The Visual Workings of Roman Slave Sales

The Visual Workings of Roman Slave Sales


(gentle piano music) – All right, I think we’ll get started. Can grab your refreshments
and have a seat. I’m Dr. Melissa Bailey
Kutner, and I’m very pleased to welcome you to today’s Humanities Forum and the Ancient Studies
Week Keynote Lecture. Before I introduce Dr. Jennifer Trimble I’m going to begin by
inviting you to attend the next Humanities Forum
event coming up on Wednesday, October 23rd at 4:00 p.m.
in this same location for the Annual Robert K. Webb lecture. The title is “Global
History as Urban History, “A View from Edo, the
Greatest City in the World.” And the talk is by Amy Stanley, Associate Professor of History
at Northwestern University. And I’ll just read you the blurb. Edo, now Tokyo, was once the
greatest city in the world. In 1800, the era of
Napoleon and revolution and declarations of independence, Edo boasted a population of 1.2 million. In comparison, London had a
population of one million, Paris had 550,000, and New York
was a tiny outpost of 60,000 yet Edo is strangely
invisible in global history. In part this is because the
city is difficult to integrate into the narratives of
imperialism and trade that dominate global history scholarship. It was neither a colonial
city nor a metropole. It was not a hub of foreign trade, and it was not even an
ancient imperial capital. So what do we do with this
strange, enormous anomalous city? In this talk Dr. Stanley
explores the social history of early 19th century Edo in
the context of global history, focusing on gender
violence and consumption. She argues that global
history does look different from the perspective of Japan, and that turning our
attention to social history and the urban poor illuminates how and why mundane experiences of urban
life were shared across many part of the world in
the 18th and 19th centuries. So I hope you all can make that event. I’m now delighted to introduce
Dr. Jennifer Trimble, whom I have known for many years, especially as an unfailingly
brilliant and generous advisor in graduate school. Jennifer Trimble is Associate
Professor of Classics at Stanford University. Her work addresses Roman material culture, and Roman visual culture from
many different perspectives. Her book, “Women and Visual Replication “in Roman Imperial Art and Culture” addresses repetition in
Roman portrait statues, and especially how statues
with different heads but identical bodies
construct social identity and public identity in Roman cities. She focuses especially on
how these statues are viewed and how they’re meant to be see in passing as part of the urban backdrop instead of isolated pieces in museums the way we usually see them now. Dr. Trimble has also worked
on urbanism and mapping. She was co-director of the
IRC-Oxford-Stanford excavations in the Roman Forum, and she
also co-directed Stanford’s Digital Forma Urbis Romae
Project, a collaboration between computer scientists and
archeologists to help reassemble a fragmentary ancient
map of the city of Rome. Most recently Dr. Trimble has worked on material culture of Roman slavery. Her 2016 article “The Zoninus Collar “and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery” analyzed inscribed iron collars from the fourth and fifth century CE that were used to control enslaved people. Probably especially to identify ones that had attempted to escape. Dr. Trimble addresses the
history of these collars and how scholarship has mostly focused either on the inscriptions or the collars, but not on the collars
as holistic artifacts in and of themselves. And she recontextualizes them both textually and archeologically. Her current book analyzes
the visual culture of Roman slavery and how the
visual played a crucial role in defining and enforcing slavery for both enslaved and free people. And now, we’ll further
ado, Dr. Trimble will speak on the visual workings
of Roman slave sales. (audience applauding) – Thank you so much, that was
such a generous introduction. And I will start by saying
that one of the most profound and wonderful aspects of this work we do is watching brilliant students
become brilliant teachers and professors, and now
my colleague Dr. Kutner. Thank you so much for
coming out this afternoon, thank you for inviting me, I want to thank the
Ancient Studies Department and the Dresher Center for the Humanities. It’s such a pleasure to
be here, to meet people and to share with you some of the material I’ve been working on. I hope there will be questions
and comments at the end. I’d be really interested to
know if any of this makes sense. You know, you sit at home
and you work on things and you think, I don’t even
know anymore if it makes sense, but I think it does,
so without further ado come with me to Rome. Come with me to the imperial city of Rome in the first centuries of our era. Not to the center of the city with its spectacular
monuments like the Colosseum and the Column of Trajan, but to a tomb outside the city walls. Here’s a map of Rome. There’s the city center,
there’s the Colosseum. Come down here with me
at the edge of the city where all the tombs were. In 1791, just outside the city walls on the Via Appia, a couple
of tombs were excavated. I’m using the term excavated loosely. This was before scientific archeology. They were dug up. No one at the time was doing archeological recording properly
or documented in any way we would think is right now. And we don’t even know anymore
where exactly this tomb is. But somebody drew a
picture of the excavation. And they posed, in a sense,
all the, whoops, sorry, they posed the inscriptions they found across the foreground. So we have a record. We’re gonna look very closely
at this inscription here. It’s an epitaph. For the classicists in the audience I give you the original
inscription, the Latin transcription and then the English, read
whichever version you want. I’ll read the English. To Aulus Memmius Clarus. Aulus Memmius Urbanus,
to his fellow freedman and his dearest companion. I do not remember, my most
virtuous fellow freedman, that there was ever any
quarrel between you and me. By this epitaph I call on the
gods above and the gods below as witnesses that I met
you in the slave market, that we were made free men
together in the same household and that nothing ever separated us except the day of your death. These two men met when they
were slaves up for sale. They then worked as slaves
in the same household and they were both eventually freed. We don’t know how they
came to be enslaved, how old they were, what
kind of work they did, how Clarus died, or what the nature of
this tremendous bond was. Were they friends? Were they lovers? Both are very possible, but
the inscription does not say. Instead it emphasizes their deep affection and their mutual esteem. During the centuries of Roman
rule, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people like Clarus and Urbanus were
sold in Roman slave markets. But we know almost
nothing about their lives. Our sources mostly express the
perspective of slave buyers and slave masters. So this epitaph is a rare
piece of evidence for the lives and priorities and emotions
of people who were sold. And for that reason alone,
it’s very important. Slavery was a fundamental
part of ancient Roman society, but enslaved people
are also among the most invisible people within it. If we want to understand ancient Rome we have to understand slavery, and that means trying to
make enslaved people visible. This is the focus of the
book I’m currently writing, called “Seeing Roman Slaves,” and the specific contribution
I think I can make to our understanding of Roman slavery is to show how profoundly visual it was. No one has really explored
this aspect of Roman slavery. So in today’s lecture I
want to give you an example of what I mean. I’m going to focus on one
