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Imagining tablets and unseeing secretaries: real and imagined logistics of Roman literary production

Joseph A Howley

Columbia University

Roman literary culture depended on slavery, not only for the wealth and leisure to read and write, but also in practical terms: Romans relied on enslaved secretaries, copyists, and readers to facilitate their encounters with the written word (Winsbury 2009).  In particular, authors used amanuenses to conduct research, take dictation, and assist with revision (Horsfall 1995, Habinek 2005).  But when Roman poets imagine their own authorship (Frampton 2019) in material terms, they do so exclusively through the image of another tool: the waxed tablet.  Building on recent work on hidden labor in Latin poetry (Geue 2018) and on the spectrum of material practices in which literary text sits (Howley 2017), this paper rereads the poetic motif of tabellae in light of what we know about Roman authorial work, and finds in it a device not only of self-fashioning but also of occluding, a material poetics that allows some material realities of poetic work—like pens and tablets—to be emphasized while others—like human labor—are obscured.

Textual materiality, the figuring of poetry’s aesthetic qualities through physical books has long been understood as a way Latin poetry ties itself to Hellenistic antecedents and establishes its own distinctive aesthetic (Williams 1992, Bing 1998).  Tablets, meanwhile, serve to figure the author’s work-in-progress, enacting fantasies of composition and anxieties of plagiarism (Roman 2006, Seo 2009), as in Catullus c. 42 and 50 and Propertius 3.23, while also deflating the stature of literary composition by holding documents or ephemeral correspondence, as in Ovid Amores 1.11-12.

I begin by rereading these loci classici of poetic tabellae for the labor practices they imply or elide.  I set the variability of the tablet’s uses and functions (Meyer 2004) alongside the presence of the literate secretarial slave, who emerges from a range of literate enslaved roles within the household (Treggiari 1975).  I then show how the figuring of the work-in-progress as a thing to be possessed, exchanged, lost, and handled aligns with the experience and position of the slave in the urban domus; I show that Propertius’s lament that someone is using his tablets for bookkeeping, and his advertised reward for return, may be fruitfully reread in terms of the fungibility of enslaved skillsets, and alongside the collars Roman slaves wore promising rewards if, having run away, they should be captured and returned (Trimble 2016).  Ovid Amores 1.11-12, likewise, become more ominous alongside the spectre of slave rape in Amores 2.7-8.

From here I turn briefly to Roman discussions of their own use of amanuenses, which emphasize the amanuensis as prosthetic extension of the self (Blake 2012, 2016) as well as the sheer pleasure that comes from dictating.  This enables a new reading of Martial’s Apophoreta (Johnson 2005) in which the tools of Roman writing are offered as Saturnalia gifts alongside slaves, and in which we can see these ideas of pleasure and satisfaction intersecting in the objectification of the enslaved body.

Why do only prose authors speak openly about the use of amanuenses? The answer, I argue, is that while prose authors (like Pliny the Elder) may be praised for orchestrating the labor of their secretarial slaves in pursuit of large-scale works of studium, Latin poets are at pains to center their own authorial identity as repositories of ingenium, and to frame that ingenium—and the work that translates it into poetry—as a disembodied, creative practice, one that could not plausibly involve other human beings (as, in reality, it often did).  The tablet thus serves as a lightning rod for figuring poetic authorship, a material image by which the poet emphasizes their own creativity and, in so doing, occludes the work of their enslaved assistant.  To supplement the much-discussed poetic tabellae with the silenced or minimized amanuenses allows us to paint a fuller picture of Roman literary production in its elite social context.

Session/Panel Title

The Lives of Books

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