Khang Le

The New Social Order: The Portrayal of Freedmen in the Satyrica

1¶ After another guest laughs at the antics of the freedmen’s host Trimalchio, the wealthy freedman Hermeros angrily rebukes him, claiming that he himself proudly earned his freedom from servitude. Insulting the heckler’s freeborn status, Hermeros asserts that freedmen are more virtuous and noble than their freeborn counterparts, telling him, nam in ingenuum nasci tam facile est quam accede istoc (For it is so much easier to be born into freedom than to go earn it; 57)[1]. His indignant and defensive outburst demonstrates the contention between the Roman social elite and the freedmen class. While the Cena Trimalchionis is not a genuine representation of freedmen, the manner in which Petronius depicts his characters reveals his dislike toward freedmen. Throughout the Cena, Petronius uses the freedmen’s inscriptions and language to portray them as uneducated social climbers. Although the freedmen attempt to emulate the social elite, their ostentatious behavior betrays their true unrefined, boorish nature. Petronius’s creation of these laughable freedmen parallels a common view of first century authors, who often mocked wealthy freedmen for their illegitimacy.[2] The hostile attitude of Petronius and other Roman authors reflects the changing social climate of their time and their reaction to the growing prominence of freedmen in the Roman economy. As entrepreneurial opportunities allowed freedmen to increase their wealth and social standing in spite of their lower legal status, the value of nobility and aristocratic origins declined, to the distress of the freeborn social elite. The mocking portrayal of freedmen in the Satyrica demonstrates these social concerns.

2¶ In the Cena, the freedmen attempt to show off their newly found economic wealth and social status through their signs and inscriptions. Depicting the freedmen’s success and influence, these inscriptions reveal the way that the freedmen characters both view themselves and want to be viewed by others, as powerful and prominent figures far removed from their slave past. Trimalchio adorns his house with several such inscriptions to impress his guests with his domineering authority and status. As the narrator Encolpius approaches Trimalchio’s house, he comes upon a notice on the doorpost, reading, Quisquis servus sine dominico iussu foras exierit, accipiet plagas centum (Whichever slave goes outside without the master’s order will receive one hundred lashes; 28). This severe warning demonstrates Trimalchio’s absolute control over his slaves, portraying him as the emperor of his household.[3] Trimalchio furthers his comparison to the emperor in the dining hall; a bronze ornament resembling the beak of a ship hangs from his wall, inscribed below, C. Pompeio Trimalchioni, seviro Augustali, Cinnamus dispensator (The steward Cinnamus, to Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio, the sevir of Augustus; 30), and on the doorpost hangs a plaque, announcing, III. Et pridie kalendas Ianuarias C. noster foras cenat (On December 30, our Gaius dines out; 30). By displaying his official title, the sevir of Augustus, and recording his social appearances, Trimalchio surrounds his visitors with evidence of his important social life, presenting himself as a man of great significance.

3¶ Trimalchio also attempts to impress his guests with inscriptions of his wealth and material goods. He serves appetizers in decorative plates, engraved with their value, Tegebant asellum duae lances, in quarum marginibus nomen Trimalchionis inscriptum erat et argenti pondus (Two dishes were covering the donkey, on the edges of which the name of Trimalchio and the weight of the silver had been engraved; 31), and offers them aged, valuable wine, quarum in cervicibus pitticia errant affixa cum hoc titulo: “Falernum Opimianum annorum centum” (on the nape of which tickets had been affixed with the label, “One hundred year old Falernum wine of Opimius”; 34). In addition to providing food and drink to his guests, Trimalchio must also amaze them with his rich and opulent lifestyle.

4¶ However, although Trimalchio attempts to emulate the social elite, his efforts fail to impress his guests and only reveal his unrefined, uncultured nature. As the dinner party first begins, Encolpius is struck by Trimalchio’s many extravagances; as the night wears on, his wonder fades into disgust, and he reflects on the dinner’s taxing events, lamenting, Nec adhuc sciebamus nos in medio lautitiarum, quod aiunt, clivo laborare (Nor did we know at that point that we had suffered to the middle of the hill of splendors, as they say; 47). Rather than displaying his impressive wealth, Trimalchio’s tasteless entertainment and gaudy showmanship only emphasize his churlish freedman status, his inferiority to the social nobility that he wishes to join. His overbearing behavior stifles his guests, as Encolpius says, Nos libertatem sine tyranno nacti coepimus invitare convivarum sermones (Obtaining our freedom from the tyrant, we began to engage in conversations with the dinner guests; 41). Although Trimalchio wishes to be seen as an emperor, others perceive him as a tyrant.

