Final Exam

The other day the students were grousing about finals. So I unwisely offered to take any final exam they designed for my course. They opted to give me a take-home essay exam. There were eight questions that covered the course's major readings. The darned thing took me nearly six hours to write and edit. Phew! I haven't taken an exam in a while. Anyway, here's a question and my response. The class grades the exam tomorrow (using my own grading criteria).

Question:

In the Satyricon, a dinner guest named Ganymede complains about public officials and the lack of public piety over dinner. Summarize his complaints and compare his concerns to contemporary society. To what extent is Ganymede's view of ancient Rome particularly ancient?

And here's my response (hope I get an A):

In section 44 of the Satyricon, Ganymede, a dinner guest of the wealthy freed-slave Trimalchio, has a long speech in which he offers his views on the economic and moral climate of first-century Roman society. His general complaint concerns the prevalence of corruption and immorality. For example, he complains about the food supply and Roman officials who connive with the bakers to create artificial shortages (62). There is a direct parallel today. Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the largest food processing companies in the world, recently had to pay a $400 million fine for price-fixing. Interestingly, Ganymede’s complaint concerns the corn supply, and ADM conspired to fix the price of high fructose corn syrup, a widely used food sweetener (ethicalcorp.com).

In general, Ganymede’s view is that things are worse than they once were. He believes that there is widespread governmental corruption among public officials, which also parallels certain events today. Two former U.S. governors (Edwin Edwards and George Ryan) are currently in prison for corruption as well as former California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned from the House in 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes. Lastly, the senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, was convicted just last month on seven corruption-related felonies (dailyevergreen.com).

Ganymede also fondly recalls a businessman named Safina who wouldn’t have stood for the swindles that have become commonplace (63). He says, “Ah, me! It’s getting worse every day. This place is going down like a calf’s tail,” and he frets that the economic shortages may force him to sell his house (63). This fear is also common today. In 2007 the number of U.S. homes that went into foreclosure was 79 percent higher than the previous year and we are in an economic recession that will undoubtedly increase economic anxieties and mortgage foreclosures (msnbc.msn.com).

Lastly, Ganymede speaks of the lack of piety in Roman society. He laments that Romans no longer believe in heaven or honor religious rites and traditions, which he thinks has led the gods to punish Rome with a drought (63). Such sentiments are not unknown today. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, and Charles Colson speculated that the hurricane was sent by God as a punishment for America's sins (mediamatters.org). There is perhaps a satirical irony at work here. Petronius puts complaints about a lack of piety into the mouth of a character whose name references a mythological figure that had a same-sex and pedophilic relationship with Zeus.

Ganymede's complaints afford us a good view of how everyday Romans saw their own society. They also allows us to draw interesting comparisons to our own time. Indeed, knowledge of ancient Rome is useful if we hope to grasp the order and structure of the Western world today. The very boundaries of present nation states, the languages people speak and the beliefs they profess are all the result of Roman history. The empire's legacies in art, literature, architecture, philosophy, law, and politics--to say nothing of the impact of Christianity, which it adopted and spread--are all around us. Every age and every empire since has looked to Rome in order to compare and understand itself. Rome is and will remain that great and distant mirror into which we gaze with a mixture of amazement, horror, disgust, admiration, pity, and, inevitably, self-recognition.

Works cited:

Associated Press. "Number of foreclosures soared in 2007." MSNBC.com. 29 Jan. 2008. MSNBC. 4 Dec. 2008 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22893703/.

Mathis, Gavin. "Say good-bye to Uncle Ted." The Daily Evergreen. 1 Dec. 2008. The Daily Evergreen. 4 Dec. 2008.

Media Matters. "Religious conservatives claim Katrina was God's omen, punishment for the United States." MediaMatters.org. 13 Sept. 2005. Media Matters. 4 Dec. 2008
http://mediamatters.org/items/200509130004.

Petronius. The Satyricon and Apocolocyntosis Divine Claudius. Trans. J. P. Sullivan. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

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