situation within slavery, the visual dynamics of Roman slave sales, of public slave sales. Now, not every enslaved person was sold. Many people were born into
slavery and died there. But in public slave sales
we can really see the way the dynamics of seeing and looking, visibility and invisibility,
shaped slavery. Here’s the argument I’m
trying to make in this book and that I hope I can make today, what people in the Roman world saw was crucial to how they understood and how they experienced slavery. And this is true for free people
and enslaved people alike. Today I’ll explore this in two main parts. Part one focuses on people, and in particular a very
interesting relationship that our sources construct between the visual
deceptions of slave sellers and the visual inspections
of slave buyers. Then in part two I’ll move on to things. Looking at the uses of visual
markers and written labels. And then I’ll draw some conclusions. But I want to warn you from the start that this is difficult material. It is grim. It is disturbing, it is depressing. But it is also really
important and revealing and very worth studying. Just a couple more preliminary notes. In some ways Roman
slavery is similar to any slave system, including
slavery as it was practiced in the United States in
much more recent centuries. Both systems, like all slave systems involve the treatment of some
human beings as property, to be exploited for their labor. Together with large scale
forms of violence and brutality that kept the institution in place. But Roman slavery is also
different in a couple of key ways, for my purposes today, from more recent historical slaveries. One way is that Roman slavery
was not based on race. And it’s important to remember
that race as we understand it or see it at work in our
world today, or talk about it is a very modern construction from say the last three or so centuries. It did not exist in the ancient world. Exploitation happened on different grounds in the ancient world. The second difference is the
importance in ancient Rome of being freed, of manumission. Especially in the city of Rome
itself and in Central Italy, and especially for commercial
and economic reasons many enslaved people
were eventually freed, as the two men in that epitaph were. We don’t know how many slaves were freed but it’s really clear that
freed men and freed women formed an enormous and
extremely important sector within Roman city life. So this is some of the backdrop. Let’s begin with some
of the people involved and how they are
characterized in visual terms. A revealing place to
look is visual depictions of slave sales. We have only two. This is one of them. It’s a gravestone from Capua, about 125 miles south of Rome. Capua had a well-developed slave trade and very famously of course, there’s Rome and Capua. Very famously this is the starting point for the most serious slave
revolt in all of Roman history. I’m talking of course about Spartacus, an enslaved war captive
who had been captured in what’s modern day
Bulgaria by the Romans during their wars of conquest out there, brought back to Italy and
sold to a gladiatorial troupe. He led what ended up
being an enormous army and it finally took eight Roman
legions to bring him down. This gravestone dates
to a generation later. In the lower register is
depicted a slave sale. Let’s look more closely. At the center, standing
on a kind of pedestal is a man who wears only a loincloth. I don’t know if you can see
the outlines right there. This is the slave on sale. At left is the seller,
gesturing toward the slave, his cloak flying up behind him with the force of his gesture. On the right is a man in a toga. Also gesturing toward the slave, but in a much more restrained way, as befits his obviously higher status. He is the customer. This depiction distills a slave
sale down to three figures, but in fact lots of other
evidence makes it really clear that there were additional
slaves and scribes and financial professionals, not to mention on-lookers at a slave sale. So why do it this way? And what’s especially interesting here is that Roman law and literary writings also tend to boil slave sales down to just these three key people. Take the law. I am quoting here the
Edict of the Aediles, concerning slave sales. The Aediles were the Roman magistrates in charge of the markets, and their edict required certain things. Those who sell slaves are to apprise purchasers
of any disease or defect in their wares, and whether
a given slave is a runaway, a loiterer on errands, or still
subject to noxal liability, that means punishment for
some offense committed before. All these matters they
must proclaim in due manner when the slaves are sold. In other words, the seller
always had to tell the buyer if there were any problems
with the person on sale. These of course were
problems, quote-unquote, from the perspective of the
buyer, not the enslaved person. And these defects are defined in Roman law as essentially anything that
prevented enslaved people from doing the work that
masters wanted them to do. So here, as we see throughout
Roman law and society, enslaved people are defined
as both persons and as things. And this is expressed visually on that same gravestone from Capua. The seller and buyer
occupy one kind of space, but the slave at center
is depicted as occupying a different category. He’s smaller, he stands on a podium, he’s not dressed, his arms
hang motionless at his sides. Roman law and literature
generally constructed enslaved people, sellers, and
buyers in three distinct ways. Slave sellers were assumed to cheat. They are universally described
as greedy and unscrupulous, willing to do absolutely
anything to make a profit. On the screen I’m quoting
just two descriptions of slave sellers, but I could give you many more examples like this. Paul the jurist writes that quote, this class of persons is more
concerned with making profit, even disgracefully, turpiter. The second passage
describes a slave seller in very similar terms, quote,
we are dealing with a man who doesn’t blush, who stops at nothing. He is greedy even to the point of danger. And above all, these greedy slave sellers were said to manipulate
the visual appearance and even the bodies of the
people they were selling in order to deceive the
buyer and get a higher price. So again I’m quoting just two passages among many ancient passages
that discuss exactly this. In the ancient sources we
read that people on sale had their hair cut and combed. They were made to wear nice clothes. Seneca writes about this. Slave dealers hide under
some sort of finery any defect which may give offense. And the deceptions
attributed to slave dealers were not just cosmetic, there were more physical
modifications as well. Down below we have Quintilian
writing about slave dealers who quote, feign color with rouge and real strength with useless fat. Here he’s talking about the
practice of fattening people up to make them look healthier and stronger than they actually were. And for enslaved women
and boys in particular various ointments and preparations
were used before the sale to lighten the skin
and remove any freckles or other discolorations. And here we should remember
that in Roman culture white skin was always associated
with women and effeminacy. When Romans talk about skin color, they’re talking about gender. So here is an example of that in a mythological wall
painting from Pompeii. It’s the myth of Pasiphae and Daedalus and Pasiphae as a woman has pale skin and Daedalus as a proper
man has reddish brown skin. This painting has nothing
to do with slave sales, I’m simply showing you this very typical gender coding of skin color. But this mattered for slave
sales because boys and young men were often sold for their
sexual attractiveness. And here the slave dealers
deceptions get quite gruesome. The dealers, we read, used various concoctions to
hide the signs of puberty, or to delay the onset of puberty. Or to prevent puberty altogether
