Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.04.20

William Fitzgerald, Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination. Roman Literature and Its Contexts.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. 129.  ISBN 0-521-77031-9.  $52.95.  ISBN 0-521-77969-3.  $18.95.  

Reviewed by Christopher Francese, Department of Classical Studies, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1399 words

Discussions of Roman slavery as a literary theme, as opposed to a historical phenomenon, have so far focused either on single authors (especially Plautus and Martial), or on single works (especially the Captivi). This book is apparently the first to take on the whole subject of slavery in Roman literature synoptically and synchronically. Its brevity rules out any exhaustive treatment, and, except for a surprise coda on slavery as a metaphor in the New Testament (111-114), Fitzgerald does not deal with Christian authors, or with prose, apart from Apuleius. The focus is on Plautus, Martial, Horace, Apuleius, and Ovid, along with many other, often neglected, texts. Still, this is an ambitious book on an important and interesting topic. The five chapters (framed by a methodological introduction and epilogue looking forward to the 18th century novel) are thematic, and discuss master-slave intimacy (ch.1), punishment (ch.2), slaves as go-betweens (ch.3), metaphors for and derived from slavery (ch.4), and crossing the divide between slave and free (ch.5).

Its subtlety makes the book hard to summarize, but a few themes recur. The master/slave relationship, as imagined in Roman literature, is not one of simple dominance and submission or, as Hegel put it, consuming and producing (28). Attitudes of the free toward the domestic slave (domestic, because the evidence deals with domestic slaves; attitudes of the free, because there is no evidence for what slaves really thought [2-3]) were complex and contradictory. Literature provided a wide variety of metaphors through which to envision this relationship: slave as symbiotic organism, slave as parent (paedagogus), slave as elective child (delicatus), as go-between and buffer between the free, slave as animal, the clever slave as author. Other relationships between the free persons were understood through the metaphor of slavery: the client as slave to his patron, the autocrat as slave master, the son and wife as slave of the paterfamilias, the lover as slave to his domina, the un-self-controlled free man as slave to his desires and passions, the religious convert and initiate as voluntary slave to a deity. Among other things this book shows how the idea of slavery affected many non-economic aspects of Roman life.

F. explores all these metaphorical relationships in close readings of outstanding insight and originality, as we should expect from the author of Catullan Provocations (1995), which was in part a careful study of such metaphorical relationships or "positionalities" in Catullus. The first chapter, for example, on symbiosis, discusses a series of texts in which the master/slave relationship figures: CIL 13.8355 (the epitaph for a slave stenographer named Xanthias), Ausonius' Ephemeris 7 (also on a stenographer), Hor. Sat. 2.7, the anonymous Life of Aesop, Hor. C. 1.38, Epist. 1.20, and C. 3.29. The discussion nicely shows the intimacy and even affection possible, despite the underlying inequality and hostility which servitude entails. F.'s guiding metaphor is symbiosis, which implies two different organisms sharing intimate contact, living together for mutual benefit created through cooperation. The term seems surprisingly appropriate, when one considers that, given the possibility of manumission or even adoption, domestic slaves had every incentive to seek intimacy with the master and to cooperate with his desires in hope of just such a future benefit. But F. most wants to emphasize two aspects of the relationship that are perhaps less apparent: the extensive knowledge that a "symbiotic" slave must have of his master's mind and which elevates him above his servile role, and the tendency of the master and slave positions to reverse and blur in literature. Horace's Saturnalian satire on Davus (2.7) and Plautine comedy well illustrate both ideas.

This brings up the second recurring theme, that of the slave's knowledge. For the free consumer of literature, slaves in literature represented a locus of special knowledge. They were beings who, by virtue of their social position, experienced and learned things and could do things denied by decorum to the free. This emerges, for example, from the brief but trenchant discussion of the servitium amoris topos in elegy in ch. 4, the exploration of clever slave figures in Plautus in ch. 2, and the superb reading of Apuleius' Metamorphoses against the Greek novels and the Aesopic animal fable in ch. 5. In all of these cases, Fitzgerald argues that literary slaves, rather than simply reflecting or justifying some aspect of social reality, indulge "the free person's fantasy of enslavement as a privileged position" (74). Admittedly, it is very hard to speculate on what was in the minds of the audience, especially Plautus'. In default of evidence on that question F. has recourse to some rather questionable Freudian theory of comedy (via Holt Parker, on whose formulations F. improves), and to some even more questionable British cultural studies as purveyed by Eric Lott's book on American minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995). It is a shame that F. did not have a chance to take advantage of the more cogent work of Timothy Moore on the audience in Plautus in The Theater of Plautus. Playing to the Audience (1998), which reaches some similar conclusions. A third recurring idea is the metaliterary value of slave figures. The search for metaphors for the production and enjoyment of poetry in poetry itself is a preoccupation that will be familiar to readers of Catullan Provocations and of Stephen Hinds' earlier contribution to the Roman Literature and Its Contexts series, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (1998). F. had touched on the clever slave as poet in Plautus' Pseudolus in an excursus in Provocations (56-58). Here he adds a virtuosic metaliterary reading of Ovid, Amores 1.11 and 12 (on Nape the hairdresser) and 2.7 and 8 (on Cypassis the hairdresser) as exploring the "duplicity" of poetic communication (67). As in Hor. Sat. 2.7, C. 1.38 and Apul. Met., "enslaved figures...have a presence that is comparable to some member of the literary dramatis personae (satirist, reader, omniscient narrator)" (67-68).

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book is the recurring question of ideology. F. looks hard, as others have before him, for a Roman ideology that declares that foreigners are born naturally slavish, and that slaves are morally inferior and so deserve and even benefit from their fate. This alone, it is held, could justify the cruel and inhuman practice of slavery, as the racist ideology (absent in Rome) justified modern slavery. F. needs such an ideology so that he can deconstruct it through literary analysis (passim, but esp. 9-10, 69-71, 89-92, and 111). Yet he finds only a handful of texts that say anything like this and is constrained to speak vaguely of "oppositions inherited from Athenian thought" (8); and he finds even fewer texts that can be read as challenging it. In a way the failure of the attempt shows just how unideological ancient slavery was, at least for non-philosophers, in comparison with the modern variety. To accept that some people (even oneself) happen to have the misfortune to be slaves requires no ideological ingenuity, only lazy acquiescence in what is. It took, centuries later, a supreme ideological effort to convince the world of the radical notion that, contrary to all the phenomena, men are somehow born equal and free and must always be allowed to control their own labor. The spread of this enlightenment ideology, unknown to the Romans, was one crucial precondition that, along with other complicated circumstances, gradually led to the phasing out of serfdom, indentured servitude and slavery, on which the world had for so long relied (see M.L. Bush, Servitude in Modern Times [2000]).

Still, F. is too astute and honest a literary critic to impose any ideological agenda on the evidence. As in Catullan Provocations, there are fascinating discussions of particular words and phenomena along the way: philosophers and their slaves (34-36), the puer delicatus (53-55), guests as intercessors on behalf of slaves (55-56), and the aforementioned discussion of slavery in the New Testament. There is perceptive social history via literature here, in the tradition of Paul Veyne. This book should be read and placed on the shelf next to Keith Bradley's more traditionally historical Slavery and Society at Rome (1994), as a complementary guide to some of what the literary evidence can tell us about Roman slavery. Even better, it is a provocative guide to what slavery can tell us about Roman literature and should do much to stimulate further research.

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