Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.50

Roberta Stewart, Plautus and Roman Slavery.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.  Pp. ix, 229.  ISBN 9781405196284.  $89.95.  

Reviewed by William Owens, Ohio University (


Roberta Stewart’s Plautus and Roman Slavery considers how the drama of Plautus, which so often stages the interactions of masters and slaves, can inform our understanding of slavery as it was transacted on the interpersonal level in Rome around the time of Plautus’ working career. Stewart is persuasive in her central contention, that Plautus represents slavery as a complex institution that raised perplexing problems in human relationships involving masters and slaves.

Stewart recognizes that Plautine comedy was an elite production that “formed, supported, and perpetuated the political, social, and legal institutions of the slave society” (p. 19); nonetheless, in her view, Plautus was an artist able to transcend the limits of elite ideology and mirror relationships between masters and slaves from both perspectives, not just those of the master. For Plautus was an acute and empathetic observer of his society, an artist who “saw through and commented upon the social relationships of his world” (pp. 17-18). Thus, the Plautus of Stewart is less ideologically implicated than Kathleen McCarthy’s Plautus, whose representations of masters and slaves addressed the concerns and preoccupations of citizens, or Amy Richlin’s Plautus, who channeled the anger of oppressed.1

In the Introduction Stewart lays out her complex premises and methodology. Slave systems exist on an institutional level, that is, the laws, institutions, public policies, and ideology that defend and sustain the keeping of slaves. But slavery also exists on an interpersonal level. Master and slave are joined in an antagonistic relationship in which the master attempts to control and define the slave and the slave reacts, in submission, in resistance, or in a combination of both. Traditional elite sources for Roman slavery focus on the institutional aspects of the system, slavery on the macroscopic scale. These sources have less to say about how slavery was transacted in relationships involving masters and slaves. In Plautus’ frequent representations of the interactions between masters and slaves Stewart has found a window into this other aspect of slavery, slavery, as it were, on the microscopic scale. Stewart also notes that the Plautine evidence reflects a particular time in the development of Roman slavery, the poet’s working life, roughly the last two decades of the third century BCE and the first two of the second. By this time Rome’s evolution as a slave society had been and was still being confirmed through mass enslavement, laws, and public policy. Stewart’s synchronic picture of Roman slavery thus usefully complements previous studies, such as those of Keith Bradley and Sandra Joshel, which describe the institution from disparate evidence drawn over period of many centuries.2

The author’s focus on the interpersonal relations involved in slavery derives from Hegel’s discussion of the evolution of master and slave identities in The Phenomenology of the Spirit. Stewart combines this Hegelian focus with modern scholarship on the daily experience of African-American slaves. She views the identities of master and slave as products of a continuous negotiation and contest. The master sought to deny the slave his human autonomy. The master imposed his will through psychological and physical coercion. He constructed the slave, his property, as a degraded and defective individual fit for subjugation. The slave responded in both submission and resistance. In resistance the slave sought to retain his own identity, his own autonomous sense of self. Resistance might take outward and direct forms, sabotage and violence. But servile resistance was often inward, expressed in the slave’s own thoughts and silences, or indirect, expressed in servile flattery, double-entendre and duplicity, and manipulation of the master’s control.

Elite sources ignored, silenced, or distorted the opinions of slaves regarding their enslavement. Ancient slaves themselves adopted silence as a tactic in coping with the greater power of their masters. Thus, scholars must try to reconstruct the perspectives of ancient slaves indirectly. In this effort Stewart has drawn on scholarship in anthropology and political theory that examines how subordinated groups cope with subjugation; for example, James Scott’s concept of the “hidden transcript” of subjugated people, a version of events that counters the dominant narrative or “public transcript” of the masters.3 Stewart has also drawn on the scholarship that examines the servile perspective in African-American slavery.4 Rhys Isaac’s concept of “action statements” suggests a model according to which the attitudes and perspectives of slaves may be inferred from their actions.5 Thus, Stewart has drawn on the considerable scholarship in three distinct areas of specialization: her own field, the institutions of the Roman Republic; Plautine philology; and study of comparative slavery and African-American slavery. From this impressive scholarly apparatus Stewart has produced a reading of Plautus that is notable for its synthesis and breadth.

In the five chapters that follow Stewart examines Plautus’ representation of particular aspects of the master-slave relationship in their social and historical contexts. Chapter 1, “Human Property,” considers the sale of human beings as commodities. Stewart reads Plautus’ dramatization of slave sales in Mercator and Persa in the context of the Edict of the Curule Aediles regulating the sale of slaves, two literary texts that fictionalize slave auctions, the Life of Aesop, and Lucian’s The Sale of the Philosophers, and archaeological evidence for slave markets in the city of Rome. In reference to Persa Stewart argues that Plautus’ staging of the sale of the virgo invites the audience to join in as prospective buyers appraising a beautiful female slave. At the same time, Plautus emphasizes the isolation and sexual vulnerability of the new slave. Chapter 2, “Enslavement, or ‘Seasoning’ Slaves,” considers enslavement as a process in which the slave owner attempts to control and define the slave; in response, the slave may yield or try to retain a degree of autonomy. The author discusses how in Captivi the slave master Hegio attempts to assert mastery over various slaves, each of whom responds differently. Stewart reads Hegio’s assertion of mastery in a broader context indicated in Cato’s proscriptive recommendations regarding the vilicus in De Agricultura, and in the legal concept of peculium, which allowed the slave’s capacity for autonomous economic activity in practice but refused to acknowledge the slave as an autonomous person under the law.

