Titus Petronius Niger, as he is commonly known, (or, according to Tacitus, Gaius Petronius), was a Roman senator, consul, and the author of the Satyricon- the famous satire of the underbelly of Roman society. He was also a leading member of Nero’s inner circle. It was this association that eventually forced Petronius to take his own life. But, as in life, Petronius made sure he had the last laugh.
Petronius was a lazy, indulgent, man, yet a very able politician. He spent “his days sleeping, his nights working and enjoying himself., according to Tacitus, who believed that he wasted his talents. In 62 AD, the emperor made the pleasure-seeking playboy Governor of Bithynia, a province he governed actively and well. But Tacitus didn’t think he was an evil man. Rather than dissipated, he was a ‘refined voluptuary” – and one with a sharp wit and an original way with words.
These qualities caught the attention of Emperor Nero. For a time, Petronius was the darling of Nero’s inner circle, acting as his “arbiter elegantiae” or ‘expert on good taste.’ It didn’t last. Tigellinus, another of Nero’s close advisers and prefect of the vigils, was jealous of Petronius’s influence. So he denounced the senator as a traitor because of his friendship with Flavius Scaevinus who had been part of a conspiracy against Nero. A slave was bribed to incriminate Petronius, Tigellinus’s men arrested his household and kept Petronius under house arrest in Cumae. Petronius’s career -and his life- were over.
Petronius knew his inevitable execution meant dishonor and the confiscation of his estate. The only way he could save something for his heirs was to kill himself. So he severed his veins- but then bound them up again so he could have one last bout of fun. He invited his closest friends to dine with him and passed the time, talking and reciting poetry. He dolled out gifts to his faithful slaves- and beatings to the disobedient. Then, he retired to his bath and reopened his wrists one last time.
Petronius’s will did not flatter Nero or make him his principal heir as was traditional in such cases. Instead, as the will would be public, it was a chance for Petronius to avenge himself from beyond the grave. He denounced the emperor’s profligacies in the most excruciatingly satirical detail, including details of the emperors’ male and female lovers. For good measure, just before he died, Petronius broke his most valuable vase. He knew Nero would try to claim it after his death and intended to deny him. He also destroyed his signet ring to prevent its misuse. His suicide was his ultimate joke- at Nero’s expense.