The Death of Petronius

Mark Ford

(after Tacitus)

Turning to Caius Petronius, there are a few things about him that deserve
To be remembered: he liked to sleep all day, then devote his nights
To business – or pleasure. Most have to work hard
To become well known, but it was idleness that propelled
Petronius to fame. He differed, though, from most debauchee or wastrel-types,
For he was a cultured, exquisite master of the subtle arts
Of indulgence. His way of speaking, his way of doing things, seemed always casual,
Fresh, and cool. Appointed governor of Bithynia, and then later consul, he also showed he could be an astute
And vigorous administrator.
                       At length, resuming his life of vice – or apparent vice –
He found himself taken up by Nero, and admitted into the Emperor’s coterie
Of intimates. They dubbed him ‘Arbiter of Taste’, and for a time Nero’s sense
Of what was elegant or charming was determined wholly by Petronius. But this
So irked another of Nero’s favourites, and voluptuaries, Tigellinus, that he hatched
A plot designed to appeal to the Emperor’s overriding passion –
His cruelty. The Arbiter was framed
By a bribed slave, his household imprisoned, and his defence
Dismissed.
          Learning his fate
While at Cumae, Petronius at once abandoned
Both hope and fear – yet he refused simply to fling away
His life, either. Instead, having opened the veins
In his wrists, he’d let them bleed for a while; then, when the fancy
Moved him, have them bound up, then opened again, all the while
Chatting with friends about this and that, steering the conversation away
From serious topics that might make him seem brave
Or stoical. He lay back, listening to them recite
Not dreary reflections on the immortality of the soul or the nature
Of wisdom, but light songs and nonsense verse. Some of his servants
Received gifts, others a good flogging. Having dined
As usual, he slipped quietly into sleep – or was it death? –
As if it were the most natural thing in the world.
                                      While many
Doomed like Petronius compose death-bed testaments that shamelessly flatter
Whoever happens to be in power, his will contained a list
Of all the Emperor’s most peculiar erotic tastes and extravagant
Sexual experiments, and the names of his partners
In crime, both men and women, willing and unwilling. He sent this
Under seal to Nero, then broke his signet ring: it, at least,
Would be innocent of the blood of others.