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Petronius' Satyricon Notes

Classics Notes > Latin Literature of the 1st Century AD Notes

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How do you account for the prominence of the funerary monuments of freedmen in the early empire?
Funerary monuments, whether particularly elaborate or not, would have cost substantial amounts of money so, in order to show why there are so many of freedmen, the source of this wealth needs to be explained. Members of the freeborn senatorial and eques classes are more associated with vast fortunes than freedmen but during the early empire there was significant economic growth, from which they benefited greatly. This led to a distortion of social groups and trends and many freedmen accumulated great wealth, as evidence from the ports of Ostia and Puteoli. For example two Ostian Augustales established a capital foundation of HS 50,000, which was matched only by one other capital fund from the governing class 1. Freedmen engaged in a highly diversified range of economic activities such as carpentry, wines, ships and money lending, which meant that their potential sources for wealth were numerous. Some in Ostia were so successful that 8 became presidents of the builders association, the richest collegia in the city 2. Many declined the prospect of titles and other more prestigious honours that Rome had to offer in favour of the more lucrative port towns. This is an idea that Tacitus supports as he says that Annaeus Mela, "Declined the pursuit of honours believing that his equestrian rank offered a shorter road to the amassing of wealth."(Ann 16.17.3) Eumolpus is a good example of how well some freedmen did, as he was capable of investing 30 million in Africa and when he lost 20 million in a shipwreck it was only a fraction of his fortune. Although he is a fictional character tombstones in Ostia and Puteoli support that such great wealth was not beyond freedmen. Trimalchio in the Satyricon provides a very good example of this. His estates are so massive that everything he provides at the dinner party is home-grown and on a single day thirty boys and forty girls were born on them. He even says he wishes to buy more property in Italy so that if he should wish to travel to Africa he would not have to leave his own land. He shows how diversified the trade of a freedman was, having "got another cargo of wine, bacon, beans, perfumes and slaves", and how profitable it was, "I made a clear ten million on one voyage." (Both Sat. 76) The great wealth that they amassed not only gave them the means to erect funerary monuments but also increased their status within the community, which made it more acceptable. The "augustales" were the wealthiest and most prominent freedmen in towns such as Ostia, and they had many special honours which reflected this. For example they had their own seats at games as well as their own insignia. They even began making cash donations to municipalities as if they were themselves the patrons of it 3. In essence they began to act and be treated in a way more fitting for someone of high freeborn rank, so it is no surprise they began to emulate these people with regard to funerary monuments as well. They even began to be mentioned in municipal decrees and official enactments before freeborn plebs and they got their own form of dignitas in the city, "libertine nobilitas" 4. As Rotoutzeff says, the fact that they are freedmen is incidental but what D'Arms, page 129 D'Arms, page 127 3 D'Arms, page 127 4 D'Arms, page 127 1 2

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