Sometime in the mid-first century a.d., an otherwise little known consular official, Gaius Petronius, wrote a brilliant satirical novel about the gross and pretentious new Roman-imperial elite. The Satyricon is an often-cruel parody about how the Roman agrarian republic of old had degenerated into a wealth-obsessed, empty society of wannabe new elites, flush with money, and both obsessed with and bored with sex. Most of the Satyricon is lost. But in its longest surviving chapter — “Dinner with Trimalchio” — Petronius might as well have been describing our own 21st-century nomenklatura.
For the buffoonish libertine guests of the host Trimalchio, food and sex are in such surfeit that they have to be repackaged in bizarre and repulsive ways. Think of someone like the feminist mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, who once railed about the need to enforce sexual-harassment laws, now only to discover ever creepier ways to grope, pat, grab, squeeze, pinch, and slobber on 18 co-workers and veritable strangers, whether in their 20s or over 60. Unfortunately, the sexual luridness does not necessarily end with Filner’s resignation; one of his would-be replacements is already under attack by his opponents on allegations that as a city councilman he was caught masturbating in the city-hall restroom between public meetings.
He’s just getting warmed up, but I’ll cut to the chase:
Just as Petronius’s world went on for another 400 years, ours may too.