Ave, Jeeves!

Emily Wilson

  • Plautine Elements in Plautus by Eduard Fraenkel, translated by Tomas Drevikovsky and Frances Muecke
    Oxford, 459 pp, £79.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 19 924910 5
  • Plautus: ‘Asinaria – The One about the Asses’ translated by John Henderson
    Wisconsin, 252 pp, £13.50, December 2006, ISBN 0 299 21994 1
  • Terence: The Comedies translated by Peter Brown
    Oxford, 338 pp, £9.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 282399 1
  • Terence: Comedies translated by Frederick Clayton
    Exeter, 290 pp, £45.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 85989 757 5

When the Romans won wars, they brought home large numbers of enslaved foreign prisoners, to work the fields, mills and mines of the countryside, and to provide an enormous range of domestic services for wealthy city-dwellers. Slaves did the hard labour, but they were also essential for all the things that made a rich Roman’s life comfortable. Most of the work we would classify as part of the ‘service industry’ or the ‘entertainment industry’ was done by slaves. Bath attendants, cooks, baby-sitters, nurses, tutors, secretaries, prostitutes, weavers, dancers, hairdressers and waiters were all usually slaves; so, probably, were actors. It has been estimated that in the decades following the third and final Punic War, when Rome won its decisive victory over Carthage (146 BC), some 30 or 40 per cent of the population of Italy were slaves.

Many slaves were literate, some of them very highly educated. Cicero’s beloved secretary, Tiro, inventor of the first known system of shorthand, is only the most famous example. But we have no first-person narrative by a slave about his or her experiences – no ancient equivalent of Olaudah Equiano or Harriet Jacobs. The Roman story of slavery is told from the perspective of the masters. Slavery made Roman cultural life possible, but Roman authors usually either ignored it, or made jokes about it.

Roman comedy – the plays of Plautus (c.254-184 BC) and Terence (c.185-159 BC) – as well as the two comic novels, the Satyricon by Petronius (who lived a short, eventful life under Nero, c.27-66 AD) and the Golden Ass by the great orator, neo-Platonist philosopher, priest and magistrate Apuleius (c.123-180 AD), give us some of our best evidence as to how the dominant Romans felt about the slaves they lived with, needed, used and owned. The Golden Ass includes the most sustained narrative from the perspective of the enslaved. It tells the story of Lucius, whose curiosity leads him to steal a magic ointment from a witch, and rub it on himself in the hope of turning into an owl. Instead, he turns into a donkey, that most put-upon and slavish of animals, and endures a series of cruel and brutal humiliations – as well as having various interesting sexual experiences – before finally eating roses, which break the spell and turn him back into a man. The novel includes an inset narrative which mirrors the main story: the tale of Cupid and Psyche, in which the curiosity of Psyche leads to her own painful Odyssey of labours and wanderings as the slave-girl of the goddess Venus.

But imagining the comic awfulness of being turned into a slave as punishment for an excessive interest in the lives of the lower orders is not quite the same as sympathising with real slaves. Moreover, the startling ending of the novel seems to undo whatever satirical impact the narrative might have had, by suggesting that the whole thing is a religious allegory: Lucius is saved from his metaphorically slavish desires by conversion to the cult of the goddess Isis. As Apuleius’ novel reminds us, the Romans were aware that they had to be careful even in how they imagined being a slave. Owning slaves is presumably possible, psychologically, only if one resists thinking too much about the slave’s humanity – and hence the potential equality or interchangeability of slave and master. In Rome, only foreigners (barbari – non-Latin-speakers) could be slaves; the slaves were deliberately ‘othered’, by both language and race. But, unlike in the case of American slavery, skin colour provided no clue to the difference between slave and owner. Slaves might talk differently from masters, but they looked disturbingly similar.

One neat solution was provided by Aristotle, who claimed that some people are slaves because they have slavish souls. But in time of war, it might become awkwardly obvious that enslavement could happen to anybody. Plautus’ play The Captives seems to deal with precisely this issue: a master changes places with his slave, but both turn out to be of noble birth in their own countries. It is a comedy, so of course both characters are eventually set free, and get to marry the girls of their dreams. But Plautus plays with the possibility of imagining that even good people might be permanently enslaved, through no fault of their own.

Slaves were considered part of the familia – the domestic household – and were often buried in the same grave as their masters; yet they were also human chattel, with no legal or civic rights. Comedy is the genre that most clearly articulates anxieties about these paradoxes, and about social hierarchies in general, showing us sons who refuse to obey their fathers, daughters who run off with the wrong men, wives who commit adultery and slaves who are far cleverer than their lustful, know-it-all or niggardly masters. These plays suggest a complex combination of guilt, fear, pride, cruelty and envy in the Roman master’s view of his slave.

The attitude of the plays towards women is similarly complicated. Women in Plautus come in three main categories: the desirable, money-grubbing whore, the beautiful chaste princess (wife material), and the interfering old mother. Trouble arises because young men tend to get the first two categories confused, and find themselves raping the princesses and trying to marry the whores, to the rage of their domineering old fathers – until the wily slaves get it all sorted out for them.

In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud compares jokes with dreams. ‘Joke-work’, like ‘dream-work’, uses techniques of displacement and condensation to transform and disguise the fears and desires that our conscious minds do not want to recognise. From a Freudian perspective, the prominence of the ‘clever slave’ in Roman comedy (the servus callidus) might be a symptom of an obvious fear on the part of slave-owners, of their slaves plotting against them, to cheat them out of their money or position of honour in the household. The plays also use the mediating figure of the slave to deal with the fear of sons rebelling against the paterfamilias. The slave often sides with the son against the father, and the rebellious slave may sometimes stand in for the even more threatening figure of the rebellious son. The patriarchal system, which allows for little or no autonomy on the part of the lower members of the household (sons, daughters, wives and slaves), is unstable, since any one of these parties may choose to stand up against the master; and it puts a peculiar kind of pressure on the master’s own imaginative world.

For two thousand years the comedies of Plautus and Terence were seen as an essential element in the classical canon. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is based on Plautus’ Menaechmi; Molière’s Miser is a version of Plautus’ Aulularia. Perhaps an even more fundamental influence on later European literature was Terence’s dramatic technique of mixing together two or more Greek plays to create a complex or ‘double’ plot, which had an important impact on the multiple plots of Elizabethan drama and the modern novel.

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