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The Sale of Captives on the Comic Stage: Communal Memory in the 200s BC

Amy Richlin

This paper will give a brief overview of the ways in which the palliata acted out onstage the trauma caused by the public sale of captives in the towns of Italy during the 200s BCE.  Nathan Rosenstein states the current consensus that the militarization of the landscape, as Roman armies spread out across central Italy and the north, served as "palpable signs of Rome's dominion" (2012: 90-92); the new roads that the armies marched down also carried the actors of the palliata. We pick the palliata up in Rome, but the troupes of actors, lower-class men, evidently some of them slaves themselves, would have brought their plays to mostly lower-class audiences all over central Italy, peppered with slaves and freed slaves and the relatives of those enslaved, and one of their chief topics was the fate of captives, who, in accounts of slave-taking, do not come from local elites (Richlin 2014).  As Matthew Leigh has demonstrated with regard to naval warfare, the experiences of the First Punic War manifest themselves in epic and tragedy (2010).  On the comic stage, in the sale of the Virgo in Persa and in the speeches of the war captive Telestis in Epidicus, actors in drag re-enacted the trauma felt most particularly by women (Gaca 2010-11) -- but also, in Captivi, that experienced by soldiers and those who were trafficked as children.

Therapists who deal with PTSD see the re-telling of traumatic events as essential for survivors, who often obsessively re-tell their stories in any case (Kaminer 2006); Primo Levi, speaking as a Holocaust survivor, explains that, for some, "remembering is a duty" (1965:  221). Historians who deal with war and trauma see re-telling as a part of the historian's job; Dominick LaCapra, for example, argues that "the problem of performative engagement with unsettling phenomena is important in an exchange with the past" (2001: 103), and the survivors' re-telling, especially a literally performative re-telling, might be seen as a kind of communal history-writing.  Testimony itself has served as justice, where justice has been a desideratum of the state (Weschler 1998).  But justice is always desired, and story- telling makes do when the real thing is unavailable and restitution is not forthcoming.  Peter Meineck and others in the project on "Combat Trauma and the Ancient Stage" have argued that Greek tragedy, along with Old and New Comedy, "offered a form of performance-based collective 'catharsis' … by providing a place where the traumatic experiences faced by the spectators were reflected [in] the gaze of the masked characters performing before them" (2012: 7). The palliata dealt with many kinds of traumatic displacement, as enslavement changed names, broke family ties, and opened bodies to physical punishment and sexual abuse; gender displacement was enacted onstage as (possibly) slave actors played slaves both male and female, emphasized by drag. The Virgo in Persa acts out the rupture between who you used to be and who you are now.  At the same time, enslaved characters are removed from home, displaced in space.  Comedy obsessively jokes about these extremely sore points, these points of trauma; there was nothing funny about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so the degree to which the palliata is funny can serve as a measure of the depth to which this hidden transcript is hidden.

Session/Panel Title

The Other Side of Victory: War Losses in the Ancient World

Session/Paper Number

26.4

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