Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.22

Cynthia Damon, The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan, 1997.  Pp. 307.  ISBN 0-472-10760-7.  $42.50.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Tylawsky, Yale University (
Word count: 2084 words

Roman patronage is a lot like the elephant in the story of the five blind men: it is big and warm and moving, its smell is everywhere. To one man it is slinky and sinuous like a snake, to another it is thick, unbending and swaying like a tree. The object to be identified is simultaneously soft and hard, hairy and smooth, massive and fragile. The blind analysts investigate the parts but lack the sense of sight that would allow them to see the whole in all its unlikely variety. The same comparison is true for Roman patronage: we know it is there, it looms large and even overpowering in the society we study and the literature we read, but we cannot easily relate the parts to the whole. Despite his investigators' difficulties, the elephant does in fact possess, all at the same time, a wispy tail, a translucent ear, colossal legs, a flexible trunk and other improbable body parts. Just so patronage was an all-encompassing system that included such apparently different relationships as those between Ennius and Cato or Fulvius Nobilior, between Archias and Lucullus, between Cicero and the Sicilians, between Augustus and Maecenas, between Sulla and the inhabitants of Asia Minor, between patronus and libertus, between patronus and cliens and so on and so forth. Studies of the subject have approached one part of this body or another by focusing, for example, on literary or imperial patronage, the protection of interests abroad, or the complexities of amicitia.1 In her study Damon elected to cross generic and chronological lines by employing a tool that allowed her to prod this elephant in his soft underbelly, hence the subtitle of her book is The Pathology of Patronage at Rome. Her chosen instrument was that loquacious and loathsome but always persistent and useful character, the comic parasite.

Because the book deals with a topic that is social and historical, that is, how the figure of the comic parasite was used by Roman speakers and writers to target the weaknesses of the system of patronage, the organization is both chronological and by literary genres. Thus the table of contents outlines an overall structure by genre: first comedy, then satire, and finally oratory. Within each section the organization is chronological. The opening discussion considers the origin of the parasite in Greek comedy and then, by examining that character in Roman Comedy, proposes a definition of the parasite that later generations of Roman writers and readers would have recognized. In subsequent sections a chronological and historical treatment has to be subordinated to the requirements of a structure organized around literary genres. In a way that is just the way things are: we cannot get at these topics without using the literary evidence available. As a result, however, the study is so tightly organized around the figure of the parasite that a more generalized or systematic treatment of patronage cannot really emerge from behind that loudmouthed stage-dominating personality, although Damon does consistently point the way past her flamboyant subject to other material to supplement her discussion.

As she declares in her introduction (p. 2), "the stock character of the parasite that the Romans knew from Greek plays became in Latin authors a symbol for unhealthy aspects of patronage relationships in their own real world. The figure of the parasite opens up for us a pathology of Roman patronage." The first issue then that Damon must deal with is that figure, what it was and how it served to illustrate "the problems that Romans themselves perceived in the system (p.2)." This is a knotty question made knottier by the peculiar hybrid nature of the palliata, and its relationship with its Greek originals and, more important, with contemporary Roman life. Damon notes that "some of the behaviors that Plautus and Terence ascribe to their parasites were inherited from comic predecessors, but others seem designed to exploit the Roman setting in which the plays were performed (p. 25.)" Just so. Whether parasites of the Greek and Roman comic stage were identical or not is not nearly as interesting or important as whether their function was alike. And it clearly was -- both targeted dependents in society. The parasite of Greek comedy and of the palliata, as Damon accurately shows, embodied excess: he was preoccupied exclusively with food, other imperatives such as sex, money, and social status were of absolutely no interest. He had no wish or ability to provide his own food, but sought ever for a host to feed him and to whom he might permanently attach himself. By his nature the parasite must have somebody else's food, he must find a way to somebody else's dinner table. Here was the crucial difference between the Greek parasite and his Roman descendant, a difference that came from different circumstances at Rome. The Greek parasite typically came uninvited (akletos). He just burst in and demanded a place at the table. In exchange he was willing to provide entertainment, make jokes or be their butt, even suffer abuse and ridicule -- anything provided that he ate. The Roman parasite was similarly willing to do or suffer anything for a taste of the leftovers -- but he must wait for an invitation.

A. Wallace-Hadrill (1989, p. 73) said that "food may stand as the symbol of the resources a patron distributes." Food and its distribution symbolizes inclusion and exclusion in society. This was true in Greece, and at Rome also in slightly different ways. At Rome the power over the disposition of invitations to dine or the distribution of food was of primary significance in the patronal structure. Levels of social stratification were apparent in dining etiquette to the point that different guests might be presented with different foods. Food symbolized a client's loyalty and the payment for it, indeed clients might be paid to attend dinner and suffer abuse (e.g. Martial 4. 68). But the food itself was not the real object, as it was for the parasite. Seneca placed the significance of the invitation in the wider context of social recognition (de ira 2. 24): "ille me parum humane salutavit; ille osculo meo non adhaesit; ille inchoatum sermonem cito abrupit; ille ad cenam non vocavit; illius vultus aversior visus est." In the arena of Roman social relations, the desire to receive an invitation to dine was not a specifically "parasitical" or comic feature but one of the numerous areas in which the struggle for recognition of place and honor ensued. And therefore, by and large, Roman parasites waited for their invitations. To them the invitation was more than the food itself. The Roman comic parasite waiting and wishing for his invitation to dinner served to caricature the pathetic hunger and desperation of the recipient of patronal benefits.

