BMCR 2007.07.54

The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History

, The Freedman in Roman art and art history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xviii, 294 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm. ISBN 0521858895. $90.00.

Secondary scholarship concerning literary and artistic representations of Roman freedmen has reached a critical impasse.1 One frequently reads how Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon is a figure whose social habits and artistic tastes were representative of all Roman freedmen irrespective of time and space. As a result we have tended to assume that if our literary Trimalchio concerned himself with occupation and self-aggrandizement vis à vis artistic representation (e.g., funerary or domestic art), all freedmen in the Roman world did so as well. We have, moreover, envisaged the freedslave as the only one who could create an art form, irrespective of ideas that may have been circulating amongst freeborn individuals of a similar economic standing. Lauren Hackworth Petersen’s (henceforth, HP) important and timely contribution makes substantial headway in changing traditional scholarly opinions about freedmen in Roman art and society.2

In this well-formulated monograph, the author tactfully addresses the notion of a so-called freedman’s art. HP’s study interprets the methodology that has become so engrained in classifying this particular art form. To do so, she instructively uses the literary setting of Petronius’ Trimalchio as a point of departure and leads the reader through his world with an outcome that is decidedly different from the usual scholarly consensus. HP unfolds her discussion with an introduction, two main parts comprising a total of six chapters and an epilogue.

The introduction, “The Roman Freedman, “Freedman Art” and Trimalchio,” sets the stage by describing the stereotypical treatment of freedslaves in both the ancient and modern records, and the tenuous definition of “a freedman’s art”. HP points out that when she first began her project as a dissertation, she wished to focus largely on freedmen and their tombs (2). She remarks, however, that such a focused approach is problematic because scholars have essentially taken Trimalchio as a de facto representation of not only freedmen’s burial rites but also of their lifestyles in general. HP instead has opted for a case-study approach to reveal how the epigraphic and visual evidence (painting, sculpture, architecture) traditionally ascribed to freedmen is not exclusive to them.

Three chapters make up Part I, “Public Life and Assimilation.” Here, HP guides her readers through the region of Campania, the home of our fictional Trimalchio. Specifically, HP concentrates on the city of Pompeii, where archaeological evidence richly demonstrates the roles of freedmen in politics and cult. The purpose of this first section, then, is to breakdown the stereotypical Trimalchian association with freedmen and to explore further how the former slave truly integrated himself into Roman society. Her conclusions produce unexpected results

In Chapter One, “Rebuilding Pompeii: The Popidius Family and the Temple of Isis” HP examines the negative clichés connected to freedmen taking up political office and being involved in cultic activities. As a case study, she reflects on the Iseum, which has usually showcased the premise that this site was a place of worship for “social inferiors” (e.g., foreigners, freedmen, women and slaves). An analysis of the epigraphic evidence, architecture, and visual vocabulary reveals that “social inferiors,” and also leading families, such as the Popidii and Pompeii’s decurions, had vested interest in the building. HP also describes how scholars have meticulously focused on one “freedman” named Ampliatus as the benefactor of the Iseum. Because of his so-called freedman’s status, he and his kin are often referred to as power hungry freedmen who are engaged in “tasteless” artistic refurbishing (in this case, Egyptianizing motifs). HP’s examination of the inscriptional evidence reveals, however, that the traditional designation of Ampliatus as freedman is indeterminate. Her important conclusion is that inhabitants of varied social and economic standings used the Iseum, not only for the practice of mystery rites but also to promote political, economic and social relationships. In addition, the ornate Egyptianizing motifs are prevalent in both domestic and religious contexts and are not relegated solely to patrons of freed status.

Chapter 2, “The Visibility of the Augustales” continues to observe the Pompeian freedman’s role in politics, particularly through the lens of the Augustales. Scholars usually perceive the political roles of the Augustales as lower offices designated specifically for freedmen. For instance, thanks to the work of Ostrow, we have learned that Puteoli, Misenum, and Herculaneum provide the best evidence for the early presence of the Augustales in Campania.3 For HP, however, Pompeii’s dearth of inscriptions mentioning the Augustales appears to be an anomaly in the epigraphic and archaeological records of this region. Inscriptions, when they do appear, frequently name Augustales on funerary monuments found at the Herculaneum and Nuceria Gates. HP correctly observes that relatively few inscriptions indicate conclusively that these Augustales were indeed freedmen. Rather, she emphasizes that both freeborn and freed took up this office thereby contributing to Pompeii’s diverse political fabric. This conclusion has important ramifications as it dispels the myth that non-elites contributed to the “downfall” of Pompeii after the earthquake of 64.

Chapter 3, “Memory Making in the Funerary Realm” takes us away from Campania and moves into the city of Rome and its environs, looking explicitly at extant funerary remains.4 HP opens the chapter with Petronius’ oft-cited reference to the Tomb of Trimalchio ( Sat. 71). This reference has decidedly blurred how we view large-scale funerary monuments. In short, anything big and elaborately decorated must be perceived as “garish” and therefore must belong to a freedman. A case in point is the Tomb of the Baker (a.k.a. The Tomb of Eurysaces) located next to the Porta Maggiore. This monument is notable for its unusual architectural features, grandiose size, and friezes with occupational scenes. In short, this predilection for the unusual could only be the commission of a freedman if we bear Trimalchio’s tomb in mind. HP points out that the inscriptional evidence is by no means conclusive in identifying Eurysaces as a freedman. The size of the tomb and its iconographic frieze, moreover, should not be conveniently dubbed as “a freedman’s art” since magistrates at Ostia were making use of a similar visual vocabulary. The baker’s tomb as a visual marker served to make the passerby contemplate its place not only in its own right but also in connection with other monuments in the area.