by castrating the boy. In all these references, the visual is treated as very powerful. These visual deceptions
create an effect of truth and people then respond to
what they think they see. So the visual is powerful, but it’s also slippery and dangerous because it allows for
these deceptions and lies. You can’t believe what you see and yet you have to go by what you see. This raises a different question. Were all these negative statements
about the terrible things that slave dealers did actually true? There’s no way of knowing,
but it is striking that the authors of
these texts I’m quoting were all members of the Roman elite. They would never have stooped
so low as to sell people or sell anything else for a living. They were basically aristocrats. Roman magistrates and jurists
came from that same elite. And so maybe it’s no
surprise that Roman law did the same thing, it
treated the slave buyers as upright citizens and
as normative Romans. Now let me be clear, I
am in no way suggesting that we should be
sympathetic to slave dealers. What I am saying is that Roman society took all the problematic
aspects of slave sales, any discomfort or contradictions
or negative assessments, and displaced them
entirely onto the sellers who were essentially
scapegoated in all this while slave buyers were never criticized. So how did slave sellers respond to this overwhelming opinion
that they were terrible people, that they were greedy, that
they were unscrupulous, that they were visually deceitful. On this same gravestone from
Capua we are actually seeing how a slave dealer represented himself. There are two inscription
on the gravestone. One up here and one right there. And the top one tells us
that Marcus Publilius Satyr, who had been a slave
himself and then freed set up this gravestone for himself and for Marcus Publilius Stephanos, who had been his slave
and whom he had freed. The freed slave, Satyr,
was a slave owner in turn, and this turns out to be
very common in the evidence. An interesting point in this image is how similar the men look. In that upper register
they both wear the toga of a free Roman man. And they mirror each
other’s poses and gestures. Which visually emphasizes
the close relationship between them even as the inscription marks a very very sharp hierarchy. The only real difference between them is that the man on the right is older. Do you see how he is balding. We think that must be Satyr, and the man on the left
has no signs of age and a full head of hair
and we think this is, he looks younger so we think
that must be Stephanos. The second inscription
states that this gravestone was put up by two more
ex-slaves, Cadia and Timotes. Cadia was a praeco, an auctioneer, and his job, put together
with the visual image of the slave sale, indicate
that these men worked together in a slave dealing business. So this is a very complex situation. All four of these men had been slaves. And at least one of them
was a slave owner himself. All four of them seem
to have made a living by selling other people. But what I want to focus on here is the way that this gravestone responds to all that invective, all those stereotypes about
deceptive slave sellers. Look at that lower register again. Notice the way that the
enslaved person is depicted, wearing only a loincloth. From the slave dealer’s perspective this image seems to be
claiming to show the truth of this slave’s body. Nothing is being concealed here. And notice something else. In this image both the seller
and the buyer on either side are depicted looking at the
same body in the middle. In other words, the visual message is that there’s no deception here. There’s no slave that the
seller then manipulates creating a fraudulent version
that the buyer then looks at. In this case, seller and buyer are looking at and seeing
exactly the same body. I think this is a self-justifying message by the slave dealer. So what about the buyers? Our ancient texts express anxiety on the part of slave buyers about how visual appearances can deceive. In response to the
deceptions of slave sellers the buyers were said to carry out very careful visual inspections
of the people on sale. These inspections are
described as invasive, sometimes sexualized, always degrading to the
person so inspected. So this is yet another way
in which looking and seeing defined and enforced what slavery
meant to everyone involved in different ways depending
on their legal status. These inspections often
entailed stripping the person so that the buyer could
see more and better. And they could involve
physical examinations and also verbal questions. So for example, in this first quote, the poet Martial is talking about a man wandering around a luxury market that included slaves for sale. And this man, quote,
inspected tender boys, devouring them with his eyes. The second passage on the
screen is a bit different, this comes from Suetonius’ biography of the first emperor, Augustus. And what we’re hearing about
here are the criticisms that were leveled against
that emperor Augustus. His great enemy, Marc Antony accused Augustus of
adultery and debauchery, and this is an example of that. His friends acted as his panders and stripped and inspected
matrons and well-grown girls as if Toranius the slave dealer were putting them up for sale. So the problem for Marc
Antony and other elite Romans was not that slaves on sale
were stripped and stared at in this degrading way, the problem was that
respectable free women were being treated like slaves on sale. So another thing we see
here is the way that in Roman thought different
social categories, respectable free women, slaves on sale, are defined in relation to one another. The status, the proper
respect due to elite women is here defined as the opposite of what happens to people being sold. With this in mind let’s look
again at that line in Seneca about how slave sellers concealed defects under fine clothing. Here’s that same line
but now in some context. Seneca was a Roman politician
and a stoic philosopher, and in this letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca is making a bigger point about how surface appearances
can conceal the truth. And he’s using apparently
a widely known aspect of Roman slave sales to make that point. When you buy a horse you order
its blanket to be removed. You pull off the garments from slaves that are advertised for sale, so that no bodily flaws
may escape your notice. If you judge a man do you judge him when he’s wrapped in disguise? Slave dealers hide under
some sort of finery any defect which may give offense, and for that reason the very trappings arouse the suspicion on the buyer. If you catch sight of a leg or an arm that’s bound up in cloths,
you demand that it be stripped and that the body itself
be revealed to you. Several things about this
passage are striking. Notice that the reader
is addressed as you. You, Seneca’s reader,
are put in the position of the slave buyer and the slave owner. The other possible positions
here, slave seller or slave, would be unthinkable for men
of this elite social level. And indeed enslaved people here
are assimilated to animals, stripped for inspection like a horse. Another thing. In these inspections as Seneca
describes them at least, two things are happening simultaneously. The inspection is terribly
degrading for the enslaved person at the same time as it
characterizes the slave buyer as a man of good judgment and competence. Whatever the slave seller has done in order to produce a
certain visual appearance must be detected through
careful inspection by the buyer who aims to see
through those deceptions. It’s crucial that the
body itself, ipsum corpus, the truth of the matter, be made visible to the eye of the buyer. And another thing, in all of these passages the
body of the enslaved person is looked at and manipulated in parts. We see that in the last
line of this passage. Seneca refers to a leg or an arm, not a full body or a full person. We saw that same fragmentation
