- Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy by Amy Richlin
This is a masterful study of how the Roman palliata helps us recover the experience of slaves, their feelings and ideas, in the Roman center but also the other Latin-speaking cities and towns in the 200s bce (through the death of Plautus in 184). The palliata gives voice to low people in the context of ongoing war and displacement. Clearly but densely written, lucidly argued, and exhaustively investigated, this book will for sure be a gem for many decades to come for students and scholars of Roman comedy and Roman social history. Eight chapters, [End Page 106] split in two sections, are followed by a conclusion, two appendices, bibliography, and three indices.
In the first, introductory chapter, Richlin provides an overview of the history of slavery, Roman comedy, and low theater in light of performance theory, as well as the relationship between ancient slavery and current ideology. Here Richlin takes the approach of texts as performance transcripts (Plautus as the name of the grex rather than a particular author) and of theater as social practice, shaped by actors and audience in ever-shifting circumstances and giving voice to the slaves and the free poor in this tumultuous period. The first part ("What Was Given") begins with chapter 2, where Richlin looks at the body. For instance, beatings and sexual abuse feature regularly on the comic stage, both as physical breaches of bodily boundaries. Similarly, in chapter 3, Richlin delves into the common occurrence of verbal dueling on stage, as well the practices of flagitatio, occentatio or quiritatio, which all point to the actors' search for a means to satisfy the needs of the stomach.
In the second part ("What Was Desired"), Richlin examines how slaves make up on stage for what has been taken away from them by expressing what they want and desire. For example, in chapter 4 she looks at the slaves who degrade their owners, while in chapter 5 she turns to female slaves; in which case, however, we just never hear from the slaves on stage about the female experience or desires, but simply the desire for the restoration of the family, which is common to male and female characters alike.
In chapter 6 Richlin tries to read between the lines, so to speak, what it is that the slaves tell without saying. In chapter 7 she returns to the issue of broken families, this time due to human trafficking. This is a fascinating exploration of how the plays use time and memory on stage to create "temporary sites of memory" for all these displaced people. In the last chapter (8), Richlin looks at escape, and the slaves' hopes for manumission, often in fantastical thoughts of running away.
In her conclusion, Richlin synthesizes her arguments regarding the slaves, freed slaves, and the poor by using the outlet offered by the palliata to express what is otherwise prohibited. When these people speak truth to power, then the whole genre of the palliata becomes an act of quiritatio, urging everyone to stand by the performers. Richlin thus offers her readers new ways to think about these old plays from early Latin literature in an engaging and thought-provoking manner.