Season 4, Episode 3: Transcript

[Reverb Effect’s theme music, lively and interrogative, plays behind the voice of a narrator, interspersed with historical clips of other voices]

Narrator [a woman’s voice]: How do past voices resonate in the present movement?

Man A: …hear the stories of your parent’s…

Woman A: yeah

Man A: …and your grandparents’ and stuff, so I’m living through them or the stories they told. 

Narrator: And how do we make sense of those voices? 

Woman B: No, and that’s the story of my life [echo]

Man B: And a case has been made!

Woman B: No I am not trying to void the question, I am trying to clarify the position… 

Narrator: What were they trying to say? And whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect. 

[Music slowly fades out]

Hannah Roussel: I want to let you in on a little secret about historians. A lot of us like cemeteries—traversing a hillside dotted with the names of those departed, paying our respects while gleaning hints about their lives from fragmentary narratives adorning their final resting places. But what we can learn without delving too far into the imagined is limited. And sometimes, what we’re left with is silence. 

What is a historical silence? It’s what we don’t know—the negative space around historical narrative—what’s lost to history. Yet, in history and historical writing, silences don’t just happen. In his pathbreaking book, Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that silences happen at four key moments: “the moment of fact production, the moment of fact assembly, the moment of fact retrieval, and the moment of retrospective significance” (26). Silences are curated—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not—based on how sources are created, what makes it into an archive, what past and present researchers ask to look at in archives, and how they analyze past events. History—what we know about the past—is synthesized through a series of choices.

History and historical writing builds on itself—that’s historiography. And the process of creating that body can help maintain silences by replicating the sources and analytical choices of the past. A grad student working on a journal article might look to another historian’s bibliography—the sources they used—as a roadmap, but the logic of those choices doesn’t necessarily accompany the bibliography. So it’s up to the student to make inferences and, ultimately, to make their own choices about what to include in their own work. Without mindful attention to historiography, we can further bury those deemed lost. Yet, by excavating what’s not in the historical record and why, we can begin to piece together mysteries from the past and engage in a restorative process that can help illuminate those lives objectified or ignored in and by the historical record.

Welcome to season 4, episode 3 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host and season producer, Hannah Roussel. In this episode, Dr. Emily Lamond, a recent graduate from our Interdepartmental Program in Ancient History, shows us how to engage in that restorative process, beginning with a funerary inscription. Emily is a historian of ancient Rome, especially interested in disability, gender, and family studies. Her dissertation, which explores dynamics of disability in idealized relationships of the Roman household, is titled “Disability and the Ancient Roman Familia.”

In this episode, we’ll hear from two voice actors:

Theo Mathurin: Hi, my name is Theo Matherin, and I’m a black, chronically ill, non-binary femme with the pleasure of reading for Clesippus.

Scott Testorelli: Hi, my name is Scott Testorelli, and I’ll be reading for Pliny the Elder.

Thanks so much to Theo and Scott for their help on this project!

Please be aware that the following episode contains mentions of violence, ableist language, sexual abuse, and disability slurs. 

Clesippus: Clesippus Geganius | mag(ister) Capi[t](olinus), mag(ister) Luperc(orum), viat(or) tr(ibunicius). Clesippus Geganius.[1] Leader of the Capitolini, leader of the Luperci, tribunician messenger. 

Emily Lamond: So speaks a funerary inscription, the engraved words of someone who, in the first century BCE, and in the city of Rome, likely wanted his name and his accomplishments to live on in stone, in a monumental tomb. His loved ones might have commissioned the inscription, or he himself might have. We don’t know. 

[contemplative music fades in]

What we do know, what the inscription does tell us, is that whoever erected this monument wanted this person, Clesippus Geganius, to be remembered as someone who had served his community. He had been one of the appointed magistrates in charge of the Capitolini and of the Luperci, both religious associations, and he had served as a messenger to important magistrates in the city of Rome.

The funerary inscription tells an impressive story. There might, however, be another story, beneath what speaks from this stone: the story of Clesippus before these illustrious honors and administrative achievements. It’s the story of a man who navigated slavery, disability, and the sexual advances of the woman who owned him.

This is the story we’re going to tell.

[contemplative music fully fades in, then fades down a bit]

This other story of a Clesippus emerges from Pliny the Elder’s many-volume work, the Natural History, probably written about a century after Clesippus died. Pliny’s story of Clesippus begins in urine, ends in stone, and has everything and nothing to do with a luxury candelabrum. 

