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Libertas plebis: The Metaphor of Slavery in Popular Protest

Ellen O'Gorman

This paper explores how the slave operates as both paradigm and point of differentiation in Livy’s account of the struggles between patricians and plebeians in the early books of his history. It draws on recent debates in Classical scholarship about the possibility of recovering the discourses of the oppressed in elite literary texts (McCarthy; Richlin), and on work which maps how public narratives of domination (including poetic literature) both shape and are shaped by the “offstage responses” of subordinates (Scott; Fitzgerald). In particular, this paper takes as its starting point Scott’s observation that “[s]laves, serfs, untouchables, and peasants are… reacting to quite complex forms of historical domination, and thus their reaction is correspondingly elaborate” (Scott 111).

In Livy, plebeian revolutionary protests against debt bondage (nexum) dramatically foreground the usually hidden transcript of the underclass (2.23-32; 8.28). Deploying a popular rhetoric which privileges the body as the site of the political (Leigh), the nexi visually and verbally liken their state to the condition of slavery. Their ongoing struggle for political representation constitutes an attempt to give a voice to the body, and triggers an elite response in Menenius Agrippa’s parable of the belly and the limbs. These competing discourses will be interpreted through Rancière’s theory of the political emerging from the distinction between rational speech and bodily noise. Plebeian clamor demands to be heard as civic speech; by pervading the city it reconstitutes and politicises public space (O’Neill).

The public irruption of wounded and shackled bodies, however, draws its power from the unquestioned assumption of a fundamental difference between slave and free citizen. These scenes provoke civic outrage not at the injustice of violence and constraint per se, but at such indignities visited upon the bodies of veteran soldiers and free-born young Romans. The condition of slavery is thus vividly evoked in revolutionary rhetoric, but escapes interrogation: protest is clothed in the acceptable language of hegemony. Indeed, the slave revolt which intervenes in the midst of the class struggle (3.15-18) demonstrates how the slave as extra-political category is utilized but never represented by either plebeian or patrician. When patricians struggle to identify whether this new disturbance springs from plebeian resentment or the treachery of slaves (3.15.7), they obliquely acknowledge the appeals to slave imagery in protest against class oppression. Conversely, the plebeian tribunes reject the very notion of a slave revolt, claiming the disturbance as a patrician ruse to dissipate the popular movement (3.16.5). In the struggle for political dominance between the two classes of free Roman citizens, slave experience and slave resistance is rendered invisible.

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Voicing Slaves in the Greco-Roman World

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