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Book examines art, lives of freed Roman slaves

Lauren Petersen, associate professor of art history

5:23 p.m., Oct. 24, 2006--Much has been researched and written about the patrician and ruling class of ancient Roman society, but Lauren Petersen, associate professor of art history at UD, has focused her research on the lives and activities of everyday people, especially freed slaves or freedmen, based on material culture, looking at their homes, their art and their tombs.

Her new book, The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History, published by Cambridge University Press, examines the lives of freedmen in Pompeii and also Rome and their place and role in the Roman hierarchy.

The slaves, who came from all over Europe and North Africa, may have been freed for a number of reasons, Petersen said--their master freed them after his or her death, they bought their freedom with funds they secured, they were freed before a magistrate on account of diligent work. Frequently, they continued to work at the same trade for their former masters, but not as slaves, Petersen said.

“Perhaps the best-known Roman freedman is not a historical figure at all but a literary character, Trimalchio, an outrageous protagonist in one chapter of Petronius's famous novel, the Satyricon,” Petersen wrote. “This character [is] a fabulously wealthy but boorish ex-slave....” The conclusion of Petronius is “work could make an individual wealthy, but it could not suffice as a traditional means to achieving elite status.”

Scholars have depended on Trimalchio for information about freedmen since former slaves did not leave written testimony, except for their epitaphs, according to Petersen.
The result has been a stereotyping of freedmen and a dismissal of their art as crude imitation of elite art.

Petersen examines homes and tombs of freedmen, and rather than imitating the elite Romans, her research indicates the free born and freedmen shared a common culture, although the freedmen had more modest dwellings, gardens, artwork and tombs.

“This membership in Roman society is arguably what mattered most, for freeborn and freed alike,” Petersen wrote, “and may go some way toward explaining why, excepting for scale, so many Roman houses and villas largely shared a common visual and cultural language.”

Petersen spent several summers in Pompeii researching the book. It was a family project with her husband, Stephen, taking numerous photographs for the book while their young son, Miles, amused himself playing with his trucks and cars in Pompeii while his parents worked.

A graduate of Santa Clara University in California, Petersen discovered her passion for art history while a senior in college. While working after college, she took art history courses and then entered graduate school, receiving her master's degree from Florida State University and her doctorate from the University of Texas in Austin. Specializing in Roman art and architecture, she has worked on Etruscan/Roman excavations in Italy and received grants from the American Academy in Rome, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright and the Getty Foundation.

Article by Sue Moncure
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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