5¶ Trimalchio’s funerary monument further demonstrates his gaudy, materialistic attitude. Freedmen often designed their funerary monuments to display their advancement from slavery into respectable Roman society[4]; while monuments usually achieved this effect by portraying their subjects with values characteristic of the Roman elite, such as gravitas or pudicitia, Trimalchio’s monument emphasizes his material wealth as his most prominent feature. His polysyndetic description of the design, Valde te rogo, ut secundum pedes statuae meae catellam ponas et coronas et unguenta et Petraitis omnes pugnas (I ask you greatly, that after the feet of my statue, you place a little dog and crowns and perfumes and all the fights of Petriates; 71), reflects his vanity and greediness, as he thinks of more and more frivolous decorations to add to his monument. Although Trimalchio possesses wealth in abundance, he lacks the respectability usually associated with the upper class.

6¶ Like their host, the other freedmen also reveal their social-climbing nature through their displays of wealth. As Hermeros describes some of the other characters of the dinner to Encolpius, he begins by discussing their financial status, telling him, Reliquos autem collibertos eius cave contemnas. Valde sucossi sunt. Vides illum qui in imo imus recumbit: hodie sua octingenta possidet (But be careful about looking down on his fellow freedmen. They’re really rich. You see that man who’s laying on the bottommost couch? Nowadays he earns eight hundred thousand; 38). However, Hermeros immediately follows this praise with a condemnation of his ostentation. He criticizes the same man’s display of his wealth, telling Encolpius, Est tamen sub alapa et non vult sibi male. Itaque proxime casam hoc titulo proscripsit: “C. Pompeius Diogenes ex kalendis Iuliis cenaculum locat; ipse enim domum emit” (But he’s a braggart, and doesn’t want anything bad for himself. Just now he was advertising his house with the notice “Gaius Pompeius Diogenes is leasing his room at the beginning of July, for he himself is buying a house”; 38). His announcement, that he plans on buying a house, boasts of his success and fortune, and mirrors Trimalchio’s engraving of prices and values into his dishes, imposing their worth onto their audiences, whether they wished to know or not. The freedmen are unable to impress even each other with their economic and social success. When they talk in the absence of Trimalchio, they quickly grow annoyed with and interrupt each other, as Seleucus’s depressing story grates on the others’ nerves, Molestus fuit, Philerosque proclamavit: “Vivorum meminerimus” (He was being annoying, and Phileros shouted, “Let’s remember the living”; 43), and Ganymedes chides Phileros in turn, narratis quod nec ad caelum nec ad terram pertinent (You talk about things that don’t matter for heaven or earth”; 44). The freedmen lack the social graces of the Roman elite, and their attempts to emulate them reveal the shortcomings of their character.

7¶ Petronius demeans the freedmen even further in his characterization of their language. While the freedmen talk amongst themselves, they again display their servile origins through their improper grammar. The disappearance of neuter words, such as the masculine “caelus” for the neuter “caelum” (39)[5], and the use of the indicative mood for the subjunctive, Sed narra tu mihi, Agamemnon, quam controversiam hodie declamasti? (But you tell me, Agamemnon, what issue did you argue today?; 48)[6], demonstrates the difference in education that Petronius perceived between the freedmen and the freeborn. With this portrayal, Petronius harshly condemns the freedmen, as their failure to master the Latin language indicates not only a lack of education or intelligence, but also a lack of Romanitas. Cicero, in Brutus, considers the ability to speak Latin a requirement of Roman citizens, explaining, non enim tam praeclarum est scire Latine quam turpe nescire, neque tam id mihi oratoris boni quam cuius Romani proprium videtur (It is not so much remarkable to be able to speak Latin well as shocking to lack that ability, nor do I regard such knowledge as the prerequisite of the good orator so much as of the Roman citizen)[7]. Thus Petronius portrays the freedmen as not only unworthy to be socially elite, but unworthy to be Roman at all.

