Can You Tell Me Where I Live? The Satyricon of Petronius

The best opening lines of any novel ever written? I would offer the opening lines of The Satytricon by Petronius, the only Roman novel that ever existed, of which we have only fragments. But we have the opening:

A drunkard who is reeling up and down the street decides to ask directions, so he walks up to an old woman and asks her, “Old woman, can you tell me where I live?”

She says, “No, but I can show you where you ought to live!” And she leads him to a brothel, where she no doubt gets a fee.

I think it’s a joke that resonates through the ages. I mean, the same thing could happen in Philadelphia or Boston today. “Can you tell me where I live?”

There is a lot to be learned from the Satyricon, through textual analysis: for example, we hear of parties that simmer down so as not to alert “The Watch, ” which must have been a regular patrol by soldiers, and we learn that the Romans had some sort of aphrodisiac that seems to have acted like “poppers” (amyl nitrate).

We also learn that the millionaires in Rome are the slaves who were the favorites of their masters. The grand banquet in the Satyricon is given by just such a fortunate former slave/millionaire, Trimalchio.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever regretted reading The Satyricon, what there is of it. There is nothing really conclusive there, but it is definitely a slice of life you can find nowhere else.

The irony is, Rome was ruled by slaves, who controlled everything under degenerate emperors, while Cathage and Gaul and other provinces developed articulate democracies, emblematic of the early Roman Republic, which existed no more and was a sham in its day anyhow. Yet the ideals resonated at the fringes of empire.

It would be like a young man or woman in the Philippines reading the Declaration of Independence in 1900 while the United States of America (your great-grandparents’ tax dollars at work) waged war on that country and killed more than 100,000 of its inhabitants to prevent them from enjoying the benefits of freedom.

The ideals would resonate at the fringes of empire when they were known no more at the core.