Academic journal article Helios

Violence and the Performance of Class in Plautus' Casina

Academic journal article Helios

Violence and the Performance of Class in Plautus' Casina

Article excerpt

Senseless Violence?

Roman brutality can be perplexing. Tales of "punishments" wildly out of proportion to their crimes, as when Vedius Pollio fed a child to his lampreys for breaking a crystal cup (Seneca, Dial. 3.40.2), defy belief. Equally senseless were the consequences of a slave killing his master: the guilty slave was to be burned alive, a punishment that would seem horrible enough, but all other slaves of his household were to be killed as well--women, children, old, young. This law was observed even when it meant the death of hundreds. (1) Fictional accounts of violence, told with an air of disapproval, are also mystifying, as they seem to positively revel in graphic, even ornamental detail. Thus Juvenal describes the savage master as

qui gaudet acerbo

plagarum strepitu et nullam Sirena flagellis

conparat. (14.18-20)

one who delights in the harsh screams

produced by blows, and considers no Siren's song

more beautiful that the crack of the whip.

It is tempting to simply condemn such incidents as sadistic or perverse, or attribute them to a greater intimacy with death than our own and, hence, to a general devaluation of life. One would at least like to dismiss such familiarity with violence as rare, but it is not. Furthermore, even when such assessments are correct, they do not make Roman violence any more comprehensible. Sadism, indifference, and rarity are excuses, not explanations. Such phenomena say only that violence happens, but they cannot not tell us why violence assumes the shapes it does, why it is spectacular, why certain parts of the body and types of people are wounded, or why some acts of violence become symbols, mute references to more general social concepts and possibilities.

Another easy, but inadequate explanation of violence, particularly violence against slaves, is that it is "goal oriented." That is, a blow is delivered to make a slave do, or stop doing, a particular activity, much like a mother might smack the hand of a child as he reaches for a hot burner. The blow is immediate and effective. It can be argued, on the other hand, that even such an immediate, "instinctive" reaction is also culturally determined. Why not pull the child's hand from the burner, or let him touch it and learn a valuable lesson? Likewise, violence against slaves, even in its simplest forms, will inevitably reflect cultural perceptions of what it means to be a master or a slave. Such perceptions are only more obvious in gratuitous or embellished forms of violence, but they are never absent, not even from the most "utilitarian" violent act.

Clearly there is something else at work in Roman violence. In this paper I explore what that "something else" is, examining the "logic" of violence, namely, why it takes the forms it does and what these forms mean. Because I am interested in the protocols and techniques of violence as it is performed onstage, I will concentrate on a scene whose details are fairly clear: the vicarious fight waged by a husband and wife through their slaves in Plautus' Casina. (2) I should say at the outset, however, that what we see in Plautus should not be taken as a straightforward reflection of violence in the real world. This is particularly true of this play's violent scenes, which are highly stylized. Such contrivance, however, is exactly where we can expect cultural perceptions to be most visible. (3) And because this is Plautus, we can also expect such perceptions to be toyed with; the Romans are never more revealing than when they are amusing themselves. But what is revealed in the movements of these characters, and th e rationale behind those movements, are more a way of thinking, an ideology, expressed in the medium of the human body, than a reflection of the real day-to-day experiences of master and slave.

The Casina

The premise of the Casina will be familiar to any reader of ancient comedy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.