Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2011
Lauren Hackworth Petersen The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 320 pp.; 8 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Cloth $104.00 (0521858895)

It must have been a challenge to find a cover illustration for The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History since, according to Lauren Hackworth Petersen’s strict standard, only a handful of the approximately fifteen first–second century CE monuments discussed are verifiably those of freedmen (liberti). For Petersen, only those who made their legal status as liberti explicit in their inscriptions are to be counted, although, save for imperial freedmen, such formulations became increasingly rare during the first century. Petersen also dismisses other indicators of freed status—Greek cognomina as former slave names (87, 97) and membership in the Augustales, an organization for wealthy municipal representatives of the imperial order (59ff.)—and thus presents most of the monuments as being by patrons of indeterminate social status (incerti). As Petersen explains in her introduction, she does this in order to dismantle the category of “freedman art” and to counter the belittling comments made about it through what she memorably dubs “Trimalchio Vision”—the tendency to see former slaves and their monuments through the lens of the excesses of the obscenely rich fictional freedman Trimalchio, a literary character created by the writer Petronius for the entertainment of Rome’s elite in the first century CE (10ff.). Petersen also hopes to reestablish the importance of ingenui (freeborn) as patrons, as she claims they have “virtually disappeared from scholarly discourse” (11).

The book is divided into two sections. Part 1, “Public Life and Assimilation,” includes a chapter on the Temple of Isis, Pompeii; another on the funerary monuments of the Augustales at Pompeii; and a third on the Tomb of the Baker in Rome. Part 2, “Social Integration: Domus and Family,” has a chapter on domus decoration in houses sometimes regarded to be those of freedmen; a central chapter on the House of the Caecilii, Pompeii; and a chapter on house tombs at Isola Sacra.

In setting out the parameters of this study there is a tendency to oversimplify the work of earlier scholars, especially that of Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (11), and Petersen’s struggle to disassociate freedmen from the Augustales, especially in the Bay of Naples area where the vast majority of these representatives of the imperial order were former slaves, is, at best, somewhat artificial (as the author is herself aware: 250, n. 20). Still, I agree with her that the monuments discussed here were not “isolated and static illustrations of ‘freedman art’” but rather works that closely resemble those of freeborn municipal magistrates, so if viewing them as if they were erected by incerti can facilitate an understanding of them in these terms, so much the better.

Unfortunately, however, this does not prove to be the case, for as much as Petersen rails against the all-too-ready comparisons with the vulgar extremes of Trimalchio, what remains in place here are the fundamental assumptions, also loosely drawn from ancient literature, that make freedmen by definition lesser: “former-slave status was a glaring blemish in reputation” (20, 125); only freeborn elected magistrates were the elite, and the Augustales were “a type of lower-level magistrate” (5, 57) (contra J. D’Arms, “Memory, Money and Status at Misenum: Three New Inscriptions from the Collegium of the Augustales,” JRS 90 (2000): 126–144). Based again on literary sources, Petersen also insists that there exists some idea as to how one could “communicate properly his status as ex-slave” and what “the proper patrona-liberti relationship was” (183, 216), notions that I find highly problematic. The consequences of this freedman-as-lesser model are multiple.

First, in making the case for the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker as a monument erected by an incertus, elements commonly identified with “freedman art” (like the husband and wife relief portrait from the tomb) or those that might be judged in questionable taste (like the epitaph of Atistia whose remains are buried “in this breadbasket” from the same tomb) are simply excised from it (93–97). As is the case for many monuments excavated in the nineteenth century, the archaeological record here is not as clear as it might be; but to exclude portions of the tomb solely on the basis of their supposed association with “freedman art” does not dismantle that category so much as it reifies it.

Likewise, in one of the few instances where the tomb builder P. Vesonius Phileros actually proclaims his legal status as freed in his nomenclature, Petersen’s assumptions about freedman-as-lesser limit her ability to interpret the monument. The inscription states: “Publius Vesonius, freedman of a woman, Phileros, Augustalis built this monument in his lifetime for himself and his own, for Vesonia, daughter of Publius, his patroness, and for Marcus Orfellius, freedman of Marcus, his friend” (my translation, G48 AE (1986): 166a). It is, according to Petersen, proper for Vesonius to honor his patroness but “odd” for him to honor his fellow freedman “friend” Orfellius (78). “Odd,” however, by whose standards? Even in the book’s own small sample, we have yet another—“Ogulnius, baker of white bread, friend”—whose inscription was found near the tomb of Eurysaces (96), so, in freedman terms, odd this seemingly was not. Although Petersen does not pursue it, a closer look at both the facade and the headstones within the Vesonius tomb suggest that the relationships here were far more complex than they might first appear. An additional inscription voices an eternal curse on “the man whom I had hoped to be my friend” for bringing a malicious lawsuit (G49 AE (1964): 160), and the child names on the headstones within the tomb suggest that Vesonius’s freeborn patroness Vesonia was also his spouse (A. Wallace-Hadrill, “Housing the Dead: The Tomb as House in Roman Italy,” in Commemorating the Dead, L. Brink and D. Green, eds., Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, 48–51). His cognomen—which would have been his former slave name—was, after all, Phileros (“amorous”)! Clearly the differences between freeborn and freed in municipal context are not as marked as they were once perceived to be (see also A. Wallace-Hadrill, “Imaginary Feasts . . .,” in Ostia, Cicero, Gamala . . . , A. Gallina Zevi and J.H. Humphrey, eds., JRA suppl. 57 (2004): 121–126).

