Academic journal article Helios

Now You See Them: Slaves and Other Objects as Elements of the Roman Master

Academic journal article Helios

Now You See Them: Slaves and Other Objects as Elements of the Roman Master

Article excerpt

In the third book of his letters, Pliny the Younger, in response to a request from Baebius Macer, describes the famous industriousness of his uncle, the elder Pliny. (1) By detailing a day in the life of that Pliny, he explains just how it was that a man who lived only 56 years and was constantly busy with administrative duties was nonetheless able to produce more than seven works, totalling over 100 volumes, including the sprawling Historia naturalis:

  post cibum, aestate si quid otii iacebat in sole, liber legabatur,
  adnota-bat excerpebatque. nihil enim legit quod non excerperet.
  ... post solem lavabatur ... super hanc [cenam] legebatur,
  adnotabatur. ... in secessu solum balinei tempus studiis
  eximebatur--cum dico balinei, de interioribus loquor; nam dum
  destringitur tergiturque, audiebat aliquid aut dictabat. in
  itinere quasi solutus ceteris curis huic uni valeabat: ad latus
  notarius cum libro et pugillaribus, cuius manus hieme manicis
  muniebantur, ut ne caeli quidem asperitas ullum studii tempus
  erip-eret. qua ex causa Romae quoque sella vehebatur. omne
  tempus perire arbitrabatur quod studiis non impenderetur,
  (3.5.10-6)

  After eating, in the summer, when lying in the sun if he'd any
  leisure, a book was read and he would listen and take notes. He
  read nothing without taking notes. ... After sunning, he was
  bathed ... after dinner he was read to and dictation was taken
  ... only in the baths was his time free from work, and when I
  say the baths, I mean right in the bath; for while he was being
  scraped and towelled down, he was listening or dictating. When
  on the move, as if free from every other concern, he maintained
  this one: at his side was a stenographer with a book and
  notebooks, whose hands were protected in the winter by gloves,
  so that not even bad weather might steal any time away from
  work. For this reason he was carried around Rome in a chair.
  He considered all time lost which was not loaded up with
  work.

Pliny the Elder is the model of the dedicated scholar, with each moment of his day allocated to some productive pursuit. Our hero is admirably abstemious, but he verges on extremism: (2) he measures time with marvellous, almost desperate precision and in the end resembles (if you will forgive the anachronism) the Energizer Bunny of popular culture, as he keeps going, and going, and going ... (3) In the nephew's gently comic portrait, the great scholar is superhuman.

If we scrutinize the character of 'Pliny the Author,' however, it becomes clear that indeed there is more than one human at work. That is, as Pliny goes about his day--taking care of business, taking in the sun, eating, bathing, and moving around the city--he is constantly accompanied by attendant slaves who read to him and take down his notations, as well as fulfilling his other basic needs. Without these slaves to hand, would Pliny have been able to produce such a prodigious amount of prose? Decidedly not. 'Pliny the Productive Author' is not simply a man, but more a machine that includes many different parts: Pliny himself, multiple personal slaves, and their inanimate writing materials. (4)

The question arises: What does it mean to say 'Pliny the Author'? The personage of 'Pliny the Productive Author' necessarily includes Pliny's slaves. There is always a pair of eyes reading, a mouth speaking, hands writing, or feet walking--all for and of Pliny the Author. Although Pliny himself may not physically be performing every action, nevertheless the epistolary portrait credits Pliny the Author with all of this productive activity. The actions that Pliny's anonymous slaves perform are indicated predominantly in the passive voice, which effectively transfers their actions back into Pliny's possession, blurring them with his own body's movements. (5) The slaves that attend Pliny's body might be best understood here as 'prosthetic limbs.' (6) Any actions performed under the auspices of 'Pliny the Author' can uniformly be considered Pliny's actions'; that is, the slave bodies act just as authentically for Pliny as his own body does. …

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