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Speaking up for the Slave in Quintilian, Minor Declamations 340 and 342

Matthew Leigh

Quintilian, Minor Declamations 340 and 342 both address cases brought under the same declamatory statute: QUI VOLUNTATE DOMINI IN LIBERTATE FUERIT, LIBER SIT. In the first instance a boy-slave is sent past the customs officers dressed in the toga praetextata of a free citizen child. In the second a maid is sent out to the pirate chief dressed as a Roman matron and playing the part of the sister of a captured youth. In both instances the question is whether or not it is legitimate for ownership to be reasserted once the slave has been allowed to behave as if free for a given period of time. In both cases the speaker sets out the case for the slave.

A noted function of Roman declamation is to train the pupil in how to represent the claims and ventriloquize the experience of the powerless against the powerful: poor men are set against rich, wives against husbands, sons against fathers, and the declaimers line up to give voice to socially marginalized or inferior groups. On one level this may be seen as a useful preparation for the forensic orator required to speak up for such individuals against the interests of their superiors, even if the latter are closer to his own social class. On another this imaginative engagement with the experience of the weak may be treated as part of the fiction of declamation and as one bounded by the walls of the classroom.

The declamations at issue in this paper do not question the institution of slavery, but they do stand up for the rights of individual slaves against the claim to property of their current or former owners. In a manner reminiscent of the Rudens of Plautus, the first of the two declamations also finds expression for some of the shame of slave-ownership by turning on the slave-dealer (mango). The demonization of a profession essential to the functioning of the slave economy betrays the slave-owner's underlying consciousness of the ugliness of his relationship to those whom he owns.

This paper will also address briefly the fiction operative in both Minor Declamation 388 and the Rudens of entering an 'assertio in libertatem' of one stolen from home and being sold overseas. In both cases we make believe that someone who was free in one land can be rescued from slavery in another by simple reference to her former status. Yet what the Mediterranean slave trade did was precisely to strip people of the status that they once enjoyed at home and to offer no legal recourse against their situation in the land of the owner. The fiction reveals both the guilty conscience of the slave-owner and the anxiety that one's own status is less secure than might be hoped.

Session/Panel Title:

Voicing Slaves in the Greco-Roman World

Session/Paper Number

24.5

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