8¶ Although the freedmen of the Satyrica are fictional characters, Petronius’s decision to depict them as garish, uneducated social climbers demonstrates his own discrimination toward the freedmen class. Other first century authors shared his disdain, such as Tacitus, who states in the Germania, that outside of monarchical forms of government, “the lower status of freedmen is a sure sign of freedom.”[8] These attitudes reflect the shift in the Roman economy, as freedmen were able to increase their financial value through entrepreneurial opportunities in spite of their lower legal status. As successful freedmen rose to prominence in society, the social influence between the aristocracy and former slaves decreased; thus those of aristocratic ties had lesser claim to positions of power.

9¶ One such group of successful freedmen was the Familia Caesaris, the freedmen in the service of the emperor. As the administration of the empire grew more complex and centralized, more positions requiring specialized training became available, allowing the Imperial freedmen a route of social mobility.[9] Many freedmen rose to respectable junior positions within the empire’s administration; some advanced to influential senior positions because of their financial status or personal relationship to the emperor. While these freedmen enjoyed lucrative occupations and acquired unofficial social value and influence, they continued to hold low legal status as freedmen; the resulting social and legal dissonance demonstrates that social mobility is possible due to social instability.[10]

10¶ Freedmen outside the Familia Caesaris were also able to attain wealth and social influence through their role in the labor market and Roman economy. Despite the use of slavery, freedmen found work in the labor market, earning wages in exchange for their services.[11] Craftsmen, agricultural workers, and other freedmen skilled in trades could earn higher wages for their abilities.[12] Trimalchio attempts to portray himself as a skilled freedman in the wall painting of his entrance into Rome, et ipse Trimalchio capillatus caduceum tenebat Minervaque ducente Romam intrabat. Hinc quemadmodum ratiocinari didicisset, denique dispensator factus esset, omnia diligenter curiosus pictor cum inscription reddiderat (and Trimalchio himself, with long hair, was holding a herald’s staff and was entering Rome, led by Minerva. Here the attentive painter had carefully restored with an inscription all these things, how he had learned accounting and was finally made a treasurer; 29). In addition to depicting Trimalchio’s arrogant belief in his favor with the gods, Petronius uses Trimalchio to demonstrate the fear of the upper class: as Trimalchio and other crass freedmen learn trades and become socially mobile, they threaten the stability of the refined aristocracy. The deterioration of the social hierarchy alarmed the Roman elite, who were accustomed to power and influence over the uncultivated lower classes, as the rise of economic opportunities for slaves and freedmen allowed them to approach, and sometimes equal, the social power of freeborn aristocrats.

11¶ The portrayal of the wealthy freedmen in the Cena Trimalchionis reveals the hostile attitudes of Petronius and the other Roman elite toward the freedmen class. By representing them as tasteless, uneducated social climbers, Petronius criticizes the changing economic landscape of Rome, in which former slaves could earn social influence similar to the noble upper class. Although the freedmen characters try to show off their wealth and flaunt their social significance, their attempts appear garish and distasteful, and instead prove their inferiority to the upper class. Trimalchio’s overbearing and dominating control of his house and the dinner party makes him resemble not an emperor, as he would like, but a tyrant. His freedmen companions’ inane conversations, riddled with grammatical errors, proves not only their foolishness, but also their failure as Roman citizens. This reaction to the changing social hierarchy and the growing economic and entrepreneurial opportunities reflects the concerns of the confused Roman elite, for, as Tacitus says in Annales 1.7, At Romae ruere in servitium consules, patres, eques (But at Rome, the consuls, the senators, and the knights rushed into servitude)[13].


[1] All translations are my own and of the Satyrica of Petronius, unless otherwise stated.

[2] Joshel 2010, 43-44.

[3] Best 1965, 73 and Ramsby 2012, 71.

[4] Borg 2012, 27, 35

[5] Adams 2013, 420

[6] Adams 2013, 762

[7] Translated by Douglas, A.E., M. Tulli Ciceronis Brutus (Oxford, 1966), 112, as cited in Adams 2003, 186.

[8] As cited by Weaver 1967, 14.

[9] Weaver, 1967, 4

[10] Weaver, 1967, 5

[11] Temin 2004, 516

[12] Temin 2004, 517

[13] Tacitas Germanitas 25



Adams, J. N. 2003. “‘Romanitas’ and the Latin Language.” The Classical Quarterly 53.1:184

Adams, J. N. 2013. Social Variation and the Latin Language. Cambridge.

