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Varro famously describes the slaves as instrumentum vocale, speaking tools (R. R. 1.17.1). Varro here refers to rural slaves, doing hard labour on the farm; domestic slavery, by contrast, brought masters and slaves into close personal contact, and, as a result, created more ambiguity about the humanity of the slave. One pervasive metaphor for domestic slaves in Roman literature that captures this ambiguity is that of the instrument or tool which extends the body of the master (Fitzgerald 2000; Habinek 2007). Pliny the Younger’s epistolary portrait of his uncle Pliny’s work habits illustrates this metaphor at work (Ep. 3.5); Pliny the Elder depends intimately on slave bodies to assist him to the extent that he is best understood as a hybrid figure made up of master, slaves and tools working seamlessly together.

Martial’s Apophoreta is a playful collection of epigrams set at the Saturnalia which describe common household objects, including slaves. The epigrams portray slaves as extensions of the master’s body; for example, the cook has the master’s palate (14.220) and the secretary is the writing hand of the master (14.208). The intimacy of this relationship has the effect of blurring the distinction between slave and free bodies; the figure of the master incorporates his slaves’ bodies into his own. The Apophoreta is also remarkable, however, in that it literalizes the concept of instrumentum vocale: more than 60 of the inanimate objects described in the collection speak for themselves in the first-person voice, thus seeming to express a measure of subjectivity. Moreover, these animated objects are repeatedly cast in the role of household slaves; these speaking objects not only do what slaves do but they are shown to be functionally superior to human slaves.

By reviewing several key examples from the collection (e.g., 14.39; 14.40; 14.42; 14.119), this paper argues that while the slaves of Martial’s Apophoreta are rendered as extensions of the master’s body, the slavish speaking objects of Apophoreta occupy a space somewhere between the nominative subject and the accusative object, or between human and thing. This paper concludes that, fittingly for a work set at the Saturnalia, Martial’s Apophoreta deliberately undoes the division between master and slave; simultaneously, the collection calls into question categorical distinctions between human, thing, and what lies in-between. The epigrams thus draw out the contradictions inherent in Roman slave-owning ideology but refuse to resolve them.


  • Fitzgerald, W. 2000. Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination. Cambridge.
  • Habinek, T. N. 2007. 'Slavery and Class.' In S. Harrison, ed., A Companion to Latin Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 385-393.

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