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Equally Different: The Performative Function of Late Republican and Early Imperial Elite Discourse on Roman Freedmen

Kristof Vermote

Ghent University

Despite exponentially increasing attempts to break down analytical boundaries between freedmen on the one hand, and freeborn members of the plebs media on the other, the assumption of a status-specific discourse on freedmen has been consistently left unchallenged. In fact, many modern studies take for granted the notion that the Roman elite’s discourse on ex-slaves was highly sui generis, serving as it did to highlight, consolidate, and naturalize the latter’s inherent inferiority (which is often succinctly captured in the not wholly unproblematic adage macula servitutis, or ‘stain of slavery’). The aim of this contribution is twofold. Firstly, by applying methodological and theoretical insights from both Critical Discourse Analysis and Corpus Linguistics to a genre-crossing sample of literary sources, it sets out to question the validity of the claim that there existed a specific set of ‘libertine qualities’. Particular attention will be paid to the pervasive belief that the semantic scope of certain virtues or appraisals was subtly but meaningfully transformed when framed within the context of a patronage relationship. The main argument is that this notion blatantly disregards the performative function of such descriptions in the on-going process of social negotiation. The second part of the paper shifts focus to the Latin letters of recommendation as a concrete case study. It challenges the ingrained assumption that commendationes of freedmen were structurally different from those of ingenui because the former allegedly had to endorse and vouch for an essentially different ‘kind’ of person (an often tacitly accepted premise, once again closely associated with the macula servitutis interpretative framework). Besides arguing that the very same strategies of accentuating social and symbolic capital are discernible in recommendations of both freed and freeborn (elite), this contribution more generally postulates the existence of a ‘public transcript’ that fundamentally respected the principled equality of freed citizens in society.

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Roman Freedmen

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