of the slave body in the law which talked about specific defects. And we saw it also in the texts about slave dealers’
deceptions, which are all about enhancing or modifying
certain parts of the body. In all of these writings the
body of the enslaved person was treated piecemeal,
a collection of parts to be hidden, dressed
up, undressed, inspected. These visual dynamics
I’ve been talking about, both the seller’s deceptions
and the buyer’s inspections are always expressed on
the bodies of the enslaved. And those bodies are the
object of competing gazes. One gaze is that of the seller, who dresses enslaved
people up, fattens them up, applies makeup and
clothing to conceal flaws and to create a visual
impression of strength or sexual attractiveness. That gaze, the seller’s
gaze, is deceitful, clever, profit-oriented. The other gaze is that of the buyer, who aims to see through
these visual deceptions, who undresses the person on sale, touches, prods, pokes the
different parts of the body. That gaze is suspicious,
analytical, judgmental, invasive. But both forms of looking,
as different as they are, turn into intensely physical
and invasive experiences for the enslaved person. And so once again,
looking is a tangible way in which slavery is
defined and experienced. In part one, I was talking about people, in part two I move now to things. To the ways in which visual
signs and written labels were used during slave sales. Roman life was full of visual signs. The Roman toga is a classic case. The plain toga, off-white in color, no stripes or exciting things, was the simple marker
of a free male citizen. Slaves were forbidden to wear the toga. And if a woman wore the toga, she was signaling that
she was a prostitute. There are special forms of toga. If it was whitened with chalk or in Latin, candida, this marked a man who was
standing for election, and this is where we
get our word candidate. Magistrate’s togas had purple stripes. And so on. Or take the famous priestesses of Rome, the six Vestal Virgins. Most women typically
wore colorful clothing, most men wore dark cloaks, the Vestals wore white robes
with special headdresses. I’ll give you just one more
example of visual signs in Roman culture before
we return to slave sales. The fasces. This was the bundle of rods that symbolized the power of a magistrate, and magistrates were always
accompanied by attendants whose sole job was apparently
to carry around these fasces. And this of course is where we
get the modern term fascism, thanks to Mussolini’s use
of ancient Roman emblems of authority in Italy
in the 1920s and ’30s. In short, the ancient Romans
marked and defined identity through visual signs. And everyone who lived in Roman society grew up seeing and
recognizing those markers. Think of this as a highly
visually literate society. And in particular what
people wore on their bodies or had with them, the
shapes, the materials, the colors, the emblems, told other people who they
were and how to treat them. This backdrop helps us understand
the various visual markers used during Roman slave sales. Each one of these meant
something different but all of them marked
the person as available for inspection and purchase. The garland on the head indicated
a war captive to be sold. This was an archaic practice. In the period I’m mostly talking about it probably wasn’t used anymore. Chains were a very different kind of sign. Enslaved people were not normally chained. Chaining was used as a
temporary punishment, especially on farms and
probably also in quarries and in mines, which
are some of the hardest and the worst situations
to be a Roman slave in. But if a slave had ever been
chained, even if only briefly, this had permanent consequences. Forever after, that
person was official termed a servus vincus, a chained slave. And this status had to be
declared in a Roman slave sale. And it lowered the price of the sale. Another kind of sign used during
slave sales are white feet. Pliny the Elder explains this. In this section he’s discussing different varieties of
white chalk and their uses. And he writes, the most inferior kind is the one which our ancestors
made it the practice to use for tracing the line indicating
victory in circus races, and for marking the feet of slaves on sale that had been imported from overseas. So whitened feet always meant
that this was not somebody who’d been born in Rome or Italy, but who came from far away. And if you start looking
at what far away meant, we’re still within the Roman Empire. This normally meant modern day Turkey and out on the Syrian border,
but also other people, right, it just meant from a distant province. So these whitened feet
add to that fragmentation of the body on sale that I
was talking about before, that piecemeal presentation. And I’ve mentioned the
uses of the color white, which always seems to
be a marked category. It can be positive or it can be negative. So it can be positive as in
the specially whitened toga of a candidate for office, or the Vestal Virgins’ white robes, but it can more often mean something very negative in Roman thinking. So I’ve mentioned that white
skin was associated with women and with effeminate males, Roman writers saw this as a
terrible departure from the norm which was all about free masculinity. Women who wore white makeup on their skin were mocked and criticized. Male actors playing female
roles had whitened hands but actors are generally
vilified in Roman society. And so I think in the same way the whitened feet of slaves on sale marks them as departures
from that Roman norm. People from far away. People who are quite at the opposite end of the social scale. And notice Pliny’s word choice here, it’s kind of gratuitous, he calls this kind of chalk the vilissima. This is translated here
as the most inferior kind, but it means something close
to our most vile or most base, this is a moral judgment. Another visual marker sometimes used, and this is the fourth one on my list, was a cap that was put on the
head of the person on sale. Our evidence comes from Aulus Gellius, and his explanation reveals
something really interesting. Caelius Sabinus, the jurist,
has written that it was usual, whoops, when selling slaves, to
put caps on those for whom the seller assumed no responsibility. He says the reason for that
custom was that the law required that slaves of that kind be
marked when offered for sale in order that buyers might
not err and be deceived. That it might not be necessary
to wait for the bill of sale, but might be obvious at once
what kind of slaves they were. Notice here again the focus
on protecting the slave buyers from being cheated. We’ve seen this sympathy
for the slave buyer before. But there’s something new
at the end of the passage. The reason these caps
were used was so that, quote, it might be obvious at once what kind of slaves they were, end quote. The implication is that a visual marker, something that could be seen right away, was important for its
immediate and powerful impact. It could be more powerful than the actual written bill of sale. Powerful enough to lead the
buyer to make a bad purchase. The cap solves that problem
because it uses visual power to convey the necessary meaning instantly. Everything the buyer then
sees is framed by the cap on the head of the person on sale. Let’s talk more about the use of writing in Roman slave sales. Enslaved people on sale were accompanied by written
labels called tituli. The Roman poet Propertius mentions this in a passage of a love poem. He talks about one of those on whose barbarian neck a placard hung and whose chalked feet shuffled
in the middle of the forum. Propertius by the way is here insulting a potential rival in love. This is a man who has been
freed and who’s become wealthy and who can therefore buy
presents for the poet’s girlfriend and lure her away. So to insult his rival the poet here recalls his time on sale. But notice that he’s using
