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8. A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Market: Reading Petronius to Write Economic History

Koenraad Verboven

Subject Classical Literature » Latin Literature

People Petronius

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405156875.2009.00013.x


Petronius's Satyrica is a goldmine of data on occupations, sales, loans, investments, and all things we now think of as constituting “the economy.” No work in Latin literature is so rich in information on the living economy of the first century ad as Petronius's Satyrica. Yet as a narrative source few are as complex. The story is fiction, a mixture of satire and slapstick comedy. Although Petronius's characters and situations are recognizably rooted in reality they are uniquely individual and clad in deforming stereotypes. If we want to use the Satyrica as a historical source on the Roman economy, it has to be interpreted with meticulous care. The “data” need to be scrutinized, filtered, and put in perspective before they can be accepted as “evidence.” The effort can be strenuous sometimes, but is always rewarding. However distorted Petronius's scenes and characters are, they infuse life and color into the most dreary facts and figures. The episode of the stolen cloak is a good example to start with (§12–15). Encolpius and Ascyltos go to a street market to sell a precious cloak they stole in a previous (lost) episode. Here they encounter a peasant and a woman who come to sell a ragged tunic. Ascyltos recognizes it as his own, previously lost by Encolpius, in the hem of which he had hidden a number of gold pieces. Encolpius's idea of threatening the peasant with a lawsuit ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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