"One of the finest achievements of the Roman imagination ... apparently a bewildering hodgepodge of genres and subjects ... clearly in the mainstream of ancient satire, it is also something recognizably apart and utterly original; visibly a novel, it is yet somehow not a novel at all ..."--P. v.
This was often the face put forward in the fifties, the dark ages of sex as culture. It's no wonder that this is where we get stories about couples having no idea what they are actually supposed to do on their wedding nights.
The depression and the war had resulted in a great deal of cultural power being centralized. Nationalism, McCarthyism, church-based religion and patriotism are all about surrendering individuality for the safety of the group. Sure, the most eccentric 5% of the populace will be imprisoned, committed, or blacklisted, but the dull majority will be able to cling to the reliability of enforced normalcy.
This also allows the culture to transfer the energy normally spent on chasing tail to material production. There's a reason the puritans and Amish get so much done. However, once the war, persecution, and economic hardship disappear, leisure returns, and with it, recreational sex.
That isn't to say that there was no recreational or enjoyable sex in the fifties. It was not sex itself that went away, but the cultural discourse that has often surrounded it.
As usual, anyone who looks to the literature of the past can find all the peculiarity and perversity their heart desires. From Fanny Hill to De Sade to Sappho, there is plenty of sexual history to contend the myth that the clitoris was discovered in the 1960's. Most fourteen year old girls can tell you it doesn't take a team of scientists to find it. Fourteen year old boys might disagree.
The Satyricon presents a great deal of straightforward sexuality, including all the various sodomies and same-sex pairing. Particularly interesting from a sociological standpoint is the sympathetic presentation of pederasty. For the uninitiated, this is a sexual relationship between a grown man and a pubescent boy.
Pederasty has been recorded among many cultures, from the Spartans and other Greeks to the Romans, Japanese Samurai, and the most prestigious colleges of Britain and America. It was often a method to tutor the young man in the ways of life, not just sex.
After the West romanticized sexuality between women and men under Christianity, a father might have brought his son to the town prostitute to 'educate' him. In my youth, it took place with vintage issues of Playboy passed from friend to friend. Now we have the internet and sex ed in school.
Each method has its strengths, but as the Satyricon shows, they are different means to the same end: producing a fully-fledged member of your society. Though pederasty is now a deviant practice, it is not inherently psychologically damaging (at least, not more than any other sexual relationship).
Even sexual abuse is not necessarily harmful outright. Psychological damage comes from the reaction of the social moralizing after the fact. The culture of victimization and powerlessness saps all strength and identity from those who have been forced to endure unfortunate circumstances. A man who becomes bankrupt is not hurt by the loss of pieces of paper, but by losing the freedom and power the culture ascribes to them.
Some have argued that youths cannot make informed decisions, and hence are liable to fall into manipulative and unequal relationships. While this is certainly true, most full-grown adults are equally uninformed and prone to manipulation.
I don't mean to suggest any need to change our laws, since our cultural traditions have no place for pederasty. However, I would suggest that people try to appreciate that our traditions are just as arbitrary as those of the Romans. There's nothing like history to remind us that there are many, many ways.
The Satyrican is also historically important for its uniquely accessible form. It is one of the only surviving examples of a novel-type narrative from the Roman tradition. It depicts the lives of small people and their everyday lives, from theater to dinner parties to beggars, prostitutes, and impotence.
The tale even follows the form of a comedic picaresque romance. Even though there is no direct tradition linking the development of the modern novel in seventeenth century Spain and the nearly identical narrative structure of the Satyricon, it provides an example of parallel evolution for the edification of literary critics.
The lighthearted tone and humorous situations give this work a remarkably modern feel. Indeed, it is more accessible than many newer works. It is intriguing for its presentation of Roman life, for its similarities with the novel, and for its frank depiction of the unheroic.
The Greeks and Romans developed calculus, crossbows, and steam power a thousand years before they would enter common use. Why should they not also innovate realism? I find comfort in the fact that the funny sex novel predates the codification of the bible. It seems history is as much the property of the prurient as the holy.