September 15, 2016

Professor Explores Representation, ‘Transformation’ of Slaves in Roman Tomb Sculptures

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Freed people, or ex-slaves, are drastically overrepresented in the funerary record from Rome and other Italian cities, according to Prof. Jennifer Trimble, classics, Stanford University.

In a lecture in McGraw Hall Wednesday, Trimble shared possible explanations detailing why available funerary records do not accurately reflect the proportion of freed people who lived in these areas.

“We understand how these people were represented, but we haven’t fully explained the importance to them of being represented at all,” she said.

Trimble proposed that this skewed representation was the direct result of how slaves and freed people were “especially sensitive” to possibilities of visibility and representation.

“The peculiar status of slaves is represented by translating them into artwork,” she said, showing attendees a relief depicting a slave sale. “There’s a visual slippage here between the slave, an object to be looked at, and an artwork, an object to be looked at.”

Trimble also discussed the Tomb of the Haterii, a “sophisticated” Ancient Roman tomb that she said exemplifies the ways in which freed people visualized themselves.

“In the sculptures from that tomb, we see interwoven themes of transformations,” she said. “Bodily transformations from life to death, social transformations from slave to free and visual transformations in the play of repetition, intermediality and mise en abyme.”

Representations of freed people are concentrated so heavily in funerary monuments because of cultural constraints on what could be expressed in art, according to Trimble.

“Freedmen and freedwomen were bound by what was possible and what was allowed,” she said. “The funerary realm was one permissible domain for self-expression, and they took it.”

Trimble also said she hopes her work provides insight into how freed people “coped” and managed to acquire agency “within very harsh conditions.”

“For freed people as well as slaves, visual culture was an important way in which slavery was learned and experienced and responded to in everyday life,” she said. “And even beyond that, from these slaves and their conditions, we gain insight into how that visual culture worked, and how people even at the bottom of Roman society experienced the visual and worked with its power.”