Dinner with Trimalchio  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Trimalchio, dinner party

The Cena Trimalchionis or Trimalchio's dinner is a scene in Petronius's Roman novel Satyricon (Chapters 26-78). It is regarded by classicists as emblematic of Menippean satire. It takes place a day or two after the beginning of the frame story. Encolpius and companions are invited, along with Agamemnon, to a dinner at the estate of Trimalchio, a freedman of enormous wealth, who entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance.

After preliminaries in the baths and halls (26-30), the guests (mostly freedmen) join their host and enter the dining room. Extravagant courses are served while Trimalchio flaunts his wealth and his pretence of learning (31-41). Trimalchio's departure to the toilet (he is incontinent) allows space for conversation among the guests (41-46). Encolpius listens to their ordinary talk about their neighbours, about the weather, about the hard times, about the public games, and about the education of their children. In his insightful depiction of everyday Roman life, Petronius delights in exposing the vulgarity and pretentiousness of the illiterate and ostentatious millionaires of his age. After Trimalchio's return from the lavatory (47), the succession of courses is resumed, some of them disguised as other kinds of food or arranged to resemble certain zodiac signs. Falling into an argument with Agamemnon (a guest who secretly holds Trimalchio in disdain) Trimalchio reveals that he once saw the Sibyl of Cumae, who because of her great age was suspended in a flask for eternity (48). Supernatural stories about a werewolf (62) and witches are told (63).

Following a lull in the conversation, a stonemason named Habinnas arrives with his wife Scintilla (65), who compares jewellery with Trimalchio's wife Fortunata (67). Then Trimalchio sets forth his will and gives Habinnas instructions on how to build his monument when he is dead (71). Encolpius and his companions, by now wearied and disgusted, try to leave as the other guests proceed to the baths, but are prevented by a porter (72). They escape only after Trimalchio holds a mock funeral for himself. The vigiles, mistaking the sound of horns for a signal that a fire has broken out, burst into the residence (78). Using this sudden alarm as an excuse to get rid of the sophist Agamemnon, whose company Encolpius and his friends are weary of, they flee as if from a real fire (78).




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