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Roman Literature: The Apocolocyntosis v.s. The Satyricon

Updated on January 10, 2012

After reading both the Apocolocyntosis and the Satyricon, I have to say that I found Seneca’s “roast” of Claudius to be the more humorous of the two. The Apocolocyntosis comes across much clearer than the Satyricon, and presents itself in a way that is much easier to laugh at with its constant series of quick, condemning stabs like “until betwixt Tiber and the Subway he went down to the lower regions”(Apoc. 13) with the footnote explaining that this entrance to the underworld was by the cloaca– the major outlet for the city’s sewer. In some ways, it is similar to the kind of humor we see in mock epics (it probably inspired them) like John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe, where the heir to the throne of dullness rides a tiny boat into the Thames and is greeted by the sewage floating there. The Satyricon, however, is not so direct. It wanders and seems almost to present itself in so serious a manner at times that the humor was lost for me and I was left instead reading it as a more serious story, like fiction with criticisms of society worked into passing dialog. The presentation of moral-like messages in the diatribes of Encolpius’ and others in moments such as when he says: “I cannot understand why poverty is always talent's sister”(Satyricon, lxxxiv) seemed to, for me at least, take away from the humor and bring more serious thought into the piece. Instead of relying on the reader to separate what is humorous from what is normal, the Apocolocyntosis attacks Claudius directly, calling him “nobody” in the form of a proverb in section three, inflating him like Plautus’ Pyrgopolynices by laying out a series of ridiculous single-handed conquests in section twelve, and ultimately sticking him in eternity as a freedman’s law-clerk as the piece ends. These elements all come so strong and heavy handed as condemnations of Claudius for his flaws that, as readers, we can’t help but laugh. True, the antics of Trimalchio during the dinner sequence of the Satyricon are at times humorous, but they’re not presented in the same way. Even the most ridiculous elements of the dinner (like the mock funeral in chapter 10) are presented outright and without commentary, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not what is going on is funny or just really bizarre aspects of cultural custom (like the wild boar which is presented at dinner with birds sewn into its flank.) When viewed in light of the kind of virtus expected of good Romans, especially those of old money, the patricians who Trimalchio seems to try to be putting himself on par with, everything this disgustingly rich freedman does is funny, but I still found the condemnation approach of Seneca more humorous than the simple observations of Petronius.

    It is partly because of this open-ended observation of Trimalchio paired with the heavy-handed approach akin to moralizing that goes on in the Satyricon that I find the Apocolocyntosis to be not only funnier, but also more seriously critical. While Petronius does do a great job of presenting serious morals and viewpoints as part of his approach in the Satyricon, lending to the biting criticism therein, I would argue that his points are spread too far apart and are too different in nature (his criticisms of the New Rich, the educational system, art, etc.) to be as effective as Seneca’s work. While the Satyricon meanders for pages and pages, the Apocolocyntosis jumps on Claudius immediately, roasts him viciously, and then ends. Its quick, its effective, its funny, and it has a certain clarity of motive to it that Petronius’ work seems to lack. Sure, Seneca pokes at other things in his piece (like the easy deification of emperors) but on the surface, his piece is very direct. It has one target– Claudius, and everything that gets hit along the way is just a necessary step in pushing the piece toward that target. Even as a stand alone section of the Satyricon, the dinner with Trimalchio has no firm direction. It’s just a crazy dinner with a ridiculously rich freedman who is funny because of his bravado, his opinions, his blatant lack of knowledge in matters of literature and his total ignorance of severitas, gravitas and pietas. Granted, as a satire, there is a certain unspoken admission that, as the man exhibited at the center of the dinner scene and the man through whom all the antics are presented, Trimalchio is the target on trial, and from that perspective, the Satyricon does stick more or less with a singular objective, but it doesn’t do it in the same way as the Apocolocyntosis does. It doesn’t call Trimalchio “nobody,” it doesn’t show the gods conspiring with the fates to end his life, and it doesn’t condemn him in the end to a Tantalus-type underworld. It just presents him as he is, in all his strange, self-important glory and leaves the interpretation of his actions as to their rightness or wrongness up to the reader.


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