Arethusa 29.3 (1996) 389-418
Labor and Laborer in Latin Poetry: the Case of the Moretum
For most sections of the Roman population we possess no written account of their lives and experience as they themselves saw it: there are no slave narratives, no diaries, and no laborer poets from ancient Rome. 1 At the most we have inscriptions left by those commemorating the dead which tell us something about how the laboring poor, slave, freed or free, chose to identify themselves. 2 But these are extremely brief and formulaic and represent almost exclusively the urban population; the agrarian laborers who made up the majority of the working population remain silent to posterity. However, Roman literature, which shows little interest in urban labor, frequently represents the world of the laboring rural poor, although these representations more often than not cover the lives and experience of the laborers with fantasies of the elite. Shepherds are dressed up as poets and vice versa in Virgil's Eclogues, and Tibullus (1.5) imagines himself and his Delia as peasants welcoming Messalla to their humble abode. Sometimes rural labor is idealized but the laborers themselves rendered invisible: Virgil's Georgics is notoriously devoid of the slave laborers that worked the estates of his readers. 3 Labor and poverty are constantly praised by the [End Page 389] Roman moralists, but from a safe distance: the multi-millionaire Seneca, for instance, recommended imitating the life of the poor for a few days so as to achieve mental security from the blows of fate (Epistles 18.5-8). In this context the pseudo-Virgilian Moretum is a striking anomaly; as far as I know, it is the only detailed representation of the life of the working poor in Latin poetry that is not explicitly framed so as to relate it to some other agenda. 4 The poem consists entirely of the account of a poor peasant, Simulus, waking and preparing the lunch that he will take with him to the fields, a lunch of bread accompanied by a cheese and garlic confection referred to by the title of the poem. The Moretum begins when Simulus wakes and ends as he goes off to the fields to plough, secured from hunger by the lunch he has prepared. This slice of life is not framed in any way nor does it allude to greater matters; there is little explicit glorification of poverty or labor, and in general the poem paints a fairly grim picture of Simulus' life.
The anomalousness of the Moretum has prompted some to call it realistic, assuming that if it lacks the elite culture's usual investments in the life of the laboring poor then it must be interested in that life for its own sake. 5 However, insofar as the concept of realism is useful for ancient literature, it has to imply a polemical force with respect to other representations: the realistic moment in a particular work is its resistance to various kinds of literary decorum. 6 I will be situating this poem's anomalous focus [End Page 390] on the life of a poor laborer in a polemical relation to other representations of labor and poverty in Latin literature. My concern will be with the conditions under which labor and poverty can become visible in the Roman cultural context, and this will involve examining the ways in which they are made invisible or partially appropriated by the elite as masks or fantasies. The anomalousness of the Moretum allows us to bring into focus the strategies and interests that govern representations of the laboring poor and to explore the cultural norms that tend to make the life of a Simulus unrepresentable. Naturally, the Moretum cannot give us access to the experience of the rural laborer in ancient Rome, but what it can do is locate the blind spots in which that experience is hidden from the elite and identify the purposes that elite representations of rural labor might serve. It can also tell us something about the kinds of interest that a poet might have...