Oct 162012

Fitzgerald, William. Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Initially I assumed that classical slavery had very little to do with Atlantic slavery, but subsequent research has suggested that the legacy of Roman and Greek ideas about slavery did inform both period thinking about Atlantic slavery and our modern fantasies about it.

Roman slavery was a very different institution than American slavery. Slaves were ethnically and culturally diverse, and did everything from the most skilled to the least skilled jobs. Slaves could be manumitted, becoming freedmen, and their children were born as citizens. Everybody regarded slavery as a fact of life, and there was no abolitionist movement.

Yet there were similarities. There was a kind of intimacy within the family unit. Both familia and domus could include relatives by blood and marriage as well as slaves. Roman citizens had slave nursemaids and slave teachers. This created paradoxes and conflicts that had to be resolved, one way or another. E.g. literature provided both the “good” nurse to cover resentment over foreigners in the domus, and the “bad” nurse who misleads the daughter away from male control. (Pg.10)

White Southerners aspired to Victorian ideals of restraint, and projected their unacceptable impulses onto their human chattel.  Like white Americans did with their black slaves, Roman citizens projected their Jungian Shadows onto to their foreign slaves. The slave was everything the citizen was not: cowardly, lazy, undignified, undisciplined but also pragmatic and even wise.

As humans shadowing, extending and coming between the free, slaves allowed the free to imagine being otherwise, furnishing them with an imaginative alibi. […] These lovable tricksters in their imaginary Greek setting can be read, among other things, as fantasy projections of the free, not so much portraits of slaves as others through whom the free could play out their own agenda. Slavery, as a polar opposite of the free state, could be the place where the free imagined escaping from the demands of “liberal” comportment and indulging in revolt against their own superiors. Furthermore, as an extreme condition, slavery confronted the free with the constant presence of humanity at its limits, a humanity against which they could measure themselves.


…the slave is not required to maintain the physical dignity that is both the privilege and the burden of free status, and can therefore be irreverent about his body in a way that might become an object of utopian longing for those who must always maintain the proper demeanor; the free must walk at a dignified pace but the excited slave is allowed, even expected, to run.


The Roman writer Martial writes about his beloved slave Telesophorous using his charms to manipulate his owner, which the writer poetically compares to his barber demanding freedom and riches at razor-point. The writer says he would acquiesce to the barber’s threats, but as soon as the knife is away, he would break the barber’s hands and legs. Likewise, the writer says he will make promises in exchange for access to Telesophorus’ body, but “…once it’sbeen wiped off/my prick will tell your greed to go to hell.” (p.48) This passage shows the complexity of master-slave relationship: two people holding each other hostage.

Other writers compared the lover-mistress relationship to slavery, as a lover had to enter into servitium, even to the point of masochism or cuckoldry. The poet-slave Tibullus recommends a poor lover to his mistress, and lists a series of particular functions usually fulfilled by slaves, such as sneaking in secret lovers for her and undoing her shoes. (pg.74) This can be strategic, as when Ovid, in his Ars Amatoria, counsels the man performing servile tasks for the mistress until she becomes accustomed to him, and then being unavailable. (Pg.74) The slave is paradoxically closer to the mistress’ person than the lover, and the former actually blocks the latter’s path. (Pg.75)

Romans had their own version of the abduction/captivity narrative:

The motifs of exposure, kidnapping and abduction by pirates are among the most maligned of literary plot devices, but ancient comedy and the novel would be unthinkable without them. […] they provide the thrill of sudden changes of status, as well as the steady menace of a fickle fortune, and they engineer extraordinary recognitions and paradoxical encounters. Appolonius of Tyre, for instance, features a confrontation between a father and his daughter, now a prostitute, in which neither realizes the other’s true identity. […] The possibility of free people being enslaved was allowed by the fact that, at least until the time of Constantine, Roman law regarded freeborn status as inalienable in these circumstances, even in the case of parental abandonment. In the ancient novel, no one falls irrevocably into the orbit of slavery, and the gravitational field of freedom maintains a constant pull. [Pg.93]

The key example in this book is Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, about a young Greek, Lucius, who, while on a business trip in Thessaly, decides to steal the secrets of witchcraft by seducing the witch’s maid. He tries to turn himself into a bird, takes the wrong potion by mistake, and is transformed into an ass (that retains human intellect). This launches him into Picaresque adventures, sexual and otherwise. It reflected fears about enslavement, and changing ideas about identity: the older idea where a person’s identity depended on their social role, versus a more modern idea of a fixed identity that could be at odds with circumstances.

One aspect of this kind of story suggests later ideas about “white slaves” being automatically more desirable than slaves of other races.

As a character in Chariton puts it, “It is impossible for a body to be beautiful which is not by nature free” (2.1.5) Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe, chained, shaved, filthy and miserably clothed, “shouts” her noble origins through a beauty that remains undiminished by her degrading circumstances (5.17.4) [Pg.95]

Freeborn could become slaves, but they weren’t wholly absorbed into it, instead they became free persons in the costume or circumstances of slavery. They became liminal figures. Cf. more modern stories like Memoirs of Dolly Morton or Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.

The Golden Ass ends with Lucius restored to human form but in a new form of benevolent slavery: the service of the goddess Isis, suggesting the initiation narrative we’ve seen before.

All these classical stories would have been familiar to educated people of later eras, and would have influenced how people thought and felt about other forms of slavery, such as Barbary coast slavery or Atlantic slavery. The slave was, like the ass Lucius transforms into from his own pride and foolishness, the lowest possible person, on the edge of the “infra-human” category of animals. People fantasized about spiritual regeneration via slavery.

It wasn’t until the modern era, with it’s ideas about sensibility, that we would get recognizably sadomasochistic narratives.

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