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The uncertain hour by Jesse Browner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:35

One night in Cumae - una nox vigilanda

In a short chapter in his Annals of Roman History, Tacitus gives a brief summary of the end of the life of one Petronius, the emperor Nero’s ‘arbiter elegantiae’ or style councillor. This man had been sentenced to death following a conspiracy against Nero’s life, in which he had probably not been involved. As a concession to past friendship the emperor permitted Petronius one night to settle his affairs and end his own life. There is a general agreement that this Petronius is also the author of the Satyricon, an intensely scatological Latin novel, which may possibly be a satire of Nero’s own way of life.

Browner’s novel fleshes out that final night, taking Petronius, his house guests and the reader through those hours leading up to the condemned man’s death. The novel is an intensely moving experience, as Petronius strives to fathom some purpose to his life, revisiting in his mind his past experiences and the mistakes which have brought him to this end. The author keeps close to scholarly theory about who Petronius was and also to Tacitus’ account, showing how Petronius opened his veins and then bandaged them up more than once so that his death would not come sudden; how he held a banquet where his imminent death was the only subject not permitted for discussion; how he penned a frank letter to Nero expressing his opinion honestly and without flattery.

Browner writes rich and limpid prose, the narrative flowing and subtle. There is a strong sexual element, especially in the flashback scenes, reflective of the nature of the times, but also, like the dishes served at the banquet, suggestive of the Satyricon itself. 

For me two aspects really stand out.

The idea of making Petronius the patron of the scarcely Romanised poet Martial was a masterstroke. The portrayal of the emotionally prodigal poet is a brilliant counterpoint to the Romans who deliberately repress all emotional display. The final scene with Petronius and Martial conversing as they walk through the land and village around the villa in ‘the uncertain hour’ just before dawn is simply wonderful. The scenes with Martial are often not just moving but also very funny - the anti-climactic visit to the Sibyl of Cumae a good example.

The second element I enjoyed especially is how Browner integrates the suicides of Seneca and Lucan, two others of Nero’s circle caught up in the same plot. Lucan had botched his attempt, as had Seneca. Petronius is determined not to do the same. His dinner guest Lucilius complains about how Seneca has ruined his life by making him the respondent for his letters from a stoic, letters which still survive and profess to advise on how best to live one’s life – an attempt at gaining an immortal memory.
Finally, the history and course of Petronius’ relationship with Melissa, a soldier’s wife who becomes his lover, is haunting and sensual, containing strong elements of the Biblical relationship of David and Bathsheba.

A terrific novel – one I will certainly revisit.

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