There’s no wealth in wisdom or the arts

A coin showing just how fat Nero got

Amidst the sex, debauchery, and so forth, Petronius’ Satyricon is scattered with little gems like this:

He who trust the sea loads himself with great profit;
He who seeks battles and warcamps is belted with gold;
The cheap sycophant lies drunk in purple garb;
And he who seduces married women transgresses into booty;
Eloquence alone shudders in cold garments
And with a helpless tongue invokes the abandoned arts.

Thus it is not to be doubted — if anyone who is an enemy of all vices begins to insist on a right way of life, he gains the first hatred because of the difference of his habits; for who. can approve of different ways? And then those who take care to set aside wealth alone wish nothing amongst men to be trusted better than what they themselves hold. And so lovers of literature are railed at with whatever reason they can grab so that they also seem to be positioned beneath wealth. (83-84, Eumolpus is speaking; my sorry translation)

Through the mouth of Eumolpus, Petronius is — I believe — criticising the decadence of his age (as I also believe he does in the ‘Cena Trimalchionis). The Early Empire of Nero is not an age for philosophers and poets but businessmen, soldiers, sycophants, and adulterers. This fits with Nero’s lavish lifestyle and associating with the spectacles of the stage, racetrack, and amphitheatre. Through the promotion of wealth for its own sake and entertaining themselves to death, those in power tread down those who seek higher things — men and women who would call them to account for theirimpius lifestyles.

And how different are we today?

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