From the Satyricon. According to Tacitus, Petronius “idled into fame, and he was reckoned not a debauchee and spendthrift...but a man learned in luxury.” After serving as proconsul and consul in the province of Bithynia, he put his learning to good use as Arbiter of Elegance in the court of Nero. F. Scott Fitzgerald, before settling on the The Great Gatsby as the title for his 1925 novel, thought of naming it Trimalchio in West Egg.
As yet we were unaware that we had slogged only halfway through this “forest of refinements,” as the poets put it. But when the tables had been wiped—to the inevitable music, of course—servants led in three hogs rigged out with muzzles and bells. According to the headwaiter, the first hog was two years old, the second three, but the third was all of six. I supposed that we would now get tumblers and rope dancers and that the pigs would be put through the kind of clever tricks they perform for the crowds in the street. But Trimalchio, our host, dispelled such ideas by asking, “Which one of these hogs would you like cooked for your dinner? Now your ordinary country cook can whip you up a chicken or make a bacchante mincemeat or easy dishes of that sort. But my cooks frequently broil calves whole.” With this he had the cook called in at once, and without waiting for us to choose our pig, ordered the oldest slaughtered. Then he roared at the cook, “See that you do a good job or I’ll have you demoted to the messenger corps.”
The cook, freshly reminded of his master’s power, meekly led the hog off toward the kitchen, while Trimalchio gave us all an indulgent smile. “If you don’t like the wine,” he said, “we’ll have it changed for you. I’ll know by the amount you drink what you think of it. Luckily I don’t have to pay a thing for it. It comes with a lot of other good things from a new estate of mine near town. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told it adjoins my lands at Terracina and Tarentum. Right now what I’d really like to do is buy up Sicily. Then I could go to Africa without ever stepping off my own property.”
He was still chattering away when the servants came in with an immense hog on a tray almost the size of the table. We were, of course, astounded at the chef’s speed and swore it would have taken longer to roast an ordinary chicken, all the more since the pig looked even bigger than the one served to us earlier. Meanwhile Trimalchio had been scrutinizing the pig very closely and suddenly roared, “What! What’s this? By god, this hog hasn’t even been gutted! Get that cook in here on the double!”
Looking very miserable, the poor cook came shuffling up to the table and admitted that he had forgotten to gut the pig.
“You forgot?” bellowed Trimalchio. “You forgot to gut a pig? And I suppose you think that’s the same thing as merely forgetting to add salt and pepper. Strip that man!”
The cook was promptly stripped and stood there stark naked between two bodyguards, utterly forlorn. The guests to a man, however, interceded for the chef. “Accidents happen,” they said, “please don’t whip him. If he ever does it again, we promise we won’t say a word for him.” My own reaction was anger, savage and unrelenting. I could barely restrain myself and leaning over, I whispered to Agamemnon, “Did you ever hear of anything worse? Who could forget to gut a pig? By god, you wouldn’t catch me letting him off, not if it was just a fish he’d forgotten to clean.”
Not so Trimalchio, however. He sat there, a great grin widening across his face, and said, “Well, since your memory’s so bad, you can gut the pig here in front of us all.” The cook was handed back his clothes, drew out his knife with a shaking hand, and then slashed at the pig’s belly with crisscross cuts. The slits widened out under the pressure from inside, and suddenly out poured, not the pig’s bowels and guts, but link upon link of tumbling sausages and blood puddings.
The slaves saluted the success of the hoax with a rousing, “Long live Gaius!” The vindicated chef was presented with a silver crown and honored by the offer of a drink served on a platter of fabulous Corinthian bronze.
©1959 by William Arrowsmith. Used with permission of University of Michigan Press.