vivid visual imagery, the white feet, the placard
hanging on the neck, in order to bring his rival’s
past degradation as a slave into the present. We don’t have any surviving tituli. But these clearly offered very limited and very specific information tailored to the interests of a slave buyer in extracting labor. The titulas probably listed
what work a person could do. It surely didn’t describe
family relationships, or the enslaved person’s
own hopes or desires. Just like the slave
seller’s visual deceptions, just like the buyer’s visual inspections, these written labels profoundly redefined the enslaved persons. They permanently affected how he or she was looked at and treated. This brings me to the
last form of visual marker or written text that I
want to talk about here, the bill of sale. Let me explain what these were. Bills of sale were legal documents and like all important legal
documents in the Roman world they were usually written on wax tablets, at least in the western
half of the empire, and then on papyrus in
the Greek eastern empire. I’m going to focus on wax tablets. And I’m showing you a
reconstruction to give you an idea. These are rectangular slices of wood, either two or three of these wooden slices were tied together to
make a kind of booklet. The inside surfaces, as you see here, were recessed and filled with melted wax. A blackened wax was generally used, and once it cooled and hardened it made a useful writing surface as you see in another reconstruction here. Now because we’re talking
about organic material wax tablets generally don’t survive. But we do have a few bits and pieces. Here is part of a bill of
slave sale found in London. Only a little bit of the wax survives, it’s this grayish triangle. But luckily for modern scholars
the stylus went all the way through the wax and
scratched the wood below. You’re looking at an enhanced
image of those scratches. Within this text we find
out that this was a girl or woman named Fortunata, that she came from somewhere
in modern day France. That the seller guaranteed certain things, just like the Edict of
the Aediles required, and that she was sold for 600 denarii. There were intensely visual aspects to how these documents worked and how they gained legal force. To explain this I need
to take you to Romania, more specifically the
Roman province of Dacia. And there, in the 19th century hidden away in the shaft
of a Roman gold mine were discovered about two
dozen Roman wax tablets, documents of various legal transactions. Three of those documents
record the sale of slaves. Here’s how these wax tablets worked. They are triptychs, meaning three wooden
leaves are tied together. The front and back, so these remain, they
were the outside covers and they were used for protection, they generally weren’t written on. Inside the legal text was written twice. The first copy was written on side two and continued on to side three. That was the copy that would
be closed up and sealed. The second copy, written
on side four and five always remained open
thereafter for consultation. Once both these copies of
the text had been written they were inspected by witnesses. And then the first and
second leaves of the tablet were tied together with string, closing up that inner text. The witnesses then signed their names on the right side of side four, melted wax was dripped
over the binding cord where it passed over the page and the witnesses impressed their seals into that melted wax. No one could now change the internal text without breaking these seals. Any evidence of tampering
would be immediately visible. In other words, the legal effectiveness of any kind of wax tablet depended on a very specific combination of visibility and invisibility. Of the presence of a text
that could never be seen. And I’m just showing you here a detail of a wall painting from Pompeii
which shows a wax tablet that recorded a deed
or a loan or something, some important legal transaction. Here it is fully executed and sealed, and just by virtue of its appearance it had powerful visual authority. So here’s an example of one
of those slave bills of sale found in the gold mine back in Dacia. My apologies for the fuzzy image, I was not able to find a better image, but I think it’s worth looking at. This one records the sale of a six year old girl named Passia. And in the photos you
see sides two and three, which had the inner text, and those are drawings of
those pages right there. And then at the bottom you see page four, which had the seals and
the names of the witnesses. Here’s the first part of that inner text. We find out the name of the
buyer, Maximus, son of Bato, and the name of the seller,
Dasius, son of Verzo. Maximus has bought a girl
by the name of Passia, around six years of age, for 205 denarii. And very roughly this is the equivalent of something like 16,000 or $18,000 today. The deed continues on to side three. At the end we learn the date. This sale was executed
on March 17th, 139 CE. And on side four are the
names of six witnesses plus the seller here at the bottom. This is a drawing, it’s
much more decipherable. These weren’t signatures, the
scribe wrote all these names. But next to that name every
man pressed his personal seal into the melted wax that covered the cord that tied together the inner text. What we are seeing here is the
visual enactment of the law. The witnesses seals physically guaranteed that the inner text was intact. At the same time, those
seals and the names added those men’s social identity, their physical presence at the sale, their personal guarantee
that the sale and the tablet were properly done. Now these legal witnesses are always men. Women in Roman society generally could not act on their own behalf
in transactions like this. And we don’t know how
these men were chosen, but they were obviously
present in the marketplace or the military camp or
wherever this deed was done. These numerous witnesses make this in some sense
a public transaction done in the public eye. And their visual
performance in that moment then meant that the
tablet’s legal integrity remained visible far into the future. Bills of sale then went
with the new slave owner. They were carefully kept
in personal archives, which is where we sometimes
find them, archeologically. They were even hidden
away at times of danger. They were only invalidated
if something new happened, the slave died or was sold
again with a new bill of sale. Or maybe the person was freed, which was also recorded on a wax tablet, but this time it went
with the freed person. We don’t know what happened
to six year old Passia. But we do know that these visual processes and the visual involvement
of all these people formalized her position
as chattel, as property. Let me try to pull all this together. What does all this tell us? I want to offer three conclusions. First, I hope I’ve demonstrated
that visual dynamics permeated Roman slave sales. From slave dealers’ visual deceptions to slave buyers’ visual inspections, from the visual markers
used during slave sales to the visual rituals that
guaranteed the bill of sale. When we study Roman slave sales like this, from a visual perspective, we can really see how visual culture helped explain and define
and reinforce slavery. A second conclusion. Looking closely at this
evidence can show us entirely different experiences
of the very same situation. Seneca can casually refer
to the stripping of slaves during sale to make a philosophical point about not being deceived by appearances. A slave dealer can make
sure his gravestone responds in a very different way to stereotypes about cheating dealers. The enslaved people themselves went through a terrible experience and found ways to try to survive. The goal here is not to
unify all these differences, the point is not to write a
single history of Roman slavey, or ancient Rome, or anywhere. What we are seeing, what