Comedy provided a starting point. The highly specialized parasite of comedy became, as Damon shows, a more universalized and versatile practitioner whose principal feature was not so much a ridiculously exaggerated craving for food but self-interest in general. After his performances in the palliata the parasite came to embody complete lack of scruple, a willingness to bite the hand that fed it, and the total pursuit of self-aggrandizement. In her chapter on satire Damon shows how the parasite had been detached from the confines of comic conventions and now operated in the painfully real world of patronage. In the pressure-cooker of Roman society as represented in satire the caricatured dependent's function was like the function of the comic parasite of the Greek or Roman stage. But he was now an altogether more serious and unfunny creature, as befit the genre in which he now belonged. Thus Horace used a parasite-like person to target captatores, yet legacy-hunting scarcely belonged to the pursuits of the comic parasite (Horace Satires 2.5, pp.118-22). Likewise those characters in Martial who displayed parasitical attributes were less interested in the food itself than in its venue. As Damon explained in her treatment of Martial's Selius, for example, the invitation was the real goal (e.g. Martial 2.1, p. 155). The satirist fitted his target with parasitical tendencies to illustrate the complexities of dependency. Continuing her focus on Martial, Damon used the parasite-dependent comparison to explore the transfer between parasite and poet (pp. 159-162), for example in 11.24, the lament that the poet was so busy with attendance on his patron and pursuing invitations that he has scarcely written a page in a month. But the urgent needs motivating the speaker of the poem were much more complex than those that preoccupied the simple organism of the parasite. The poet was enmeshed in a social structure that put much weight on the invitation (rather than on the food). Social inclusion and exclusion were the real issue. The hard reality of the exchange was demonstrated by Martial's own earnings: he has received silverware, a carriage, an estate, a cloak and travel expenses. As Damon points out (pp. 186-87) regarding Juvenal's Satire 9, in which a parasite acts like a gigolo, characters with parasitical qualities have gotten fairly far away from the original model of the parasite. This extension, as she notes, is, however, a logical one because the parasite outside of comedy functioned as a caricature of the dependent. In those circumstances the focus was on the readiness to provide services rather than just exactly what those services were.

After the section on satire Damon moves backward chronologically to a treatment of parasites in Cicero. Her examples include pro Quinctio's Naevius, who betrayed a trust for self-aggrandizement, Q. Apronius (in Verrem 3) who, a substantial figure in his own right, was "the visible agent of much governmental rapacity (p. 213)," Sextus Aebutius from pro Caecina, also a man of some stature and property, who victimized the widow Caesennia by trying to acquire her estate, and Philodemus, the philosopher-parasite who enjoyed a long term relationship with Piso (in Pisonem). Since Damon defined her parasite in terms of the full-blown character of the comic stage, a figure who on stage had no interest whatsoever in money or sex, she has to stretch a bit to portray these opportunists as parasites since none of them quite fits the model. Indeed just as the "parasitical" attributes of Martial's Selius depended more on exaggerated perversion of long-suffering dependency than on any assimilation to the figure of the stage parasite so the parasites in Cicero are rather examples of misbegotten amicitia than they are exemplars of the loquacious and lavish denizens of the comic stage. Since, broadly and ungenerously speaking, all behaviors of dependency are parasitical and since the dependent must by nature attach himself to his host, the limitation of the defining terms to the figure of the parasite restricts Damon's analysis. But, as Damon states clearly, "the 'negative' picture is a function not of the relationship itself but of Cicero's purpose in describing it (p. 234.)." And that purpose is to put the worst possible construction on their motives by drawing some comparisons between their activities and those of parasites. In fact, these comparisons may have less to do with parasites than with tried and true techniques of invective. Parasites of the comic stage will have delighted Roman audiences because of their absurd embodiment of the exaggerated, the grotesque and the funny. Roman invective relied on these factors but their application was tricky, as Cicero (Orator 88) warned: attack that veered over into the ridiculous undermined credibility. The very effective scurrility of the comic stage may go nowhere in the courtroom.2

Those big issues of the perversions of amicitia and theories of comedy in invective are beyond the scope of this book, as Damon indicates in her conclusion (pp. 253-5). Her close and careful focus on the figure of the parasite allows her to present a unified picture of the ugly side of dependency. Concentration on the parasite permits such otherwise disparate characters as Ennius, Lucilius' Naevius, Martial's Selius and Martial himself, Cicero's Naevius from pro Quinctio, and Philodemus to be analyzed under the same rubric. Some of these individuals fit better than others, some may not fit at all, but the approach has the great benefit of offering a coherent and consistent definition that crosses chronological and generic boundaries.

The book is beautifully produced. Damon's style is light and clear, and the translations, all her own I believe, are especially smooth, accurate, and deft. Damon's book is a pleasure to read and must be added to the list of tools valuable for defining and understanding that elephantine entity, Roman patronage.


1.   Every study dealing with Roman social relations must at least mention the mechanics of patronage and dependency. A partial list includes (in alphabetical order by author) E. Badian, Foreign Clientela 264-70 B.C. (Oxford, 1958); P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1988); D. Epstein, Personal Enmity in Roman Politics 218-43 B.C. (Routledge, 1987); B. Gold, Literary Patronage in Greece and Rome (North Carolina, 1987); K. Raaflaub, Social Struggles in Archaic Rome (California, 1986); R. MacMullen, Roman Social Relations 50 B.C. to A.D. 284 (New Haven, 1974); R. Saller, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge, 1982); R. Saller and P. Garnsey, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (California, 1987); S. Treggiari, Roman Freedmen during the Late Republic (Oxford, 1969); A. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), Patronage in Ancient Society (Routledge, 1989). The list could be extended. Note that nearly all define themselves in terms of a limited chronological period or a particular, usually historical, viewpoint.
2.   A. Corbeill's analysis of humor and invective and peculiar Roman tastes in parody and the grotesque is useful here: Controlling Laughter: Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic (Princeton, 1996), pp. 27-30.

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