Q. Haterius and the “duty” of a freedman

The elder Seneca compiled ten books of controversiae: possible legal cases, with the arguments for and against.  Each came with a preface.  I quoted a phrase from one a little while ago, attributed to Haterius, an orator of the time of Tiberius:

impudicitia in ingenuo crimen est, in servo necessitas, in liberto officium.

Unchastity is a disgrace for the freeborn, a necessity in a slave, and a duty for the freedman.

It’s a  very odd phrase, and it does reflect something nasty about pagan society.  But I have seen too many quotations, which turn out to be misleading, to be comfortable without knowing the context.

I’ve since obtained the Loeb edition of the works of the elder Seneca.  This mentions various orators, and one of these is Haterius.  The material is in the preface to book 4, sections 8-11 (the end).  Here it is:

How great these men are, who do not know what it means to yield to fortune and who make adversity the touchstone of their virtue! Asinius Pollio declaimed within three days of losing his son; that was the manifesto of a great mind triumphing over its misfortunes. On the other hand, I know that Quintus Haterius took the death of his son so hard that he not only succumbed to grief when it was recent, but could not bear the memory of it when it was old and faded. I remember that when he was declaiming the controversia about the man who was torn away from the graves of his three sons and sues for damages, Haterius’ tears interrupted him in midspeech; after that he spoke with so much greater force, so much more pathos, that it became clear how great a part grief can sometimes play in a man’s talents.

Haterius used to let the public in to hear him declaim extempore. Alone of all the Romans I have known he brought to Latin the skill of the Greeks. His speed of delivery was such as to become a fault. Hence that was a good remark of Augustus’: “Haterius needs a brake” — he seemed to charge downhill rather than run. He was full of ideas as well as words. He would say the same thing as often as you liked and for as long as you liked, with different figures and development on every occasion. He could be controlled–but not exhausted.

But he couldn’t do his own controlling. He had a freedman to look to, and used to proceed according as he excited or restrained him. The freedman would tell him to make a transition when he had been on some topic for a long time–and Haterius would make the transition. He would tell him to concentrate on the same subject–and he would stay on it. He would tell him to speak the epilogue–and he would speak it. He had his talents under his own control–but the degree of their application he left to another’s.

He thought it relevant to divide up a controversia — if you questioned him; if you listened to his declamation, he didn’t think so. His order was the one his flow of language dictated; he did not regulate himself by the rules of declamation. Nor did he keep a guard over his words. Some the schools avoid nowadays as if they were obscene, regarding as intolerable anything rather low or in everyday use. Haterius bowed to the schoolmen so far as to avoid cliche and banality. But he would employ old words that Cicero had used but that had later fallen into general disuse, and these caught the attention even in that break-neck rush of language. How true it is that the unusual stands out even in a crowd!

With this exception, no-one was better adapted to the schoolmen or more like them; but in his anxiety to say nothing that was not elegant and brilliant, he often fell into expressions that could not escape derision. I recall that he said, while defending a freedman who was charged with being his patron’s lover: “Losing one’s virtue is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity in a slave, a duty for the freedman.” The idea became a handle for jokes, like “you aren’t doing your duty by me” and “he gets in a lot of duty for him.” As a result the unchaste and obscene got called “dutiful” for some while afterwards.

I recall that much scope for jest was supplied to Asinius Pollio and then to Cassius Severus by an objection raised by him in these terms: “Yet, he says, in the childish laps of your fellow-pupils, you used a lascivious hand to give obscene instructions.” And many things of this sort were brought up against him. There was much you could reprove–but much to admire; he was like a torrent that is impressive, but muddy in its flow. But he made up for his faults by his virtues, and provided more to praise than to forgive: as in the declamation in which he burst into tears.

What a picture this gives us of Haterius!  What a splendid translation by Michael Winterbottom!  But to return to the quotation.

As ever, context is all.  The word rendered “duty” here is officium, which carried a world of solemnity and piety in the Roman mind.   Haterius, like many a politician, had a gift for a striking phrase.  But in defending his client, accused of vice, when he attempted to suggest that sodomy — a vice, if a common one — was almost a pious duty for a freedman, he mis-spoke.  In carrying his rhetoric on the duties of a freedman to the very height of duty, he tripped over and became absurd, and consequently produced snickers of laughter, and the consequent jokes.

For the Romans, as for everyone, vice was vice.  Society might tolerate it, it might be practised by emperors.  But everyone knew it for what it was, and laughed at those who solemnly attempted to colour it with piety for their own, short-term, threadbare ends.

The Controversiae seem to be an interesting work, full of the colour of Roman life.  The only English translation is that of Michael Winterbottom in the Loeb series, in two volumes.  I’d like to read them, but to borrow them from my local library will cost $15, half the price of the books.  Not that I would object to buying a Loeb.  But at $30 each, aren’t these little books expensive!

3 thoughts on “Q. Haterius and the “duty” of a freedman

  1. Thanks for putting Haterius’s quote in context for me. In fact found this page looking for more info on it as it is mentioned in Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5000 years” where he renders it as “to be the object of anal penetration is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, a duty for a freedman” and comments that “What is signi

  2. @RobertK: I think your comment was cut off?

    The translation in Graeber is one that is more shocking than the not-very-nice original. This is a common failing in some modern translations, foolishly eager not to suppress smut. “Pudicitia” is modesty, chastity; hence Tertullian’s work “De pudicitia”. “Impudicitia” is immodesty, unchastity — of any sort. I’m not sure, on rereading this, why I particularly associated it with homosexuality. Probably it was the context in which I saw the quotation. But it applies equally to all forms of vice.

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