Using Archaeology to Interpret the Freedmen
in the Cena Trimalchionis

Jared T. Benton

University of Arizona

When Petronius wrote about rich freedmen in his Satyricon, he was obviously writing fiction and meant his characterizations to be humorous.  Yet the Roman reader would not have found them humorous unless he drew upon stereotypes already in the popular consciousness.  The question arises then: how closely does the behavior of the freedmen at Trimalchio's dinner resemble that of contemporary Roman freedmen?  To answer this question, scholars traditionally have turned to the representation of rich freedmen in other literary works.  But a scholar must also look to the material evidence left by actual Roman freedmen.  Some scholars, such as Jane Whitehead (1994) and Gilbert Bagnani (1954), have taken this approach, but only to compare the fictional descriptions of structures with actual structures.  These studies do not, however, examine Petronius' impetus to depict the freedmen as he did.  A comparison of this kind can provide insights into how Petronius' characterizations would resonate with the contemporary reader's own preconceptions. 

This paper will analyze three relevant types of monuments left by rich freedmen: houses, public buildings, and tombs.  At Pompeii, the houses of the Vettii and of Epidius Rufus, when compared to Trimalchio's house, display similarities in their decorative schemes.  Public monuments, like the inscription near the entrance to the temple of Isis at Pompeii, offer instructive parallels to many of the beliefs expressed by the freedmen in the Cena Trimalchionis.  The tombs of freedmen, like that of Eurysaces the baker in Rome, display preoccupations with career and death similar to those of the fictional rich freedmen present at Trimalchio's dinner.

These similarities suggest that Petronius' characterization of rich freedmen mirrors, in exaggerated form, the more ostentatious behavior of some rich freedmen.  This sub-group created a stereotype for all freedmen, which Petronius then employed in order to generate humor.  But the Satyricon is not superficial.  It functions on multiple levels at once; at face value it affords humor, but it also carries deeper social implications. For example, Trimalchio, himself a rich freedman, often displays attributes considered to be admirable in the upper tiers of Roman society.  This ironic juxtaposition of the socially inappropriate and appropriate presents a challenge to the free-born reader:  if an ostentatious freedman can take on admirable traits, what does that imply about the wealthy aristocrat who lacks moral fiber?

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