Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy


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Slaves, masters, and the art of authority in Plautine comedy

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Slaves, masters, and the art of authority in Plautine comedy

Fiction sellers , items Shop. Music sellers 73, items Shop. Biography sellers , items Shop. Nor is the use of the slave to effect the conjoining of these two audience responses coincidental. Since comedy is part of Rome's "public transcript," it makes sense that the citizen population used this opportunity both to reassert their difference from slaves and, in doing so, reaffirm the essential meaninglessness of slave resistance and to enjoy under the cover of this very difference the pleasures of liberatory release without ever having to admit that they, not just their slaves, were in need of such release.

In order to see masters taking pleasure in the clever slaves' antics, of course, we must believe that it is possible for them to identify across the boundary of status with slaves rather than assume that they will always identify with the fictive masters onstage. Although this kind of cross-identification might seem counterintuitive, perhaps we tend to dismiss this possibility precisely because our intuition has been shaped by Roman masters' own loudly voiced denials. It is an important element of the accepted self-presentation of masters that they would never identify with slaves and that they themselves have no need of the liberatory release that comic rebellion provides.

Thus the clever slave allows masters to mask, from themselves and others, their investment in fictive rebellion, since this figure also so clearly fulfills the requirements of a comic safety valve operated at the will of the authoritative to placate the powerless. Slavery, although it represents just part of the continuum of domination, offers an attractive choice for the dramatic presentation of the audience's broader anxieties about subordination for several reasons.

First, the slave's social role as an instrument of the master's will makes him or her the perfect choice for a dramatic embodiment of the fantasies of the free population as a whole. The objectification that is fundamental to the use of a person as an instrument easily extends itself into the use of a fictional character as a screen onto which fantasies are projected.

But the slave's status as a subject is just as important for the dramatic uses of slavery as his or her status as an object. One of the most powerful reasons for putting the relationship between master and slave on center stage to stand in for all relationships of domination is that slavery poses in an extreme form the problem that competing subjectivities create for the effective practice of domination. The crux of slavery is that slaves become useful only when they can combine two contradictory attributes: being as much as possible as extension of the master's persona and yet exercising judgment and skills of their own.

This paradox of slavery finds concise expression in Varro's formulation of the slave as an instrumentum vocale , a speaking tool, 35 a formulation that expresses both the slave's instrumentality and his or her persistent subjectivity.

But this subjectivity that is so useful also provides a platform from which the slave can perceive his or her own interests to be different from the master's interest. It is the unresolved subjectivity of the slave, and the difficulties it poses for the practice of domination, that provides the impetus behind the audience's desire for this particular vision of freedom and the substance of that freedom. In order to analyze the ways that comedy and mastery support each other, we need to start by looking more closely at the practice of mastery at Rome. Just as slavery is only part of a continuum of domination, mastery itself fits into a continuum of practices of authority or, in Latin, auctoritas.

Karl Galinsky, writing about a later period, has called auctoritas "a quintessentially Roman and therefore untranslatable term. It is acquired less by inheritance, although belonging to an influential family or group is accompanied by some degree of auctoritas , than by an individual's superior record of judgment and achievement. Again, auctoritas is not static but keeps increasing.


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In other words, the socially and politically dominant Romans may be born into a presumption of authority, but they must each as individuals realize this authority by constructing and maintaining it in action every day. This personalized form of power fundamentally differentiates Rome from those societies such as modern Western capitalist democracies in which power is routed through more abstract institutions such as bureaucracy and wage labor. Galinsky is right in differentiating Roman auctoritas from a sheer exercise of coercive power, since auctoritas consists above all in the idea that the subordinate's will is in compliance, not just his or her actions.

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The master must be always on the lookout for ways to impose his or her subjective viewpoint on the slave and to protect his or her subjectivity from the contrary imposition. Slavery holds a central place in such a system of personalized power, since in the abstract at least, it can be seen as the exercise of almost pure authority: the slave must carry out the master's orders, put the master's interest before his or her own, without compensation or consideration, just because the slave is a slave.

Furthermore, one of the central tenets of mastery is that the slave should not just obey the individual commands of the master but should have accepted the master's point of view so fully that the slave can anticipate the master's wishes and make the master's will effective in the world in ways that the master might not even have consciously desired. Thus successful mastery would confer on the master a mark of unquestionable prestige, the mark of someone who was constantly up to the difficult task of making others conform to his or her will and whose power in the world was multiplied by being able to act through others.

Conversely, however, the very difficulty of constantly imposing one's will and getting others to accept it means that, in practice, slavery was conducted not by exercising pure authority but by offering slaves a variety of overt and covert forms of compensation in return for good service and obedient behavior. It should be obvious that although slaves can make mastery labor intensive, by obeying the letter but not the spirit of the master's injunctions and thus forcing the master to offer compensation in return for more enthusiastic participation, this small pressure that slaves can exert will nearly disappear in the face of the overwhelming social and economic advantages of slave-holding.

