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Frank Frost Abbott
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 172 pages of information about The Common People of Ancient Rome.
only a part of it has come down to us, some one hundred and ten pages in all.  Its great size probably proved fatal to its preservation in its complete form, or at least contributed to that end, for it has been estimated that it ran from six hundred to nine hundred pages, being longer, therefore, than the average novel of Dickens and Scott.  Consequently we are not dealing with a bit of ephemeral literature, but with an elaborate composition of a high degree of excellence, behind which we should expect to find a long line of development.  We are puzzled not so much by the utter absence of anything in the way of prose fiction before the time of Petronius as by the difficulty of establishing any satisfactory logical connection between these pieces of literature and the romance of Petronius.  We are bewildered, in fact, by the various possibilities which the situation presents.  The work shows points of similarity with several antecedent forms of composition, but the gaps which lie in any assumed line of descent are so great as to make us question its correctness.

If we call to mind the present condition of this romance and those characteristic features of it which are pertinent to the question at issue, the nature of the problem and its difficulty also will be apparent at once.  Out of the original work, in a rather fragmentary form, only four or five main episodes are extant, one of which is the brilliant story of the Dinner of Trimalchio.  The action takes place for the most part in Southern Italy, and the principal characters are freedmen who have made their fortunes and degenerate freemen who are picking up a precarious living by their wits.  The freemen, who are the central figures in the novel, are involved in a great variety of experiences, most of them of a disgraceful sort, and the story is a story of low life.  Women play an important role in the narrative, more important perhaps than they do in any other kind of ancient literature—­at least their individuality is more marked.  The efficient motif is erotic.  I say the efficient, because the conventional motif which seems to account for all the misadventures of the anti-hero Encolpius is the wrath of an offended deity.  A great part of the book has an atmosphere of satire about it which piques our curiosity and baffles us at the same time, because it is hard to say how much of this element is inherent in the subject itself, and how much of it lies in the intention of the author.  It is the characteristic of parvenu society to imitate smart society to the best of its ability, and its social functions are a parody of the like events in the upper set.  The story of a dinner party, for instance, given by such a nouveau riche as Trimalchio, would constantly remind us by its likeness and its unlikeness, by its sins of omission and commission, of a similar event in correct society.  In other words, it would be a parody on a proper dinner, even if the man who described the event knew nothing about the usages of good society,

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