we’re looking closely at in this material are the differences, the clashing perspectives,
the incompatible experiences that made up lived reality. And my third point here, these visual aspects of slave sales resonated in the Roman imaginary. Love poets like Propertius
imagined their rivals in love as wealthy ex-slaves and
they drew on visual images like whitened feet to evoke that. Other mentions of slave
sales in the public eye do other kinds of work. This imagery, the visuality
of Roman slave sales was powerful in Roman thought,
it did certain kinds of work far beyond the slave market. Fine, that’s all very well. But why plunge into such grim material and why drag you all through it with me? This is a big question, right? Why not focus on the wonders
of Roman architecture instead? Or something a lot more pleasant than the details of Roman slave sales. I don’t have an easy answer for that. And the most difficult part
of working on this book has been to dwell at length,
up close and personal, with the horrors of Roman slavery. But this raises an even bigger question, how do we engage with other
societies, other people, other institutions even when,
or perhaps especially when they seem so alien, so deeply wrong? Where’s the line between
maintaining a distance from terrible things, but on the other hand really understanding this time and place. I think it really matters to
try to do this kind of work for several reasons. First off, if we are
historians or archeologists, if we are serious students of the past, we have to try to understand
it fully, as best we can. We have to not be selective and only look at the fun
and uplifting material, and that means studying slave sales as well as wonderful philosophy or poetry. And if we do that we
understand the Romans better. We understand in this case
how social hierarchies were defined and
expressed in visual terms. And we also understand better
the experiences of the people who went through Roman slavery. I also think that looking at
visual aspects of Roman slavery or diving into the Roman past can offer a rich case study,
a different perspective, a deeper understanding on the
way that massive inequality can be entrenched in our own society. Roman slavery was a structural feature built in to every facet of life. And this gives us a vivid
example to think with for our own world and the
way profound inequality can be defined and reinforced and made ordinary every day
in a million different ways. We could think here
about income inequality in the United States or in the world in the difference between the
first and the third worlds. Or we could think about the difficulty of changing this world’s
reliance on fossil fuels even as we can see the
dangers of climate change. It’s important to remember
how deeply entrenched and embedded these
structural features are. That helps us then decide
what we want to do about it and maybe act more effectively. And finally, let’s remember the people. I want to end where I began,
with Aulus Memmius Urbanus and Aulus Memmius Clarus. These two men at least don’t
have to be invisible to us. In their epitaph we get glimpses of what they went through
in the slave market, and as Roman slaves. But notice how Urbanus also inverts that dominant structure that
I’ve been talking about, inverts those values. In this epitaph he presents a
whole different set of values. We know that people being
sold in the slave market were looked at by potential buyers as property to be used, as things. But this inscriptions shows
Urbanus looking at Clarus as a person always, regardless
of his changing legal status. We’ve seen that elite
writers described slave sales as permanently degrading for the enslaved. But here, the emphasis
is on dignity and esteem. We know that in the slave
market people for sale were described by written
labels called tituli. But here Urbanus uses
that same word, titulus, to describe this ephitaph. Hoc quoque titulo. In the slave market
we’ve seen how witnesses were called on to sign
and seal the bill of sale. Here, Urbanus invokes witnesses. He invokes the gods as witnesses to the life and the deep love
that he shared with Clarus. I don’t want to romanticize things. We’re not seeing a broad
antislavery movement here, this is one guy. And as powerful as his statement is, it was hidden away inside a
tomb, far out of the public eye. But we are seeing here
is what one enslaved and later freed person did,
he had this much wiggle room within this very brutal structure, and he took it and he did this with it. Urbanus suffered through slavery, his life unfolded at the
whim of other people. But let’s also remember this, let’s honor what he was able to do. Thank you so much for your
attention and for being here. (audience applauding) – [Melissa] Would you
like to take questions? – I would love to take questions. Oh, I should talk into the microphone. Comments, questions, random
thoughts, yes please. – [Man] Did enslaved people
also contribute to like, mainstream visual culture
like the public monuments or like what we would call, like art? – Yes, in all kinds of ways. The records, as always
in studying this stuff, the evidence is fragmentary and difficult and a nightmare to work with, but plenty and artists and craftsmen were slaves and ex-slaves, so already they’re the makers
of art in a lot of situations. There are depictions of enslaved people, yeah, there’s all kinds of stuff. Thank you for recalling that. Yes. – [Man] How would a slave, a Roman slave gone about
actually gaining freedom, becoming a freed man? Just purchasing it, or like it
being granted by the master? – There were various ways,
and they almost never explain how they did it, right? There are a couple of legal things that happened in Roman slavery that facilitated getting to
manumission for some people. So for instance, and this
happens mainly in cities and in commercial contexts. Enslaved people were not allowed
to own their own property, everything belonged to the master, but they were given a thing
called a peculium sometimes. Which is money or assets or animals or sometimes other slaves to manage and to try make money off of. So that would be one way they
could earn their own money and then maybe buy their own freedom. There’s a lot of evidence that in these commercial
settings for various reasons it was beneficial to the master
to have the enslaved person go out and work and to earn
money and to also then, it was beneficial for slave
masters to free slaves because freed men had more
commercial power and still owed, legally owed respect and
duties to the master. So this was a good situation. So especially for men we see some pretty well-trodden avenues toward manumission. For women it’s a whole different ball game because they are much less
caught up in craft production and in commercial work and so
there are fewer opportunities. There’s also this whole thing
where any enslaved person is considered to have no
control over their own body, so they are available for the sexual use of their master or whoever. So this then affects women and Roman society then looks
at enslaved women saying, ah, you are clearly a
degraded, promiscuous person because everybody has access to you. So then when the woman gets freed she’s suddenly supposed
to take on the virtues of the respectable and
chaste Roman matrona, right, the respectable Roman woman, and this is a very very
slippery ideological situation. There’s a great book by Matthew Perry on exactly that transition
and he points out this is probably one reason why so many of the freed
women that we read about are freed by their masters and then get married to their masters. So this person is then their
ex-owner and their husband which is very mind-bending, right. And then they negotiate that in whatever way they can negotiate that. This takes us very far
from your original question which I confess I’ve forgotten, but did I answer anything
that you actually asked? Okay.
