BMCR 2020.05.11

Sklaven und Freigelassene in der lateinischen Deklamation Ein Beitrag zur römischen Mentalitätsgeschichte

, Sklaven und Freigelassene in der lateinischen Deklamation Ein Beitrag zur römischen Mentalitätsgeschichte. Sklaverei-Knechtschaft-Zwangsarbeit, 19. Hildesheim: Georg-Olms-Verlag, 2018. xviii, 218 p.. ISBN 9783487157283 €64,00.


Although the heart sinks when one reads, in the preface, that this book was written to fill a gap, the result after reading raises the spirits. This book is a thorough survey of the treatment of slaves (five chapters) and freedpeople (one chapter) in Latin declamation, plus an introduction to declamation, a conclusion, a bibliography, and an index locorum. Knoch is a commendably careful reader of declamation, and because he here surveys all appearances of slaves and freedmen, any other reader of, e.g., a specific declamation wanting a well-founded interpretation of the enslaved or freed in that declamation will be able to access an authoritative explanation based on wide reading. This is a balanced and useful book that comes to reasonable, if predictable, conclusions about Roman views of slaves, and of slaves’ roles in anchoring Roman views of status and gender hierarchies.

The Introduction orients the reader to the history (and Greek origins) of Latin declamation, its role in Roman education, and its often fantastical laws, situations, and cast of characters (pirates! stepmothers! tyrants!). A survey of recent scholarship helps Knoch argue for the usefulness of declamation as a form of training—both for speaking in courts or for display, and for learning social roles; as well as its usefulness for appreciating declamation as a source of historical information about legal and cultural history and the history of a Roman mentalité (5), especially that of the elite concerning enslaved and freed. 130 of 298 declamations make at least a passing reference to these groups, although it is the rare declamation in which such a person is even a major supporting character (Sen. Contr. 7.6 [a ‘demented’ master marries his daughter to his freedman], Calp. Flaccus 2 [a woman is accused of adultery with her Ethiopian slave], and [Quint.] Decl. min. 340 [a slave-boy is dressed in a toga to avoid customs-duty]). Chapter 2 begins by examining [Quint.] Decl. min. 311, in which the central question is whether an addictus (a “bound-over” person, a kind of obligated debtor or Schuldknecht) is a slave who can be manumitted, or not. This permits an examination of how declamation defines the slave (14–17), followed by a discussion of clichés about slaves (17–35). The definition seems remarkably consistent with what scholarly work on ancient slavery has produced (16) and the clichés those also found in ancient literature: a strong dichotomy between slave and free, the willingness of (or necessity that) slaves undertake lowering or shaming tasks, that the free do not know how to serve, that slaves are accustomed to corporal punishment and torture, and that they will rebel if given the opportunity. There are very few positive clichés (32–34) and these are usually brought in to reproach free men who are not acting as such. The chapter ends with a discussion of slave-terms used as metaphors (35–45) and sympathy rhetorically elicited for slaves (45–48), a very short section demonstrating that this tactic of arousing pity was sometimes used in individual cases, but mostly to make the cruel master (vel sim.) look even worse.

Chapter Three examines the various ways in which slaves have come to be slaves. Historically these included self-sale, sale as children, exposure, kidnapping, slavery as legal penalty, natural reproduction, and importation from abroad; but declamation is not interested equally in all of these. Instead, debt-slavery (51–54, returning to Decl. min. 311, with a warning not to derive legal principles from declamation: Schuldknechtschaft is not really slavery), war-captives, and (of course) those kidnapped (by pirates!) feature much more prominently (56–67). These are, again, not really slaves, although they lose their freedom while in captivity, and to cruel and inhuman masters (another cliché). Exposed children (67–69), again, technically retained their birth status, although practically speaking this determination was made by the person who took them in, and in declamation (although not in real life), more often than not such a foundling was raised as free (67). Sale of slaves appears frequently, especially the purchase of those stolen and set to prostitution (69 n.95); slaves are inherited only twice (71–72). The rhetores preferred to focus on situations where personal status was threatened or in question, which slavery through natural reproduction, importation, legal penalty, sale, and inheritance did not afford.

Chapter Four examines the relationship (in declamation) of slaves to the rest of the familia, and particularly to the paterfamilias. Tight living arrangements made slaves emotionally close to the family (76), cared for and fed by the family (77–79), and knowledgeable about the affairs of the household (incest? murder?) and thus liable to be tortured for information (a favorite theme, and given its own treatment in the next chapter). The master-slave relationship was certainly not the same as that of father and son (79–80), and the master’s exercise of proper authority was crucial for eliciting the obedience and faithfulness of the slave. Any household also had a hierarchy of trust (gladiatorial slaves at the bottom, financial slaves at the top, even faithful bodyguards not uncommon), with the trust dramatically demonstrated through self-substitution (such as a slave woman for a daughter who must subject herself to the evil clutches of—yes—a pirate, to free her brother). The figure of the servus fidelis, well-known from other literature, makes regular appearances in declamation as well (85–94), often as a verna or home-born slave. Equally trusted were slave paedagogues and (especially) nurses, who (again) because of their very closeness were assumed to be knowledgeable, and therefore torturable, about matters of parentage.

