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Interview: When the Masters became Slaves

Interview with Adriane da Silva Duarte, professor of Greek Language and Literature at the Departamento de Letras Clássicas de Vernáculas of the Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas, Universidade de São Paulo (DLCV-FFLCH/USP).

What can the love stories of the Greek elites under the Roman Empire reveal to us about the lives of poor free men and other subaltern groups in the "slave order"? Is it possible to make an Ancient History from below using literary works? In this interview, Professor Adriane Duarte introduces us to a little known narrative genre, the ancient novel, and discusses the possibilities that such works offer for the study of subaltern groups in antiquity. To learn more about her work, see also the lecture presented at USP on April 23, 2019 on "A representação de 'homens livres na ordem escravocrata': os romances de Cáriton e Xenofonte" on the Subalternos USP's channel on YouTube

Could you talk in general terms about your most recent work?

The texts that I work on are literary texts. That is the first thing that I think is important to point out here. In my academic trajectory, I work with a variety of texts, in fact, all my initial work is done with theater. Classical theater, ancient comedy, Aristophanes' texts, extending to tragedy, which is a specific kind of literary work, poetic, centered in the classical period, which has a great critical response. Lately, I have been working more with texts that escape from this group of more canonical works, with the ancient novels, which are fictional texts, prose texts and texts relatively late in the consolidation of a literary system in Greece. They are all texts whose first copies have records from the first century of the Christian era and already during the period of Roman political domination. So, these would be its specificities, precisely because of this, because it is a genre, the novel, that appears late, when you already have a consolidated literary system, it is, in a way, marginal in view of the traditional canon of Greek literature. This is also important when we are going to consider these texts. Now, the texts themselves present different characteristics. You have this group of novels that are more linked to a love theme, a novel of idealized love, such as Kareas & Callirrhus, by Kriton, and the Ephesians, by Xenophon, and you have other novels that have a more realistic, comic nature, such as Aesop's Life, Lucius or The Golden Ass, which dialog more closely with the Latin production of the novel.

Now, in relation to translation, in fact, it is an activity that I have dedicated myself to, I like to dedicate myself to, in the case of romance, I translated and published Aesop's Romance and I have translated and, let's say, in press, the novels by Kriton and Xenophon. I understand translation in two ways: in a first moment, it is a hermeneutical exercise, you start to approach the text, to study the text from its translation, which allows you to do ... Of course, it is possible to read the text in Greek, but as you have to answer the aesthetic questions, the conceptual questions that the text raises in your language, this requires a degree of appropriation of the text that goes beyond a reading, so I think that translation has this purpose of appropriating the text and subsidizing a study of the text from its own linguistic materiality. A second aspect of translation is to provide access to the text for those who are not able to read Greek, of which there are many today; there are few who can read Greek. And there are also, relatively speaking, few who can read in another foreign language into which these texts have been translated. So, I think that it is a process that expands the number of readers and of those interested in our disciplines, that benefits whoever appropriates these texts, whatever the intention behind it, and that also enriches our own language, whenever you carry out this translation work. So, for me, translation has this double purpose, that of study and that of diffusion, accessibility.

What can the novels by Kriton and Xenophon tell us about the representation of free men in the slave order?

