The oldest surviving novel in the world features one of literature’s most notable twinks. Satyricon (66 AD) is by Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter) a Roman courtier during the reign of Emperor Nero, when he wasn’t fiddling while Rome burned.
Satyricon follow the misadventures of Encolpius, and his ex-boyfriend Ascyltos, and a handsome 16-year-old slave boy, Giton, with whom they are both sexually entangled. Throughout the novel, Encolpius has a hard time keeping Giton faithful to him as he is constantly being enticed away by others. Twinks seem to have been notoriously promiscuous even then. Satyricon is also evidence of what everyday life must have been like for the lower classes during the early Roman Empire.
Despite being condemned by the Church for its obscenity and immorality, the text was copied throughout the Middle Ages, probably by gay monks. Satyricon has been translated into many languages and is now considered a classic of Western literature, although it includes a scene at an orgy with every possible sexual combination, and I know a lot of them; I lived in New York City in the 1970s, which was sort of like ancient Rome.
I won’t go on with the convoluted plot, but trust me, it is like a Roman version of a 1970s porno film where a hunk is lured into all kinds of absurd sexual situations. It is known that the Romans had media, including a regular government newspaper called the Gazette which was circulated in hand-copied form and was also read out in the Forum, including advertisements for used chariots, Christian-eating retired lions and makeup tips. Roman publishers used dozen hundreds of scribes to copy out popular scrolls. The Gazette saw Satyricon as simply a lurid bestseller from a time of ancient sleaze, like a Jacqueline Susann work.
Petronius: ”I blush to say what happened next”.
Petronius’ tastes for debauchery won him admission into the circle of Nero’s playthings, and the Roman emperor thought nothing to be hot unless Petronius pronounced it so. He soon incurred the jealousy of Tigellinus, a captain of the emperor’s guard and Tigellinus engineered Petronius’s fall.
One of the reasons that lost Nero the loyalty of his Praetorian guard and led to his overthrow and forced suicide was his public marriage to his chariot-driver, the beefy Sporus. When he realized all was lost, Nero had one of his friends kill him with a sword, but not before he had ordered the execution Petronius the author of Satyricon. Talk about bad reviews!
In Nero’s Rome it was expected that the soon-to-be-deceased should flatter the emperor in his will. Petronius, however, lived out his final hours in a grand parody of heroic suicides of Roman theatre. He had a surgeon slit his vein and then bind it up again to allow time for a leisurely dinner party with friends.
Satyricon was adapted to film in 1969 directed by Federico Fellini. I saw it in 1972 at The Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while on LSD. I thought it was the gayest thing I had ever witnessed.