In Petronius Satyricon, the role of women is depicted in the interactions of freedmen and freedwomen in the ancient Roman Empire. Despite minimal illustrations towards the role of women in the novel, there is a clear explanation of the impact of women under the themes of sex and gender. The utilization of sex and gender in the novel is presented as constructs to which sexual identity is performative. Such entails the instances where Gilton, a handsome sixteen-year-old boy is desired by men both Encolpius and Ascyltos. The constructs of women in different parts of the novel are given varying personalities which denoted the role and significance of women in the novel. For example, in the Cena Trimalchionis, women personality is depicted as different from the typical construct of the Roman wife that was expected to possess certain behavior and actions presumed to be ideal for a Roman woman (Susina, 1). The use of satire in the portrayal of women is highly engaged to illustrate the ideal woman or a proper Roman wife based on specific rules and directions that they were expected to conduct themselves in the ancient Rome.
It is integral to note that the role of women in the ancient Rome society was culturally constructed and performed rather than innate. That is to say that, an ideal Roman wife was expected to behave and act in accordance to specific direction that was set by the society most especially by the husband’s household. Women possessed no free will to choose for themselves how to behave of act in the society. Rather, the society constructed specific behavior and actions that women had to perform and maintain the proper ideals of the ancient Rome woman. This shows a society so confined to certain ideals that guided, controlled, and maintained women (whether slave, freedwoman, or free) to act in according to the constructs and standards of the land (Susina, 2). Therefore, at no point were women allowed to act in accordance to their needs and desires in life. Thus, making the use of satire as a feature used to expose and criticize the role of women in the society and its lacking in nature to advance such vices.
Roles Played by Women
According to Panayotakis (191), the analysis of the episode at Trimalchio’s house, slavery and beauty epitomizes the satire portrayed in Petronius Satyricom. This is on the basis that, the house was full of beautiful slaves – both men and women that were present for the sexual attraction and amusement of the free men and women, as well as, salves (Panayotakis, 191). Free women such as Circe and her maid Chrysis shows women that were hell bent on being used as a man’s amusement and attraction (Panayotakis, 191). The scene portrays signs of women being used and treated in unconventional manner degrading the role of women in the society.
The master/mistress-slave sexual relationship indicates the lowest form of moral decay that was characterized of the ancient Roman practices. For example, Echion was forced to push it in with his mistress accounts that Trimalchio happily confesses to have done it himself with his mistress (MacLean, 2). As a freed slave, it was his duty to please both his master and mistress irrespective of not ascertaining the assurance of obtaining his freedom. On the contrary, the sexual relationship prompted the process to be problematic and attract severe repercussions. The sexual escapees between the slaves, their mistresses and masters is a pursuant of bodily pleasures that is characterized in the moral decay of the society.
Impact of Narrative and Satire by Female Characters and How Core Characters Draw Attention to Issues of Relevance to Women in a ‘Man’s’ World
Women act as the worst enemies for themselves and impediment to their freedom and role in the society. For example, “the daughter of legacy-hunter Philomela prostitutes her children to the aged Eumolpus” (Panayatakis, 197). Encolpius narrates this as a speciosissima which indicates that women are viewed as mere objects of sexual desire by both Eumolpus, the false dominus and Encolpius, his ‘slave’ (Panayatakis, 197). Instead of protecting their own, women furthered the exploitation and diminishing of fellow women’s role in the society. This indicates that women were treated as objectives of sexual desire and satisfaction across the society for freedmen and salves equally (Gloyn, 260). This appears to an accepted norm in which women openly accepted without resisting or refraining from the practice. The novel illustrates a society that was open to extensive exploitation of women irrespective of their social status or class (Heseltine). the sexual exploitation of women is massive as they themselves contribute to the vice. The typical effeminacy advanced in the novel is tremendous in the Trimalchio’s dinner party among other celebratory events (Panayotakis, 200). The sexual relationships, attraction, and objects of sexual desires denies women the feminine touch to protect themselves. Hence, are left at the mercy of a society that denied them freewill and desire to derive their own course in life.
In conclusion, Petronius Satyricon uses satire extensively to ridicule, expose, and criticize the stupidity in the ancient Rome to withhold particularly vices such as slavery, lack of opportunity for women, and bad treatment of women in a progressive society. Based on the ancient Rome constructs, women were expected to behave, act, and perform as per the outlined directions of a proper Roman woman/wife. this advances the denial of the women their free will to set their own course in life and act as they see fit. This is further contradicted by the depiction of women as objectives of sexual desire and attraction, both freedwomen and slaves. The epitome of women’s satirical encounters is advanced by women being their own worst enemy. This is illustrated by women facilitating in the furtherance of exploitation of fellow women instead of protecting each other. The society lacks proper mechanisms to protect women as it has set standards of profound moral decay. The sexual desire, attraction and relationship are major driving forces in the society.
Gloyn, Liz. “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage: freedwomen at Trimalchio’s dinner party.” The Classical Quarterly 62.1 (2012): 260-280.
Heseltine, Michael. “Petronius, Satyricon.” (1913).
MacLean, Rose B. “Cultural exchange in Roman society: freed slaves and social values.” (2012).
Panayotakis, Costas. “Slavery and Beauty in Petronius.” (2018).
Susina, Emily. “Use as Directed: Women’s Roles in Petronius’ Satyricon.” (2013).