The regular punishments of a slave’s daily life do not appear in declamation, which instead glories in the torture of slaves, as Chapter Five lays out in detail. Such torture was not punishment, but part of a dramatic interrogation in a quaestio; it is therefore set aside to the second part of this chapter. The first part notes banishment to an ergastulum (rare), and the more common crucifixion (five examples), which is inflicted here by individuals much more than by the state. “It was the only form of punishment for any slave who played a noteworthy role in declamation,” notes Knoch (98). The reasons for crucifixion were always debatable in a rhetorical setting: a slave had fallen in love with his mistress, for example, or two slaves had refused to help their master die with poison. Slaves very rarely appear as the accused in a quaestio, but often provide testimony under torture (105–118). The value of this testimony depends on the argument advocated by the rhetor (108), but the horrifying and pathetic possibilities offered by this scenario were so irresistible that speakers often introduced the torture of free people as well (109–113). If death resulted, this was gruesomely emphasized (for a free person), but passed over or merely mentioned (if a slave), reinforcing the latter’s supporting (rather than essential) role in any story (114). Because the free could be tortured (especially by gloating tyrants), the torturing of slaves was not a performance of their stigmatization, but an elevation of those free who were not subjected to torture.

Declamation assumes a highly normative view of gender and power relations between the sexes: women were not to be of higher status than men, nor have more money and influence, and ideals of proper upper–class matronly behavior (and dress) were deemed standard for all free Roman women, while female slaves were their opposite, barred from wearing the stola and sexually available even to guests of the house. Opposite to the matrona was also the meretrix, the focus of the second part of Chapter Six (128–138). She could be of either slave or free status, but mostly in declamation was free, so as to permit an exciting rhetorical exploration of her infamia. The failure of men to adjust their behavior in ways appropriate to these two types of women, or even just being with a prostitute or in a brothel, reflected poorly on them, and declamation focusses on the denigrating consequences for them, not on the women themselves. The chapter ends with a short section on gladiators (138–142), where again the obsession of the rhetors is not with status (both slave and free appear) but with infamia and the shame it brings.

The final substantive chapter addresses freedpeople and manumission. Like slaves, the freed are referred to only in passing in declamation, except even less so. When mentioned, they can be very similar to slaves (trusted members of a familia, although here their loyalty can earn them their freedom). Methods of manumission are mentioned in passing, but of greater interest was the proper relationship between former master and freed slave: what were the differences between a patron and a father? What were the moral and legal obligations of this relationship (although operae in their technical, legal sense appear only once in the entire body of declamation, 159)? The relative rarity of references to the freed is explained on the first page of the Conclusion (162): they, unlike slaves, were simply not different enough from free people to be worth mentioning as such.

The Conclusion emphasizes that declamation serves its own purposes of training the speaker and catching the attention of the audience. As a consequence one can draw conclusions about mentalité—such as that slaves and freed were an omnipresent part of daily life for elites, and indeed that Rome was most definitely a slave society—but not so much about the realities of Roman life. Declamation therefore conveys a strong perception of the dichotomy between slave and free, and that slaves lacked agency, were valued less than the free, and generally were viewed quite negatively. Declamation also repeatedly laid out the ideal behaviors of masters and slaves: masters had a duty of care, while slaves were expected to obey with demur and to sacrifice themselves in their masters’ interests, a duty that persisted past manumission itself. None of this, as elements of a Roman world-view, should surprise. The one perhaps unexpected observation is that declamation also conveys an implicit (if unconscious) recognition, provided by the use of slavery metaphors when describing illegitimate or violent behavior, that slavery was somehow against nature (42–44; 165). Historically, however, the picture of slaves and freedmen was much more complex. Knoch is excellent all the way through at highlighting what declamation simply did not include: there were few dispensatores or vilici, the most reliable and trusted type of slave (82; 168), no imperial slaves or freedmen (168), and merely one mention of the peculium (19; 168); there was no mention of the purchase and inheritance of slaves, or the various ways of coming into slavery that gave no opportunity for rhetorical exploitation of status-ambiguities (169); the everyday punishment of slaves (169), the flight of slaves (103; 169), slave families (76), sexual relations between masters and slaves, and attitudes towards the resulting children were all rarely mentioned (125, 127). Thus the role of slaves and freed in the economic life of the Empire is invisible in declamation, and the possibility of humanizing emotional relationships within the familia unacknowledged. Several common legal actions or issues also rarely or never appear, such as operae (as a legal requirement rather than a moral duty, 159 n.61), the charge of corrupting slaves (134), and the principle of the favor libertatis (151).

Declamation’s focus on teaching and display, and on moral rather than legal issues, created a highly “selective view of reality” (170), and indeed introduced distortions, such as an obsession with treating those kidnapped (by pirates!) and the indebted as slaves even while their legal status was that of free persons (169). As a guide to history, therefore, declamation is untrustworthy. But Knoch ends by emphasizing that, as a guide to the Roman mentalité (especially in the areas of social and gender hierarchy), declamation is very valuable indeed. His final judgment attributes important agency to declamation’s black-and-white view of appropriate roles and behaviors because it “stabiliz[es] the institution of slavery and with it the entire social hierarchy” (172). This may be going a bit too far, since it is not a proposition that can be tested, but that one is tempted to believe it reflects the care with which this book studies slavery in declamation.