Best, Jr. Edward E. 1965. “Attitudes toward Literacy Reflected in Petronius.” The Classical

Journal 61.2:72-76.

Borg, Barbara E. 2012. “The Face of the Social Climber: Roman Freedmen and Elite Ideology.”

Free At Last! The Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire (eds. Sinclair Bell and

Teresa Rene Ramsby) 25-49. London.

Joshel, Sandra R. 2010. Slavery in the Roman World. New York.

Quiroga, Pedro López Barja De. 1995. “Freedmen Social Mobility in Roman Italy.” Historia:

Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte Bd. 44.H. 3:326-48.

Ramsby, Teresa. 2012. “‘Reading’ the Freed Slave in the Cena Trimalchionis. Free At Last! The

Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire (eds. Sinclair Bell and Teresa Rene Ramsby) 66-87. London.

Temin, Peter. 2004. “The Labor Market of the Early Roman Empire.” The Journal of

Interdisciplinary History 34.4:513-38.

Weaver, P. R. C. 1967. “Social Mobility In The Early Roman Empire: The Evidence Of The

Imperial Freedmen And Slaves.” Past and Present 37.1:3-20.


5 thoughts on “Khang Le”

  1. Khang – Your topic of freedmen in the Satyrica is an excellent one and you have gathered together lots of good evidence to support your argument that the behavior of freedmen is being criticized. For your next steps, you may want to focus a bit more on integrating your secondary sources into your argument. I would be interested to hear more about differing views on this topic, if they are there, and how they interact with your own argument.
    I would contextualize a bit more at the paper’s opening, so that readers who have not just read the Satyrica are ready for your quote. Also, check the Latin. Do you mean “accedere” instead of “accede”? Also, for “tam facile est quam” you need “as easily as…” with no comparative. That does not diminish the quote’s usefulness for your purposes.
    Rather than “is not a genuine representation” just be positive — what is it that the work shows us about freedmen? The word “genuine” unnecessarily opens a can of worms, for it encourages asking whether any representation can be genuine and you don’t need to go there.

    • Thank you for your comments, Professor Ancona.
      Most of my secondary sources deal either with the portrayal of literacy and language within the Cena, or with the place of freedman in Roman society; the only article I could find that directly discusses the connection between the two was Ramsby’s 2012 article, in which she compares the freedman’s portrayal to the derogatory portrayal of African Americans in media before the civil rights movement. I would very much like to find more scholarship about this topic and research more about the attitudes of discontented aristocrats.
      As for the Latin, “accede” is used in the text, as an imperative exclamation mid-sentence. I chose to translate “tam facile est quam” not as a correlative, which is more common, but as comparison between two positive ideas with “quam,” as described in the note of Allen and Greenough’s section 292a. I thought this “rarer and less elegant” use was more fitting with the freedmen’s unconventional dialogue, but the translation “as easily as” is also, if not more, appropriate.
      What I meant to convey by “is not a genuine representation” is that freedmen in the Cena are entirely creations of Petronius, and are not based on any specific people. I could reword this phrase to make my intended meaning more clear.
      Thank you again for your comments. I look forward to discussing these points with you further.

  2. This is a very nice essay, Khang. I learned a lot about the status of freedmen in the early Empire and the anxiety felt by members of the traditional Roman upper classes because of the freedmen’s increasing power. Would it be possible for you to bring in some more primary sources that testify to the anxiety of the traditional nobility? I notice that you cite Tacitus at the end of your paper. Perhaps his historical writings and Seneca’s letters might be good places to look for contemporary (or near-contemporary in the case of Tacitus) evidence for how the Roman elite felt about the rise of the freedmen. I’m sorry that I cannot help you with specific passages.

    On the whole, I thought that your arguments were well-reasoned and well-written too! I’m looking forward to meeting you at the symposium.

    • Thank you for your comment, Douglas. I would also like to find more evidence of the traditional nobility’s anxiety toward the freedmen. I know Tacitus often wrote against freedmen, but I haven’t yet found more examples. More primary sources would help to strengthen my argument.
      Thanks for your advice; I look forward to speaking with you.

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