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Though scholars have long recognized that enslaved or formerly enslaved lectores “played a vital role in aristocratic Romans’ experience of literature,” (Starr 1991; Horsfall 1995) the oral performances of these figures have rarely factored into modern interpretive frameworks. Instead, scholars have largely privileged the text as the default point of mediation between author and reader. Recent years, however, have born witness to an explosion of scholarship emphasizing the Roman literary system’s reliance on enslaved labor (e.g. Moss 2021; Blake 2016; Habinek 2005). Building on this scholarship, the present paper responds to the challenge, issued in Howley 2020, that we reckon with “the immanent and invisible presence” of an enslaved lector mediating encounters between elite Romans and their books. In taking up this challenge, I explore reframing the extant texts of Roman literature as scripts that may have been read aloud and performed by the enslaved (cf. Richlin 2017). Thinking about Roman literature in this way disrupts any interpretive practice grounded in a neat triangle between author, reader, and text. Instead, we require a hermeneutics of ventriloquism—one that attends to the dislocations, displacements, and impersonations that precipitate from the literary voice of a given author taking over the actual voice of an enslaved person.

To illustrate the potential of this expanded hermeneutics, my paper conjures the scene in the room when an enslaved lector recites Catullus’s invective poetry in front of an aristocratic audience. My major case study is Catullus 16, the famously abrasive poem that has long featured in scholarly discussions of first-person poetics, Roman sexual politics, and obscenity. By imagining Catullus’s words coming out of the mouth of an enslaved lector, I show how the poem triggers a set of transgressive role reversals. The enslaved reader, speaking as Catullus, embodies the aggressor, the penetrator, the abuser. By contrast, the poet’s elite readership suddenly find themselves threatened by a servus. In underscoring these role reversals, I outline four effects that emerge at the scene of reading: Making the enslaved lector Catullus’s mouthpiece 1) amplifies the force of his invective; 2) shields the poet from the risks of transgressive speech; 3) plays with the limits of what the enslaved can say without incurring a violent reaction; and 4) compels the enslaved reader to re-visit past traumas of bodily abuse. These effects show Catullus designing a script that was live to the medial affordances of enslaved ventriloquism. Part of the appeal of obscene and transgressive speech may have come from making it spill out of someone else’s mouth. On the other hand, the role reversals occasioned by the poem may have generated opportunities for enslaved lectores briefly to inhabit dominant poses and forms of agency otherwise inhibited by their subjection (cf. Levin-Richardson 2013). If the case of Catullan invective is especially evocative, the paper concludes by asking how the lens of enslaved performance refracts attempts at elite self-fashioning in other genres that rely heavily on the author’s personal voice—e.g. epistolography, epigram, lyric, and elegy (cf. McCarthy 2019).