– Has manumission. – We have to be honest about these things, now I’ve shut everybody up,
over there and then over there. Please. – [Man] So what factors influenced how much a slave was
worth, so besides obviously like maybe health and
age and things like that, was there any type of
labor that was favored or younger versus young adult? – Newly enslaved were
considered more valuable than the quote-unquote veterans. Let’s see, heavy unskilled labor is treated as less financially valuable. One of the, you get such weird stuff,
there’s, okay, so we have this weird text called the “Life of Aesop.” Remember Aesop, the figure who goes around having all these sort
of adventures, anyway, there’s a biography, it’s anonymous, it was added to over time,
but he starts out as a slave, he starts out as a field worker and he is sold in a slave market, but he’s so clever that he
parlays his situation up into, you know, he’s always getting
the best of everybody else. And what you see from
reading the “Life of Aesop” and from reading other sources is that skills were more valuable and it was also an easier
life for the enslaved person. So then there were these very
strong interests in trying to, in my context of the slave market, in trying to be sold as a skilled person not as a brute laborer. And then super valuable people, there’s an awesome
story about Marc Antony. He apparently from the
same slave dealer Toranius who was mentioned earlier, Marc Antony bought two
kids, two young boys, and be bought them as twins and this was, you know, and he paid
some crazy amount of money which I’m in the moment forgetting, but because they were really handsome and they looked exactly alike. And then he got them home
and started talking to them, turns out they come from
totally different parts of the Empire, you know, they
speak different languages. And so he goes back to Toranius
and you would think, right, here is Toranius discovered
in just a prime deception and he is so busted. And what Toranius says was, well actually they’re even more valuable
because what are the chances of finding two guys from
two different places who look identical and
can be passed as twins. And Toranius flatters Marc Antony so much that Marc Antony leaves and
he’s happier than he was before. So the whole thing is a
character assassination of Marc Antony, right. So, anyway. Yeah, so there are all
different kinds of levels. One thing we have to remember
is that Roman slavery has a vast range of
experiences and possibilities and life events within it. Let’s see, somebody over here
ages ago had his hand up, yes. – [Man] This is not really a question, more so looking for whatever
you think about this, and I apologize if this
is kind of aimless, but one thing that I’ve
always kind of noticed is that stoicism, that has been very impactful
in all of our history and it permeates to a lot of stuff that we hold value to today. It’s just interesting
that the three big stoics, the Marcus Aurelius and
Epictetus and Seneca, they all had a very close
relationship with slavery. With Epictetus having, I don’t even know if I’m
saying the name right, but with him being a slave and
being owned by a freed slave and yet is, they teach very profound
and insightful things and then they don’t ever really
preach out against slavery. – You put your finger on
a sort of raging debate over on that side of the
classics discipline, right, because Seneca in some places
makes very powerful arguments for treating your slaves humanely, he says is what people should do. But then, you know, and
so some people have said, oh he’s actually a nice guy
when it comes to slavery, look, he’s sort of seeing
kind of the humanity and the inhumanity of the institution and the humanity of the
people trapped in it. And then other people
have come back and said, no he’s just trying to
soften the brute edges so that enslaved people will not rebel. And of course, he was a
major slave owner himself, but all of these elite
guys were, all of them. Slave owning went so deep
in Roman society I think, you know, most people owned slaves, right. So stoics are no different
from other people in that. But you’re also touching on
one of my big themes today which is what do we do
with somebody like Seneca? He says some really profound and beautiful and insightful things about
how to live a good life. And then he turns around and says, ah, just like you’d strip a slave
at the slave sales, right. So how do we, I mean, partly you’ve touched on
the crux that I grapple with with this material and that I grapple with as a Romanist, right. Thank you, thank you for the comment. – [Man] Why do you think it’s
so common that former slaves turn around and become slave owners? You would think that
like personal experience would make it a little
bit more distasteful. – You would think, you would think. It’s one of the profoundly, there are so many profoundly
shocking things once you look, and that’s one of them. And it’s ordinary, that’s
the default situation. And the only thing I can think is that Roman slavery is so entrenched. There’s no, there are all
these different ways in which this structure is imposed
and kept in place and also in which people’s only
options for a better life are to try to crawl out
on their own, right. There’s no incentive to
bond with other slaves, there’s no incentive
to have fellow feeling and to have a slave revolution, Roman society isn’t set up that way. And so one of the reasons I think is that as a brutal repressive institution Roman slavery was very successful
in keeping that brutality and repression in place and
one of the ways it does it is by particularizing,
is by individualizing. Say, in teaching people in
a zillion different ways and proving to people in
a zillion different ways your life may be miserable but you can make it this much better and this is the only route
that you can do that. And so that’s one thing. Another thing is that
whenever we talk about freed men in the big cities
what we’re talking about is the top end of Roman slavery. These guys had the best kind. Still horrific and very very difficult and terrible situations but so much better than people laboring their
lives on farms and never having, I mean people on farms are
basically never manumitted, or much much more rarely. People could be condemned to the mines and there it was just a question
of being worked to death, right, here there’s a
very different thing. And I think here again we’re
back to the bigger structure, which is how does Roman
slavery stay in place. In many many different ways,
and one of the ways is by offering these little escape
hatches up at the top. I sometimes think about Roman slavery as this great vertical funnel,
right, of these different experiences or possibilities
and all the way to the top there’s some leeway, there’s
some mobility up at the top so these guys are rewarded
up there at the top. So it ties back into structure. And then other than that I
have no idea, I don’t know, it’s very strange. It’s very strange, it’s sobering, right, because you come from a modern perspective and you think it is self-evident
that this is a bad thing and then you spend a lot
of time in the society where it’s just not self-evident
that it’s a bad thing. What the heck do we do with that? Thank you for the comment. Oh. Please.
