There are many things one may say about Petronius‘ famous Neronian-era novel Satyricon; that it shows much sympathy for Rome’s lower and lowest social classes, however, or for those who managed to escape their social predicament and reached a certain level of prosperity, certainly is not one of them.
At the same time, though usually with a desire to ridicule, Petronius’ work preserves many a sentiment that credibly may have been held by members of Rome’s plebs.
A fascinating scene features in Sat. 117. In this scene, Encolpius, the novel’s principal character and narrator, accompanied by Giton (a young man) and Eumolpus (an older, impoverished, somewhat creepy poet), having narrowly escaped death after a shipwreck, find themselves in the neighbourhood of Crotona. They are accompanied by a hired servant called Corax, who also survived.
As the inhabitants of Crotona were notorious for their being legacy-hunters, the three are then seen to be scheming in order to take advantage of that by means of a little charade.
Once they have come up with a plan and decide to get their fraudulent show on the road, Giton and Corax are tasked with carrying their possessions (transl. M. Heseltine):
His ita ordinatis, “quod bene feliciterque eveniret ” precati deos viam ingredimur. Sed neque Giton sub insolito fasce durabat, et mercennarius Corax, detractator ministerii, posita frequentius sarcina male dicebat properantibus, affirmabatque se aut proiecturum sarcinas aut cum onere fugiturum. “Quid vos, inquit? iumentum me putatis esse aut lapidariam navem? Hominis operas locavi, non caballi. Nec minus liber sum quam vos, etiam si pauperem pater me reliquit.” Nec contentus maledictis tollebat subinde altius pedem, et strepitu obsceno simul atque odore viam implebat. Ridebat contumaciam Giton et singulos crepitus eius pari clamore prosequebatur
This was all arranged; we offered a prayer to Heaven for a prosperous and happy issue, and started on our journey. But Giton was not used to a burden and could not bear it, and the slave Corax, a shirker of work, kept putting down his bundle and cursing our hurry, and declaring that he would either throw the baggage away or run off with his load. “You seem to think I am a beast of burden or a ship for carrying stones,” he cried. “You paid for the services of a man, not a horse. I am just as free as you are, although my father did leave me a poor man.” Not satisfied with curses, he kept lifting his leg up and filling the whole road with a disgusting noise and smell. Giton laughed at his impudence and matched every noise he made.
Encolpius’/Petronius’ auctorial perspective presents Corax as detractator ministerii, ‘a shirker of work’, first and foremost – and his behaviour is presented as obscene and juvenile when he eventually gets on with it, yet appears almost to be propelled by his own resounding flatulence (a well-known humorous motif: after all, who doesn’t like a fart joke!).
At the same time, Petronius may well have captured a common comment on ancient working conditions, insufficient salaries, and employers’ contract violations: after all, Corax complains about dehumanising treatment (being mistaken for a beast of burden or a stone-carrying vessel), ill-defined contracts that just see additional chores added to what was originally agreed, and his employers’ lack of respect for a free man who needs to work for a living. (One might add that Corax’s chores, whether he wants it or not, now also involve becoming complicit in his employers’ questionable efforts in seeking ill-gotten gains.)
Can he be blamed for venting some pressure, or even raising a veritable stink, in response to that?