days. This is more than alluded to at the end of the film: some cases of such cannibalism are specifically enumerated.
But you can see the picture and smell the decadence because it is decadent. In 1968, in Europe at least, but also in the USA, they were harping their minds on the case of the Roman Empire and a rule they found in some crooked historical ranting and raving embalmed brains that an empire never lasted more than two hundred years, that a political regime never lasted more than two hundred years, and that decadence always came from inside because after that length of time the country had become so “wealthy” and so “complacent” that they started killing one another, maiming one another and themselves, fighting with anything that they considered was not like them. After two hundred years any regime starts vomiting itself into the gutter and feeding their vomit to the poor of the world telling them it is caviar and gold, champagne and silver. That is the atmosphere in this film. The world is breaking down. The emperors are killing one another because there are always more than two candidates for one already occupied position. So, the contenders must kill at least each other or at best one another before turning their minds toward the emperor, the Caesar on the throne, and trying to kill him. All those around this old defeated Caesar will be captured and all of them will be in a way or another processed not to represent a menace any more to the victorious new emperor.
We all think of Nero and Caligula, but they were all the same, even the most decent ones who crucified just as many people as the worst ones among them, but they never refrained from their natural instinct to cut off everything that jutted out of the central part of the body, the head last because that was the amputation that caused death, and it was a lot funnier to cut up, meaning slice up thin and slowly, someone when he or she was alive and able to scream: the screams were more than half the pleasure. You should check the end of Cyrano de Bergerac’s play, La Mort d’Agrippine, to see how far a Roman emperor can go in such ignominious torturing and slow death-delivering practices, the worst torture being to let someone like Agrippine know that sooner or later she will be assassinated or executed, but that it will be at the latest moment possible for her to enjoy or endure the long wait for that promised and prophesied death. To use slaves for such pleasures is cheap in a way because it never is really personal since slaves are nothing but pieces of furniture or succulent plants in pots. But imagine doing the same thing to your mother or your son. That is a real Roman imperial pleasure. Some people do not understand how SS soldiers could endure managing a concentration camp like Auschwitz. But there is no surprise or mystery. They were eliminating — and we could say the same thing in the present because this phenomenon and situation have not disappeared yet in this world — people who were in no way part of their families, tribes, species, or whatever they considered themselves to be. They only eliminated Jewish rats, Gypsy wolves, Communist foxes, and such animals are nuisances since they raid our coffers, our poultry-yards, and our cellars or attics. And an American cop causing the death of someone Black they intend to arrest — how can you arrest a dead person — are just on the same psychological line: the “someone Black” is not a member of the Cop’s tribe but only a dangerous parasite that has to be eliminated, and some of these killing cops might think “as fast as possible.” Has the world changed? You answer this one.
The film thus, in 1968–69 only worked as an allegory. The allegory of our modern world captured in the distorted and perverted vision of Andy Warhol standardized in some tomato soup cans, exactly at the level of Paul Morrissey’s film Flesh with Joe Dallesandro, except that Joe Dallesandro does not have any problem to get his log up, on his shoulder, whereas the main male character of this Satyricon ends up rather badly when he discovers that women are not exactly conjuring his morning wood, though he had never had that soft problem with the boys, even small, and the older males he enjoyed and he pleasured abundantly.
(Encolpius) “Oh, Great Mother, can you see my disgrace. The culprit facing you is guilty of treachery and murder and profaning a temple and is now a soldier without weapons. I don’t know who caused me all this trouble. I just don’t know. I can’t understand what happens to me.”
In other words, he has become impotent with women, which is a very embarrassing situation in a society where you are supposed to perform your act as soon as it is asked for, not even with words, but only with the evanescent vision of some flesh. The vision of this society is a vision of total prostitution in the name of pleasure. Pleasure for the male elite of course. All other beings are nothing but the target of this male elite that is supposed to be UP IN ARMS as soon as their eyes catch a glimpse of a breast, a buttock, or a penile shaft, cut or not. These Roman male elite beings were Obsessive-Compulsive-Disordered individuals living in some herd implicit and explicit consciousness that they were nothing but spermatic animals having to perform with or without — “mostly” in those times without — the famous blue Viagra pill.
Maybe after all he might have been gay before the concept existed since all Romans were at least bi, plus definitely incestuous, plus pedophile without the concept since having a boy-slave as a sex-toy was the norm, plus a few animals along the way. And those Roman elite-male individuals could not inflict a deserved death on the culprit since they were, themselves, the cause of the frustration or of the impotency. Thanks, god, for them there are many other possible relationships with someone than the direct spermatic explosion inside or onto that someone. Who cares about the bottle, jar, or amphora, as long as we are getting drunk?
That’s what filmmakers in 1968–69 thought about the future of the world that was crumbling around them like an enormous wedding cake on which an obese monster falls from at least four floors higher. But I must admit that this orgy of gross scenes has become slightly tamed nowadays. Nudity is very nicely but not too scantily covered, and sexual acts are either reduced to fights or very superficial and quick fake scenes with all loincloths on, unremoved, and perfectly well-fitting, not one hair sticking out. I guess Andy Warhol was at the time slightly more provocative without being gross. We of course think of Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973) where A pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a cook (Ugo Tognazzi), a TV star (Michel Piccoli), and a judge decide to gorge themselves to death on fine cuisine, and this film is definitely a gross fable for effete snobs. Fellini here is allegorical but not provocative, though he is gross galore. But it is true, you can replace Caesar with someone you may think of, who owns his first name to Disneyland, like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck — you dared to say Donald? — and it will work perfectly well, not as an allegory this time but as a description.
And I will conclude with Petronius’ original quote at the end of the film, though in a slightly different order of the sentences. I will quote J.P. Sullivan’s translation:
(Man) “All those who have legacies in my will, except for the freedmen, will receive what I have left them only on this condition — that they cut up my corpse and eat it in front of the people. I, therefore, call on my friends not to shrink from my demands but eat my body in the same spirit as they damned my soul.”
(Encolpius) “This is impossible. It has to be a joke.”
(Man) “Why? We know that among certain races the custom of the dead being eaten by their relations is still observed. So much so that sick people are often reproached for causing their flesh to deteriorate. I have no worries about your stomach’s balking. I will obey your command if you promise it, a lot of luxuries as compensation for one hour’s disgust.”
And then we end with a listing of some famous instances of cannibalism in wartime, particularly the Sagutines when besieged in their city, and the case of Numantia captured by Scipio and in this case the Roman general found mothers carrying in their arms their partly eaten babies or infants. The tempo of the film is so rapid that luckily we can find on the Internet (http://rapeutation.com/SATYRICON.pdf) the complete screenplay systematically attached to thousands of pictures from the film in normal film sequential selection, SATYRICON — ILLUSTRATED SCREENPLAY, directed by Federico Fellini © 1968 Alberto Grimaldi Productions, S.A. 487 pages. The English translation is original.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU