The Meaning of Satyricon

By Dr. D.

Since the group officially became “Satyricon” back on April 28th 1996, I have been asked several times to explain the meaning of the name. The quick answer is that it doesn’t particularly mean anything. I threw it out during a brainstorming session, and we eventually chose to go with it. There is, however, a bit more to it than that. After all, one might wonder why I threw it out in the first place.

Well, it just so happens that “Satyricon” is the title of the world’s oldest surviving novel (it’s also the title of a Felini film, but that doesn’t concern us). It’s also not just any novel; it’s chocked full of all sorts of raunchy and licentious stuff. Now the author of this book was a guy named Petronius who was pals with the Roman Emperor Nero, and that’s where it begins to get interesting.

For those of you who don’t know, Nero had, and still has, a reputation for excess in its many forms. He even went so far as to grant his buddy Petronius the title of Elegantiae Arbiter, or Judge of Taste. And we’re not talking a Better Homes and Gardens kind of taste here either. In the words of my former classics prof, “No orgy was a good orgy unless Petronius said it was.” That is the kind of taste we’re talking about.

Now Petronius was in with Nero pretty tight. And what with Nero being into excess and Petronius being the guy who judged how excessive an excess was…well, you could say that Petronius had a fair amount of influence, influence which eventually made a dude by the name of Tigellinus jealous. And the politics of the day being what they were, Tigellinus dealt with his jealousy by accusing Petronius of treason.

Even an accusation of treason was pretty serious stuff in those days, and so rather than stand trial, Petronius decided to snuff it by slitting his wrists. Interestingly, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who had been Nero’s childhood tutor, ended his life in the same way a few years earlier and for similar reasons. The difference is that while Seneca spent his waning moments writing philosophy, Petronius sent off a letter to Nero cataloging all his (Nero’s) kinking activities and brutal excesses over the years. You go down kicking, or at least taunting, I guess. So this guy, this Petronius, who was actually able to make a living as a bureaucrat by being the hedonist’s hedonist, wrote a book which has come to be known as Petronii Arbitri Satyricon, The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, or just Satyricon. Roughly speaking the book is a comic romance, and although frequently lewd, its satire of the culture in which it was written is often keen.

So that’s a little about the book I took our name from, the guy who wrote it, and the culture it was written in. And given the contents of the book, the character of the author, and the nature of the culture, I think the name is at least somewhat fitting. This was not part of my original thought process in suggesting the name, but after thinking about it, I did come up with a relevant symbolism. The plot structure of the book is picaresque, like Twain’s Huck Finn. Three characters travel through Southern Italy, sort of the Amsterdam of the Classical Mediterranean, having various vaguely related adventures. Now at one point in the story, one of the characters decides to impersonate Priapus, the god of erections (you just gotta love the Roman mindset). See, during the Festival of Priapus all the women go do “things” with the statues of Priapus, and if a guy were to stand erect (sorry) on an old statue base… well, you finish the thought. Not too surprisingly, Priapus doesn’t appreciate that and thus makes the guy impotent. The regaining of this guy’s potency motivates many of the adventures that follow.

So what’s my point? Well my point is that you become sexually disempowered, which is kind of like impotence, when you pretend to be something that you’re not. Claiming an identity that’s true to yourself, at least in my experience, can be hard. And in the atmosphere of late twentieth century America, claiming a sexual identity that’s true can be so difficult as to seem nearly impossible.

Recovering from the impotence of pretended identities and becoming sexually empowered has the potential to be one hell of a journey. Satyricon is therefore a place where we can come together, tell our stories, and share our adventures. Sort of like what happens in The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter.

This article first ran in Volume One, Number One of Satyricon Submissions, published Saturday, June 8, 1996