Learned slaves played a major role in Roman literature, composing, revising and maybe even improvising on the work of their famous captors.
In the first part of the 21st century, our shelves and drives have bulged with brilliant feminist retellings of classic stories. From the Odyssey’s Circe to 1984’s Julia, contemporary readers are lapping up these acts of narrative reparation to women once consigned to the margins of our myths.
Sometimes this is not just about giving a character their dues, but about recognising a contribution to the literature itself. Take Anna Funder’s provocative new book on Eileen O’Shaughnessy, reductively known as George Orwell’s first wife.
O’Shaughnessy’s mammoth domestic exertions allowed Orwell the time to write. But she also made material contributions to Orwell’s literary process, “typ[ing] his manuscripts in between looking after their chickens, unblocking the toilet and preparing all their meals”.
These acts of retribution need to be ratcheted up, for another class of marginalised agents has come a-knocking. Don’t faint when I tell you the scandalous truth: the great authors of classical Latin literature — Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid — had some in-house help to write their masterpieces.
First, some context. The explosion of Roman literature, from its beginnings in the late third century BCE onwards, coincided with a huge shift in the Roman economy and society.
The Roman military machine hoovered up a vast number of war captives and dumped them on the Italian peninsula. These people were enslaved and put to work in all sorts of occupations, from mining, to baking, to farming, to domestic service.
The Roman upper classes still saw themselves as valiant agents performing the hard tasks that legitimised their class rule. They pretended, for example, that they were still themselves ploughing their gigantic Italian estates. But the myths of Roman elite life were coming unstuck from the realities.
Many had become absentee landowners, entirely reliant on enslaved agricultural labour to generate the income on which they parasitically subsisted. So deep-rooted was this dependence on enslaved labour, through Martial’s Epigrams we even have evidence that slaves were employed to hold their enslaver’s penis while he pissed. Tough gig.
Some of these slaves, particularly those from the Greek-speaking east, were highly literate.
For example, Parthenius of Nicaea — a Greek teacher and poet who originally came to Rome as a slave around 72 BCE — was a transmission vehicle for the Alexandrian poetry that underlay the golden generation of Roman poets, such as Virgil and Horace.
Such learned slaves would have jobbed as literary secretaries in charge of the literate tasks required of every posh Roman household: managing documents, accounts and correspondence. If the master had artistic ambitions, as many elite Romans did, the task list also included extensive creative writing, in poetry and prose.
Romans knew this secretary figure as the notarius. We don’t have much information about their individual identities, apart from the exception of Cicero’s secretary Tiro, but we do know that most Roman authors from at least Cicero’s day onwards made extensive use of these secretaries at all stages of the literary process. They were made to transcribe their enslaver’s dictation, to read back what was on the page, to help with revision and to make and distribute physical copies of a finished work.
Virgil is said to have thunk up the next instalment of his Georgics (a poem on farming) in the morning and dictated it to a slave in the afternoon.
His contemporary, the equally big cheese poet Horace, lets slip that he’s using an enslaved secretary when he directly addresses him at the end of his first book of Satires.
The prolific politician and letter-writer Pliny the Elder also fesses up to using a notarius, even if he is utterly finicky about quarantining the supposed ‘menial’ labour of the secretary from his own generative genius.
Dictation was a power game of white collar versus blue collar. The Roman elite always swore they were thinking as pure mind, rather than executing as mere body.
“The great authors of classical Latin literature…had some in-house help to write their masterpieces.”Dr Tom Geue, ANU Classics Lecturer
Sometimes, however, an anxiety peeks through a chink in the hubris: that the enslaved may be more than just following commands. Our aforementioned poet Martial wrote a precious two-line poem about an enslaved secretary whose right hand scribbles away faster than the master’s tongue can speak the words.
This could be the Roman equivalent of annoyance at machine learning anticipating our email response with some inane formula, or perhaps it is a sign of something deeper. A sign that, at times, the body was leading the mind. The slave was writing the master.
Through my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, I will pick through this body of literature over the next few years to spotlight the creative contributions of these forgotten co-authors of history. It will be about boring through the ideological filters of the Roman elite to salvage the material realities of how Latin literature was made. And it will be about accounting for some of the distinctive features of this literature in ways that acknowledge the probable shaping force of these slaves.
Midway through Virgil’s grand epic of Roman collective identity, the Aeneid, the poet addresses the Muses, the divine inspiration behind many an ancient poem. He commands them to assist while he’s singing the poem and to ‘unroll’ the regions of the war in Latium that will form the subject of the poem’s second half.
‘Unroll’ — euoluite in Latin — is exactly the word he would have used to order his enslaved secretaries to unroll the scrolls he read to research the poem.
In truth, the Muses — those Greek gods tasked with generating literature — are no longer up there in the mountains. They are right here, elephants in our libraries. And it is high time we clocked them.
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