The key word in the previous sentence is "nearly": this form of resistance will never break down the institution of slavery, will never even make an individual slaveholder give up on the system that offers to him or her so many satisfactions, but it does constitute a thorn in the master's side, by undermining the absoluteness of masterly authority. This kind of resistance can do no more than unremittingly demonstrate the separate, unresolved, unassimilable subjectivity of the slave, but even that tiny defiance troubles the master precisely because the slave's separate subjectivity is both the reason for slavery and the chink in its armor.

A concrete example will clarify this important point. Scholars of slavery at Rome and in other cultures have recognized the importance of manumission and other rewards as instruments by which the master could motivate and control a slave. A prominent and strongly stated version of this argument in regard to Roman slavery has been made by Keith Bradley see esp.

He argues that Roman masters held out the promise of eventual manumission and other rewards in exchange for loyal, obedient, and trouble-free service. Certainly this must be right. But even when masters could get slaves to accept the deal, they opened themselves to the possible interpretation that the slaves' obligations were owed only in exchange for these rewards, thus undermining the essential point of slavery that differentiates it from wage labor: the absoluteness of the slave's obligation. For this reason, the promise of manumission, or even the actual giving of other smaller rewards, is not an end to the master's problems but always opens a new round of negotiations, starting with new offers and counter-offers that each party will in turn try to redefine in its own favor.

On the contrary, the atmosphere of these negotiations is always conditioned by the master's ultimate authority; the master can refuse to agree or can even renege on previous commitments. But we should recall that if the master's power were as absolute as these last alternatives imply, he or she would not need to make the original promises of rewards in the first place. And, while it is true that masters always have the threat of sanctioned physical punishment to back them up, so do slaves have the threat of unsanctioned physical retaliation.

Even in the Republic, when masters did not have before their eyes such enlightening examples as Pedanius Secundus and Larcius Macedo, 41 the implications of angering their slaves cannot have been lost on them.

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Thus the Roman form of personalized authority produces a form of domination that can be extremely effective in its repressive aims but is also very labor intensive for the dominant. Although slavery embodies this kind of authority in an extreme way, we can also see it in operation in all the many hierarchical relations of Roman life.

It would not be surprising, then, that the audience of a Plautine comedy looked for release from the labor of mastering those below them, especially slaves, but also others in various hierarchical relations. Further, when we recall that each member of this audience is not simply either "dominant" or "subordinate" but stands on both sides of domination in various relationships to others, it also makes sense that they would enjoy a release from the labor of fending off the impositions of those above them.

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With this in mind, we can ask again the question with which I started this section: What pleasures does Plautine comedy offer to such an audience? Each of the two comic modes offers something to each audience member, and the interaction of the two maximizes these enjoyments while limiting the liabilities.

Farcical comedy offers the chance to identify with someone whose low juridical status does not prevent him from controlling those around him and, more important, who can see through all the pretensions and high-minded claims of justice and right. But this fantasy is always limited by the fact that the social order reasserts itself in the end: the master regains control, even if he demonstrates that control by pardoning the slave.

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Conversely, the naturalistic mode reassures the audience members that their control over others is as it should be and is safe from any irresponsible challenges. But this mode itself is often enlivened by the cynicism and rebellion that trickery can offer. This understanding of the coexistence of two very different modes of comedy can explain the popularity of Plautus and the role that his comedies played in Roman dramatic festivals.

This doubled form of comedy presented a mixed form of heroism with which people in very different social positions could identify while at the same time ensuring that the potentially subversive element of farce was leavened by the more conservative element of naturalistic comedy. This description of Plautus can also explain the centrality of the clever slave as the canonical hero, a figure who provided a wellspring of subversive energy. The defining characteristic of slaves in Plautus is their attitude toward the meaningfulness of masterly rhetoric.

Most readers would agree that there are two easily distinguished types of slave in Plautus. The second type of slave is, of course, the servus callidus , the "clever slave," who is defined not just by disobedience but, more accurately, by his disbelief in the master's rhetoric. Slaves like Pseudolus, Tranio in the Mostellaria , and Epidicus seem to believe that the master might actually punish them or reward them if they could choose to be good , so the important point is not that they dismiss the reality of the rewards and punishments in themselves but that they refuse to take these as meaningful in the master's structure of meaning.

For example, physical pain is only part of the effect of whipping intended by the master; what whipping is supposed to accomplish is branding the slave with marks of shame and dishonor that go far deeper than the scars on the skin. Indeed, much modern scholarship about slavery has focused precisely on this kind of consistent degradation as the ultimate source of masterly control.


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  • The clever slave may not relish the actual pain involved in whipping but refuses to see this physical act as depriving him of honor. In fact, the most consistent attitude expressed towards whipping by clever slaves is to talk about their scars as a mark of honor. If the primary characteristic defining comic slaves is the degree to which they accept the master's view of mastery, this is the point where we should look for the source of comic pleasures.

    It is the ability to be free from another's subjectivity that is embodied in the clever slave and other heroes of Plautine comedy. The clever slaves of comedy are unburdened by the master's view of the world in a way that real masters hope to be but can never be, unburdened by the slave's view of the world, since in practice masters must always act in the knowledge of potential slave resistance. This freedom from another's viewpoint inside our own heads is the miraculous freedom with which the clever slave is endowed.

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