Tuesday, April 2, 2013

National Poetry Month: Petronius (27 AD - 66 AD)

I had just gone to bed
And begun to enjoy the first
Stillness of the night,
And sleep was slowly
Overcoming my eyes,
When savage Love
Jerked me up by the hair,
And threw me about,
And commanded me to stay up all night.
He said, “You are my slave,
The lover of a thousand girls.
Have you become so tough that you can lie here,
All alone and lonely?”
I jumped up barefoot and half dressed,
And ran off in all directions,
And got nowhere by any of them.
First I ran, and then I lingered,
And at last I was ashamed
To be wandering the empty streets.
The voices of men,
The roar of traffic,
The songs of birds,
Even the barking of dogs,
Everything was still.
And me alone,
Afraid of my bed and sleep,
Ruled by a mighty lust.

A poem by Petronius freely translated by Kenneth Rexroth and published in his Poems from the Greek Anthology (1962) in which he also included "soup├žon" of Roman writers. Petronius (27 AD - 66 AD) is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon written during the reign of Nero. 
In describing the poet, Tacitus writes that Petronius "spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary."
Petronius' high position soon made him the object of envy for those around him. Having attracted much jealousy, he was accused of treason. He was arrested at Cumae in 65 AD but did not wait for a sentence. Instead he chose to take his own life. Tacitus records Petronius' elegant form of suicide:
"Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. 
To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince's shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others."

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