In Chapter 3, “Violence, Private and Communal,” Stewart considers violence committed against slaves (and sometimes committed by them) in scenes from five plays: Aulularia, Miles Gloriosus, and Pseudolus, Asinaria and Persa. Stewart reads these scenes in the context of a society that considered the physical coercion of slaves as both normal and necessary. Thus, the late third century BCE lex Poetelia, which eliminated the enslavement of citizens for debt, drew a legal distinction between the body of a citizen, who was generally protected from physical punishment, and the vulnerability of the slave body. Public festivals, such as the Matralia and Nonae Caprotinae, implied the violability of the female slave body in particular. Stewart sees a reflection of the servile perspective in the Plautine cantica, where clever slaves celebrate their ability to withstand the master’s violence. The ability to withstand beatings becomes a kind of servile virtus. But the master’s point of view may also be present. Such scenes confirmed their view of the degraded character of slaves, in which the degradation of physical punishment confirms the aristocratic virtue of those who dispense it.

Chapter 4, “Release from Slavery,” considers Roman conceptions of a slave’s capacity for freedom in Rudens and Menaechmi. Stewart reads scenes from these plays in the context of the recent experience of the Hannibalic War, in which slaves had gained freedom through military service, and the elite’s effort to control ex- slaves through patronal influence and gerrymandering the impact of the freedman vote. Chapter 5, “The Problem of Action,” addresses a central paradox in institutional slavery. How did slaves express their subjective agency within a system that repressed or denied their autonomy? Stewart notes the broader context of this question in a discussion of major slave rebellions, where the agency of rebelling slaves is evident in their conscious and sustained rejection of their masters’ authority. The author observes that ancient commentators refused to acknowledge the servile agency implicit in these events, attributing them to innate servile ferocity and the excesses of slave owners. In contrast, Plautus celebrated servile agency in the character of the trickster slave, the servus callidus, the poet’s own particular creation. Plautine comedy, it would seem, acknowledges the existence of servile autonomy but at the same time neuters its potential threat. Stewart notes that Plautus’ servi callidi never win their freedom through their trickery. Plautus acknowledges servile autonomy, but within the constraints of slavery.

Stewart’s contextualized reading of these passages articulates how slavery, both on the personal and institutional levels, helped shape the lives of Plautus’ audience. The poet’s dramatization of slavery reflected master-slave interactions that were transacted in the lives of the audience every day. However, Stewart is disinclined to see ideological closure in Plautus regarding slavery. Her version of the poet describes an artist who understood the social problems of the institution from the perspective both of masters and of slaves. Different parts of even the same play could have addressed or reflected the sentiments of different segments of the audience, including masters and slaves. The reflection of multiple points of view implies an ideologically indeterminate Plautus for Stewart. This may have been so. A degree of ideological indeterminacy is proper to literature in general. However, Stewart’s focus on individual scenes forecloses the possibility of finding greater ideological closure. The context of the complete play may be as important to our understanding of a given scene as is the wider social and historical context emphasized by the author. Reading the master-slave scenes in both contexts, the literary-textual as well as the social-historical, might have revealed a greater degree of ideological closure. But such a reading would have also produced, in this case, an impossibly long book: Stewart comments extensively on scenes in nine different plays.

To conclude: Stewart has shown how Plautus and his society were aware of slavery as a complex and contradictory institution that raised perplexing questions in human relations. Slavery informed the lived experience of Plautus’ audience and this reality was embedded in Plautus’ dramatization of master-slave relations. Anyone who seeks to understand the poet and his audience on their own terms should read Plautus and Roman Slavery. While Stewart’s method of reading individual scenes precludes a convincing answer regarding a Plautine ideology of slavery, she has, nonetheless, raised Plautine ideology as an important question, one which others might attempt to answer in studies devoted to individual plays.6


1.   Kathleen McCarthy, Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000). Amy Richlin, "Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience", forthcoming in Classical Antiquity.
2.   Keith Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C. – 70 B.C. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989) and Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Sandra Joshel, Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome: A Study of the Occupational Inscriptions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
3.   James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
4.   In this regard Stewart has systematically employed a method of comparative history suggested by Keith Bradley in “Roman Law and the Troublesome Slave,” Slavery and Abolition 11 (1990): 135-57.
5.   Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
6.   Errata Two typos: p. 22, n. 3 read “Sceledrus” instead of “Scelodrus”; p. 36, read “quae bona est uno viro” instead of “bona es.” On p. 38 Saturio’s daughter, the virgo in Persa, has been misidentified as the daughter of Sagaristio.

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