Who belonged to the populus in the city of Rome in the 200s BCE, and what did they think of the men at the top? Low-class speakers in the extant palliata express scorn and dislike for those whom they label the summi viri. Balancing the perspective of the chief analysts of Roman political culture (Rosenstein 2006, Hölkeskamp 2010), this paper will argue that comedy offers voices that do not "acquiesce" in the rule of the elite, but critique it. The populus in the plays explicitly includes slaves, freed slaves, and the free poor -- not just the lowest census class, but those outside the census altogether.
Page duBois in 2003 called for a recognition of the ways in which slavery is embedded in all aspects of ancient Greek life, integrating literature with historical demographics. The same goes for Rome. It has recently been argued that slaves in the audience of the palliata were addressed by the slave actors who played the newly-expanded slave roles (Richlin 2014); the theater, however, was a place where the views of the lower classes in general could be heard (Kruschwitz 2013), nor was status so rigid, as freed slaves moved into the urban voting tribes. The vocabulary of political critique in Plautus was laid out over fifty years ago (Earl 1960, "a sarcastic comment on the nobility"). K.-J. Hölkeskamp argued that the Forum Romanum was a "'museum' of the Roman collective memory" that promulgated elite rule (2010: 114); Peter Wiseman responded that popular memory lay not in monuments but in oral performance forms (2014); Hölkeskamp returned that all forms worked together to produce Roman identity (2014). But that identity has tended to be portrayed as monolithic. Rather, performances of the palliata constituted pop-up lieux de mémoire from below, sometimes staged, like Curculio, in the Forum itself -- indeed, this play takes the audience on a lowdown tour of the Forum. The slave Sosia in Amphitruo jokes that he will never have a fancy funeral. Counter-memory, low memory, was defined by the Popular Memory Group in 1982 in relation to the "historical apparatus"; low-class people generally do not have access to the means of publicity. In the palliata they did, as low-class actors played slaves and poor men to a mixed audience; as in James Scott's graded scale from the hidden to the public transcript, the stage provided space for a hearing.
Multiple factors in the plays support this view. The Advocati in Poenulus speak explicitly as freed slaves against the summi viri. Running slaves and parasiti threaten to knock the big men down. Slaves as well as parasiti appeal to their "fellow citizens" using the format of the quiritatio. In context, titles like aedilis, censor, magistratus, orator, praefectus, praetor, quaestor, tribunus, IIIvir, and the words senatus and comitium, often evoke negative emotions. The word populus applies not only to voters but to all and sundry, and determines a group of insulting terms, as when the slave Toxilus calls the pimp labes popli, and he responds with vir summe populi, stabulum servitricium (Per. 408, 418). In Curculio, the parasitus and the banker turn the Forum and the comitium into a dirty joke (399-403). A substantial group of speeches criticizes specific failings in public governance, significantly ending with a disingenuous disavowal of responsibility: sed ego sum insipientior qui rebus curem puplicis (the slave Stasimus, Trin. 1057); sed sumne ego stultus qui rem curo publicam/ ubi sint magistratus quos curare oporteat? (the parasitus Saturio, Per. 75-76).
It might be argued that the critique is deflated precisely by being voiced by low-class speakers. But when the parasitus Gelasimus differentiates himself from the oratores populi, summates viri, they sit at the head of the table, and he sits on his lowly bench (St. 488-93) -- just like the audience (Poen. 5): counter-memory in action.
Voicing Slaves in the Greco-Roman World