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Don’t Consult the hariolus: Slave Religions in the Rome of Plautus and Cato the Elder

Dan-el Padilla Peralta

“Dey would come in [to our religious meetings] and start whippin’ an’ beatin’ the slaves unmerciful. All dis wuz done to keep yo’ from servin’ God …” (Mrs. Minnie Fulkes, former slave, 1937 interview). Testimonies of this kind enabled Albert Raboteau to undertake his pioneering reconstruction of the religious world of African-American slaves (Raboteau 1978/2004). Taking its inspiration from Raboteau’s work, my paper will argue for the presence of two signs of slave religion in the works of Plautus and Cato, who wrote in a period of unprecedented large-scale enslavements: the policing of slave religious traditions and expertise, and the subordination of slaves to masters through ritual.

Among those swept up by Rome’s third- and second-century wars of conquest were religious professionals. Cato the Elder’s admonition to the overseer not to consult divinatory experts (De agri 5.4: haruspicem, augurem, hariolum, Chaldaeum nequem consuluisse velit) betrays an incipient anxiety not only about the general circulation of these religious professionals, but about their presence in the master’s household. The plausibility of the latter helps clarify the recurring identification of slaves with divination in Plautus’ plays (e.g., Libanus’ confused augury, Asin. 259-264): this association reflected a cultural reality in which domestic slaves could be imagined as wielding technical religious expertise. Hence (some of) the humor of Casina 382-386, where the slave Olympio asks his fellow slave and rival Chalinus whether his lot is made of poplar or fir: one relevant social subtext to this question is the practice of lot divination—not infrequently by slaves—in middle and late Republican central Italy (Klingshirn 2006; Santangelo 2013, 74-78).

No matter how expert, slaves were repeatedly subordinated to their masters through religious ritual, not only at state functions but in the rites of the domus. Slaves were not allowed to have sacra of their own: Cato instructs his vilicus not to perform any religious rites except those pertaining to the Compitalia (5.3), and his vilica is reminded that “the master offers sacrifice for the entire household” and ordered to refrain from any ritual activity except as commanded by her owners (143.1). The cult of the Lares played a particularly important role in defining the relationship between slaves and their homes as one of subordination and marginalization. The Lar familiaris who opens the Aulularia is concerned solely with the free members of the household; a fragment of Naevius’ Tunicularia teases the (probably slave) character Theodotus for painting the “playful Lares” while confined in a small space (fr. 35 Marmorale). Moreover, masters and their agents did not hesitate to deploy theology to encourage slaves to bear their lot (si di immortales id voluerunt: Capt. 195; cf. Randolph 1893 on the “prominent preaching to the slaves”). Yet slaves managed to cultivate and practice resistance at the margins of the sacra, sometimes in the form of a “theology of liberation” (Gutiérrez 1973/1988 for the term): even if master was “Jupiter” and slave “Mercury” (Amphitruo; cf. Cas. 331-337 for a “Jupiter”’s effort to assuage his slave’s concerns), Jupiter wasn’t impossible to trick.

Whether Roman drama’s engagement with religion in the generations after Plautus (Rüpke 2012, 51-61, on Accius) extended to the scrutiny of modes of slave religion remains to be explored. But we know that Cato’s nightmare of a charismatic slave did eventually come to life: Eunus the Sicilian rebel would claim special access to and knowledge of the divine, joining the ranks of slave leaders throughout history who have invoked visions and signs in the pursuit of freedom. For the Roman slaves who remained in captivity, traveling from country to city and back again at their masters’ orders, there were always roadside shrines to visit: are slaves behind the overrepresentation of foot-shaped anatomicals at the Ponte di Nona sanctuary (Laurence 2013, 304-305)? Perhaps the sanctuary’s patron deity was Hercules, former slave himself.

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Voicing Slaves in the Greco-Roman World

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