– So I’ve recently been reading Dio Chrysostom, a Second Sophistic writer’s senate speech in which he argues against prostitution based in part on a sort of
basic idea of human rights, namely that we’re all made by one god. Is this an idea in isolation
or does this position and other possible life positions change the de facto state of Roman slaves in the later empire? – You are touching on
another huge juicy issue, and that is what happens
with early Christianity. I’m going to skirt the
issue of Dio Chrysostom because I’d have to go back
and look at that passage and try to give you a reasoned response but I’ll broaden out and say
this becomes a live issue, right, because you get various, you know, certainly you
have modern scholars looking back and saying, hang on, you know, we have a new religion or individual philosophers who
say look, we’re all people, doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t have an institution like slavery,
and it turns out, nope, nobody’s getting rid of slavery, even as they talk about we’re all humans. Yeah, that’s another huge
one, that’s not my period. Once we get into the Late
Antique, that’s not my period so you can just see I’m just weaseling out of your very tough
question here, you know. But I don’t, yeah I don’t
have an answer for you and part of that is ’cause
I don’t know that period well enough, I tend to hang out in the Imperial Period and earlier and there are some really
big changes later on. I don’t know, I’m surrounded
by classicists here, does anybody have a
better answer than I do? Yeah. – [Melissa] Kyle Harper is a scholar that wrote a book about
slavery in late antiquity. Be a good source. – [Man] Okay. – [Melissa] His conclusion is
that it didn’t get any better. I had a quick. Oh. (muffled speaking) Just a quick one, I think it
was the Propertius example where he was invoking somebody’s past who was his competitor. And I thought it was
interesting because I think, I feel like I run across the
assumption a lot in Roman history that sort of once
a freed person is freed they were sort of
visually indistinguishable from other Roman citizens, but this seems to show
Propertius sort of using memory to try and erase and counteract that. So I was wondering if you
had run across other examples where people are using memory or visual things that they
think they can identify to sort of undermine the
status of freed people. – Mm, mm. The part that I’ve done the
work on is the whitened feet and we have a line in Propertius
and a line in Tibullus and a line in Ovid and they
all do roughly the same thing. The Tibullus one is great, his girlfriend has gone off
with some guy into the country and Tibullus feels very badly about this. And it turns out we
find out who the guy is and he turns out to be a
guy who had whitened feet, wound up being sold on the slave platform who’s been freed and who’s
now fantastically wealthy, and you know, is stealing
Tibullus’ sweetheart. And so they keep doing this,
it becomes, it’s just one, they don’t do it all the time, I’ve only found three
references in Latin elegy, but it is always used as contrast, it is always used as this way of sort of bringing up the past. That Pliny passage about the vilissima, a form of white chalk
used on the whitened feet of slaves brought from far away. Okay, so he’s been marching
through the natural history, that part of the natural history, he’s just telling you about
chalk and here’s how we use it, and it’s got some medical
uses and blah blah blah and suddenly in that
passage he just goes off, he goes nuts, he’s just like ah, let me tell you about
these freed men, right? He goes on a rant about
these guys who came to Rome with whitened feet and who have now become super powerful and they all, they acted as the henchmen
of powerful politicians and they profited from the
bloodshed of the prescriptions, you know, and he goes on and on. And the whole thing is just this beautiful rhetorical set piece and at
the end, oh what’s the line, it’s something about the
whitened feet are put up against the laureled fasces, so remember the fasce is the rod of authority that I
was telling you about, right, this is legitimate magistrates
and if they have laurels bound around them that’s
a good visual marker. But these whitened feet, those
people shouldn’t have power, this juxtaposition is just a sign that Roman society is falling apart. It’s kind of a stereotype
that Roman society is falling apart, but
that’s how I see it used, I see it used as a kind of trope of yeah, of bringing the past into the present. I mean here, this is a long passage in which the old drunken
friend of the girlfriend, the lena, is sort of a
witchy twisted old woman is saying to Propertius’ girlfriend, don’t hang out with that poet, what’s he gonna give you except verses. Go for the guys who have the gold, right, go for the guys who can
give you wealthy things, and she lists a soldier and a sailor and she ends with this guy, right, so there’s a way that these
things are brought up as a, yeah, as that kind of balance as both things happening at the same time, the power in the present with
the degradation in the past. – [Woman] Cats and dogs sleeping together. – Do we have? Oh, Molly and then. – [Molly] Okay. A quick one because
there are so few of them, bills of sale, do all of the inner texts match the outer texts? Are there scribal errors, or even more interesting skullduggery? – No skullduggery survives
that I know of, I haven’t– – [Molly] Okay. – Read them all, I mean, I’ve
sort of been looking at these and focusing on the bills of sale but I haven’t heard anybody
mention skullduggery. – [Molly] Dang. – There are some errors. You know, people get the dates wrong. And then you wonder, these witnesses who didn’t even sign their own names, how literate were they? I don’t think they’re doing
an inspection of the words, I think they’re hearing the texts read. The scribe is reading the inner
text and then the outer text and the witnesses say, yeah,
that sounds like the same text, and then signing, right, so. So you get tiny little errors, but mostly where the evidence survives, and very little of it survives
’cause this is organic stuff and it’s all deteriorated,
it does seem to be the same. You had a question. – [Man] Don’t think Romans were that alienated, or that the idea
of slaves becoming powerful was that foreign to them
because wasn’t one of the like, one of the seven kings
of Rome a former slave? – Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. Good thing to bring in, absolutely. This is built in to
their own way of thinking about themselves, but
they tend to object to it. It’s there, they’re familiar with it, and of course it’s the elite guys, right, it’s the guys who come
from the long lineages and the noble families, they’re the ones who object
the most strenuously. Presumably the freed men
are not objecting, right? They’re like, ha, we can make
a life, we can you know, or– – [Man] Start from the bottom (mumbles). – Yeah, yeah, yeah, look at me now, yeah. It’s a very different perspective
depending on who you are and who’s looking. So yeah. Absolutely, it’s built in,
it’s not unfamiliar at all. But it’s all about then power, right. I mean, the emperor Claudius
used a lot of freedmen to be his secretaries and to do a lot of
administrative work for him and the senators of course
think this is terrible. The society is collapsing yet again. And so there’s always
this tension about that from early authors, but
yeah, it’s very much built in all the way back. – So let’s continue over refreshments, and thank you very much to Dr. Trimble. – [Dr. Trimble] Thank you. (audience applauding)

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