Part II, “Social Integration: Domus and Family” continues with the theme of the freedman’s social integration into Roman society, but this time with an examination of the Roman house. This section comprises three chapters: two devoted to the parallels between civic duty and the domus, one to the house tombs at Isola Sacra.

Chapter 4, “‘Freedman Taste’ in Domus Decoration,” delves into the relationships between patrons and artistic tastes, through examples of wall painting and architecture. Immediately, as HP reminds her readers, the elaborate and “ostentatious” decorations of Trimalchio’s domus come to mind ( Sat. 32-3) and exemplify an ill-read and naïve patron. More often than not this visual vocabulary in Petronius’ account has been taken as representative of freedmen’s tastes in general. A thorough investigation of the methodological issues surrounding analyses of the domus reveals that, frequently, the patrons of many of the houses typically are identified as freedslaves when in fact they are unknown. Also, HP tackles the thorny issue of the domus as a cheap imitation of the elite villa.3 In contrast, the author provides evidence to show that freeborn and freed alike assertively tapped into Roman thought and visual culture. The domus, then, becomes the representative example of citizenship and social integration.

Chapter 5, “To Claim a Domus:” the House of the Caecilii at Pompeii” examines one specific example of social integration of a family famous for the material remains found within their domus. The house is well known to social historians because of its wax tablets inscribed with the business transactions of L. Caecilius Iucundus. HP accurately demonstrates the tacit omission of this house, rich in artistic evidence, in art historical analyses. What is intriguing here is that Iucundus is believed to be a former slave and that his status is said to be reflected in the displaced treatment of visual images (e.g., erotic imagery in the colonnaded portico). She emphasizes, however, that two previous generations of the Caecilii may have had indeed held a servile past. In no way, should Iucundus be seen as living up to his servile past through artistic commissions. Rather, HP suggests that the eclectic nature of the artistic treatment of the house reflects each patrons fluid conception of romanitas.

Chapter 6, “Family and Community at the Isola Sacra Necropolis, concludes the section on freedmen and social integration into Roman society with an important examination of the relationship between domus and house tomb. Although many scholars have concentrated on Petronius’ description of Trimalchio’s tomb for conceptualizing occupations of non-elites, HP views the tomb as a means for asserting integration into society. Furthermore, she maintains that citizenship is integral for understanding why former slaves at Isola Sacra in particular adopted the house tomb format. Since these individuals had limited ancestral pedigrees, the house tomb gave them the opportunity to project their prosperous new families into the future. This was especially important since this lineage could be extinguished just as soon as it had been conceived. Her analysis revolves around one house tomb belonging to the Varii, which commemorates Servanda, the patrona, as well as her freedslaves, Ampelus and Ennuchis. This tomb, one of the largest at Isola Sacra, is generally read in the manner of Trimalchio as a symbol of self-aggrandizement. HP, however, emphasizes the element of integration of these new citizens into the household and Roman society as a whole.

I have one quibble with some of problematic evidence presented in this final chapter. The following opinions are not meant to take away from HP’s excellent argumentation in the work as a whole, but rather act as some food for thought. For those interested in mortuary practices, there is a tendency to compartmentalize how individuals or households performed funerary rites. The underlying assumption is that all Romans, regardless of ethnicity or status, participated in funerary rituals as well as festivals for the dead in a monolithic fashion. Whereas HP is careful in breaking down our stereotypes about freedmen, her treatment of their participation in ritual events could receive more careful scrutiny.

The overall presentation and method of this work are sound and must be praised. Illustrations are ample (140 in total). There is a rich array of excellent black and white and color images taken from archival sources and also taken by Stephen Petersen. HP’s new and innovative method is rigorous, with its combined treatment of the epigraphic and material remains. This monograph clearly will pave the road to future studies on freedmen and freeborn alike of a similar economic standing. As HP reminds her readers in the epilogue, “And although most historians would agree that Roman art history is anything but one history we remain limited by the gap between what survives archeologically and, equally important, by what individual Romans chose to reveal about themselves” (230). HP clearly takes an important step to bridge this gap and as a result, this work will become a standard reference for Roman art historians and social historians alike.


1. For relevant discussion and bibliography see HP, 6-12.

2. Much in the same way that Susan Treggiari’s literary and legal analyses did for initially incorporating the freed slave into Roman social history. See S. Treggiari, Roman Freedman in the Late Republic (Oxford UP, 1969).

3. S.E. Ostrow, “Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for their Early Growth,” Historia 34 (1985): 64-101.

4. The author has modified certain ideas slightly from the original article of the same topic. Peter Greenaway fans will love the title: L. Hackworth Petersen, “The Baker, his Tomb, his Wife, and her Breadbasket: the Monument of Eurysaces in Rome. Art Bulletin 85.2 (2003): 230-257.