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Controlling Images: The Loyal Slave Woman in Roman Comedy

Anne Feltovich

Hamilton College

In so many Greek and Roman comedies, a slave woman saves the day. Of the surviving plays of Menander, Terence, and Plautus, thirteen involve the reunion of a lost-daughter with her citizen family. Slave women are responsible, intentionally or unintentionally, for bringing about the recognition in ten of these thirteen plays. Focusing on the nurse, Giddenis, in Plautus’ Poenulus, this paper examines why the playwrights imbue characters of such low status with such power.

The lost-daughter presents a problem, and slave women offer a solution that makes sense within the genre. Convention dictates that citizen daughters – even those who do not know their true status – be restricted in their movement (these restrictions fail on multiple occasions, resulting in her rape). Because of the literary ideal, men in comedy have limited access to unmarried citizen girls. This is taken to its extreme in several plays, in which fathers are unable to recognize their own lost-daughters: Daemones of the Rudens, standing next to his lost-daughter, ironically remarks that his own little girl would be about the same age now; when Periphanes’ wife (Epidicus) demands to know how he mistook their houseguest for his own child, he explains that he never really saw either girl much; and Hanno (Poenulus) remarks that he wouldn’t know his own daughters if he met them. But he says he would recognize their nurse, Giddenis.

Denise McCoskey warns that the intersection of gender and status often leads us to overlook the category of slave women (38). This intersection makes Giddenis both hypervisible and hyperinvisible, and the playwright uses both in service to the citizen class. Giddenis is the link between the master and his daughters because only she is capable of recognizing, and being recognized by, all three. On account of her status, she interacts with the world at large; on account of her gender, she has intimate access to the girls, enabling her to bring about the reconciliation on their behalf. But when Giddenis has served her purpose, she retreats into the background, still highly visible but now silent: her master interrupts her reunion with her own lost-son, saying, tace atque parce muliebri supellecti (1145). She never says another word.

Slave women often serve as proxies for free women in comedy, just as slave men serve as proxies for free men (on the latter, see Parker). Solidarity along gender lines is a fiction created by slave-holders to alleviate the anxiety of potential overthrow (Rabinowitz 64): in so many stories, slave women like Giddenis rescue citizen daughters from prostitution and restore them to their families. Is his a reflection of reality? Of course not. The question was: why do the playwrights imbue characters of such low status with such power? The answer is: wishful thinking. Patricia Hill Collins describes “controlling images” faced by modern African-American women (68). One image, the mammy, is shown having both a natural talent for and an innate desire to care for white people. Her alleged desire justifies the exploitation of her labor. Collins refers to such stereotypes as controlling images because they allow the white patriarchy to both justify and perpetuate the oppression of black women. The loyal slave woman in comedy, who reunites the master with his daughter, is akin to the mammy: she is, in essence, a guardian or care-taker for the daughter. And crucially, the story is constructed so that what is best for the slave woman is also best for the master. And therein lies the fantasy.

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Women and Agency

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