At first, it would seem a contradiction to suggest, precisely, these novels to deal with this topic because the protagonists of the novels are those characters that belong to the elite of the cities, who are highly idealized, so we would not imagine these characters as examples to deal with these issues, with the difficulties that free men, those who are not masters, those who are not slaves, experience during their existence. However, one particularity of these novels is that these protagonists, in a certain way, are taken out of their comfort zones. An assumption of these novels is that, by a reversal of fortune, the protagonists are going to be removed from their hometown, they are going to be removed from their families, they are going to be removed from each other, and they are going to have to submit themselves to a wandering life devoid of the bonds of solidarity they enjoyed as citizens in their native environment. It is precisely this vicissitude that is, on the one hand, a topic of the novel's plot, that makes the novel serve as a starting point for us to reflect on these issues. These stray characters, who have no more contacts, no more ties, how are they going to manage to solve basic questions regarding their subsistence, their survival, with what kind of people they are going to live during this period of wandering, and especially how are they going to respond to this radical change in status that affects them, they who belong to the elite and, many times, are demoted to the condition of slaves or dispossessed and have to deal with this issue. The novel is far from being, to present, a realistic treatment of these issues. It is not in the novel's interest to do this, it is not the purpose of the novel to do this, on the contrary, the vision is an idealized vision of a certain social class, but they end up addressing issues that, even if between the lines, allow us to evaluate this condition of the free man in this very polarized society between masters and slaves. In this case, the character Habrocomes, from Xenophon's Ephesians, is an interesting case because having left his city, having been kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave and regained the condition of a free man, he is faced with the difficult situation of having to provide for himself, he who has no help, he has no support, no solidarity network, and has no specific training in anything, so he will have to submit to very diverse tasks and functions, from joining a group of ruffians to somehow earn a living, to very modest professions as a fisherman or a worker in a quarry to earn his daily bread, his daily sustenance. So, that's how we perceive these relationships within the novel, although this is not its initial purpose.

In these works and in other texts that you work with, can we have access to the voices of silenced social actors?

I think that, from this point of view, these works allow us, some of these works, yes, allow us access to this point of view of the silenced actors, but not, specifically, these novels. In those novels, you have only brief mentions of the existence of those actors. Two examples, in the case of Ephesians, the moment when the slave Leucon confronts his master, his owner, the Habrocomes, who is also enslaved because he was captured by the pirates and is waiting to be sold, to be traded, and he treats him as an equal and addresses him with terms like "colleague," like "slave," and the Habrocomes takes this as an offense, "how dares he address me like that." So a figure who was a subordinate, at a certain moment, allows himself to treat his master as an equal, in a situation where, in fact, they are equalized by vicissitude. In the case of the novel, it is interesting because these slaves end up being heirs of the new owners and start having a higher social status than their former owners and helping them in case of adversity. This is one case. In the other case, in Kriton, in Kareas & Callirrhus, is when, briefly, there is a story about an uprising, an uprising, of slaves doing forced labor in quite degrading conditions in Caria, and they rebel, murder the foreman, and make an escape. They are captured and sentenced to death by crucifixion. So, in these scenes, you can say that there is this vision, you can access some of this social tension and you give, in a way, a voice to groups that normally don't have a voice, even in the novels, because they are very punctual passages. But other novels, like the Aesop's Romance, for example, the Life of Aesop, brings the protagonist, who has a very humble origin, who is born a slave, is a slave, begins, even, his trajectory as a slave of the plantation, which is a very low position, and then rises to the condition of a domestic slave, later, he is freed, becomes an advisor to the kings and assumes another condition, but, during most of the narrative, he is a slave and he has to submit to these conditions, but with a certain haughtiness. This is what the foreman of the estate where he works notices at first. He is born mute, but he is granted the gift of speech by a miraculous intervention of the goddess Isis. And as soon as he does, as soon as he acquires the gift of speech, he begins to challenge the actions of the foreman. He observes the foreman punishing the other slaves and he immediately rebukes the foreman saying "look, you're not acting justly, you shouldn't punish others like this" and the foreman is amazed and says "until yesterday he didn't speak, Today he started to talk and he's already treating me like this," I mean, his fear is that he will provoke an uprising, an insubordination, so he immediately thinks of talking to the boss, which he does, to sell or to kill, even, the Aesop, do something and get rid of him. So he has this characteristic, insubordination, non-resignation, it's a characteristic that goes beyond his social condition, so, in this sense, he will, all the time, prove, or put to the test the thesis, that intellectual abilities, intellectual capacity, so much so that he will become the slave of a renowned philosopher on the island of Samos, the philosopher Xanthus, and countless times, he will prove himself more capable, more sagacious, more astute than his own master, who is a philosopher. So, I think that this text is a text that gives voice, yes, to the categories that are silenced, to the classes that are silenced in antiquity, that normally are not portrayed in the productions, in the ancient documents.

Video and interview: Nara Oliveira e Pedro Benedetti.

Video editing: Nara Oliveira.

Transcription: Jessica Brustolim.

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