Petersen does note that Vesonius Phileros’s title Augustalis is clearly an addition to the main tomb inscription, squeezed into a small space and presumably chiseled in once he had achieved this distinction. For Petersen, however, this means that the addition was “quite literally . . . an afterthought” and a demonstration that: “Once a slave, always a former slave, this Augustalis reveals the extent to which he could visually and ideologically assimilate into Pompeii’s social and political landscapes no matter how hesitantly” (80). On the contrary, historians have usually interpreted the addition as an indication of the status value of the title (most recently, H. Mouritsen, “Freedmen and Decurions: Epitaphs and Social History in Imperial Italy," JRS 95 (2005): 56–57 and n. 93; cf., 48 and n. 54), and such additions find ready parallels in the monuments of freeborn magistrates (see, for example, R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1973, 476–478). This characterization of freedmen as somehow “hesitant” or “tentative” in their expression of status and social integration is repeated in part 2 on domus decoration (123). This not only often seems out of keeping with the visual assertion of the monuments themselves, but it also conjures an image of freedmen as somehow reticent and subservient.

One final consequence of those underlying assumptions about the supposed stability of the elite and the inferiority of freedmen is also potentially revealing. Although the text is dedicated to eradicating “Trimalchio vision,” it nonetheless perpetuates the tradition of ridiculing the fictional freedman. When Trimalchio arrives at his own dinner party wearing both a slave’s close cropped hair and sporting a napkin with a purple senatorial stripe, he is, according to Petersen, expressing “impossible aspirations,” suffering an “identity crisis within his home,” and demonstrating “his inability to communicate properly his status as an ex-slave—neither slave nor senator” (124–125, 183). But in an era when the father of Claudius Etruscus could rise from slave status under Tiberius to head of the imperial financial administration and equestrian rank under Vespasian (Statius Silvae 3.3), and when freedmen magistri vici could wear the toga praetexta with its broad purple stripe and be accompanied by lictors (Dio 55.8.6–7), there was clearly an elasticity of practice to which our conception of standards does not correspond.

As Mary Beard has suggested, Petronius is constantly challenging his readers to consider how they judge Trimalchio as a character “who looks as if he is getting everything wrong, but in another sense is getting things just right.” (Mary Beard, “Vita Inscripta,” in La biographie antique. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité classique 44, Geneva:Fondation Hardt, 1998, 96–98). It may well be time to acknowledge that the anxieties attributed to Trimalchio by Petersen and others may have more to do with modern discomfort with the notion of slaves or ex-slaves than with ancient ones. To some extent the search for the supposedly lost ingenui (freeborn) on which the book is predicated (11) is also a part of that same discomfort, especially since, pace Petersen, the freeborn were never missing from the record—their nomenclature indicated their status through filiation, albeit in far fewer monuments than those sporting a more ambiguous naming designation. Rather than trying to convert incerti (those of uncertain social status) into ritual ingenui (freeborn), it might be more productive to ask why ambiguity in nomenclature could in itself have proved advantageous.

In identifying as freedmen only those patrons who declare their legal status in their monuments, Petersen values the fact that it was the individual freedman “and not historians, [who] made his libertine past matter in the perpetuation of his memory” (227). But, for all her good intentions to view not from an “elite” but from a “freedman perspective” (228), hers is still an interpretation nonetheless, and one that is colored by a literalism that is arguably more ours than theirs. Moreover, much as Petersen seeks to avoid perpetuating stereotypes when dealing with self-identified freedmen, she at times seems only to substitute one slave or ex-slave stereotype for another. A hesitant assimilationist is on the other end of the spectrum from the assertive self-aggrandizement of a Trimalchio, but it is the same spectrum nonetheless.

This well-illustrated book is certainly most effective in calling into question the unitary notion of “freedman art,” and it includes some fine case studies of the Temple of Isis, the Tomb of Eurysaces, and the House of Caecilius Iucundus, even if it does not as yet provide the shift in paradigm needed for a fuller reevaluation of this material. Such an analysis will need to move beyond the dichotomies of elite and non-elite, and freeborn and freed, and attend instead to the importance of wealth and to the ambiguities of status these monuments facilitated.

Barbara Kellum
Professor, Department of Art, Smith College