Wedged amid explanations of candelabra styles and their histories, the following tale peeks out from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

[contemplative music ends]

Pliny the Elder: … nobody is even ashamed to purchase [this style of luxury candelabrum] for a military tribune’s yearly salary, even though it’s named after cheap wax candles. 

The free accessory of one such candelabrum—at the order of the auctioneer Theon—was Clesippus the fuller, a man who had a curved spine and a generally foul-looking appearance into the bargain. A woman [named] Gegania[2] purchas[ed] the lot—[that is, the candelabrum and Clesippus together,] for 50,000 sesterces.[3] 

When this same woman was showing off her purchases at a dinner party, [Clesippus] was stripped naked, to be an object of mockery. He was received into [Gegania’s] bed because of [her] shameless lust, [and] soon after [he was received] into her will. 

As a very rich man he worshiped that candelabrum like the gods and—after good custom had been satisfied nevertheless by a noble tomb—he associated this tale with [the famous] Corinthian [candelabrum style], so that, over all the earth, through this [story], the eternal memory of the shameful Gegania would endure.

Emily Lamond: What Pliny is describing here is a story which became associated with a particularly luxurious candelabrum style—a style that he doesn’t think is particularly worth the money. This story is the tale of our Clesippus, whom we will follow as he goes from being a “freebie” with spinal curvature, thrown in as a “bargain buy” with this luxury candelabrum, to a freedman who inherited his mistress’s wealth. 

As an historian interested in disability in Roman life, and someone with a spinal curvature herself, I was especially drawn in by this story. What you’ve heard, however—the inscription and this tale as reported by Pliny—is all we have of Clesippus, rendering him tantalizingly out of reach. 

For Pliny, Clesippus’s tale is an afterthought in a discussion about light fixtures. Pliny’s view is that Clesippus “wins”—not only does he make it out of slavery, and out of the control of his former, shameful mistress, but his story also indelibly marks his former mistress with the shame of what she did to him. Is this a case of sweet revenge, of Clesippus extricating himself from the shameful conduct of his former mistress? 

Like the modern historian Saidiya Hartman, I want to use whatever remains in the historical record to try to vivify Clesippus’s narrative. This history, the life of Clesippus, as it “really was,” is lost to time, and any critical fabulation is just that—fabulation. Nevertheless, the experience of attempting the imagining can be productive in itself. What conceptual spaces does this Clesippus occupy in Pliny’s narrative, and what might we imagine goes unsaid? If this is the selfsame Clesippus as the Clesippus who went on to hold important duties as a freedman, what might the silences of his tomb tell us about the world in which he lived?    

[transition music fades in] 

If the inscription we began with was indeed his—as scholars seem to agree—Clesippus’s spinal curvature and history of slavery played no essential role in his sense of himself as he wanted to preserve it for posterity, nor in his role within his immediate community. His bodily condition might have played an important role in his enslavement, especially because a fashion in owning exoticized, otherized bodies was a real phenomenon at the time among some enslavers. At the same time, Clesippus’s spinal curvature becomes—for Pliny—a convenient literary shorthand: the negative views of this bodily condition at the time allow Pliny to quickly characterize Gegania’s lust all the more negatively, that she would be attracted to a man with such a condition. By placing Clesippus at the center of the story and reimagining his enslaved experiences, we can attempt to see Clesippus as he might have seen himself in that world of values.

[transition music fades out]

When we meet this Clesippus for the first time, Pliny’s description is meant to turn us off from him, to make Gegania’s “shameless” lust alien, incomprehensible, and therefore all the more worthy of shame. To begin with, Clesippus was a fuller—a textile worker who would wash clothes in urine. 

Pliny wanted his audience to ascribe a low social status to Clesippus. Regardless of the actual perception of fullers in reality, literary accounts frequently cast aspersions on fullers. They encouraged disgust. In such a profession, Clesippus would likely spend his days ankle deep in a great vat filled with the stale urine of strangers, sweating away in the Mediterranean heat, stomping textiles to clean them or to prepare them for dyes.

[sloshing sounds fade in and out]

Pliny also writes that Clesippus was a man with a curved spine—a gibber—a word often translated as the slur “hunchback.” People with this physical difference were assumed by many Roman authors to be less attractive than people without it—less desirable sexually or aesthetically, as a partner or as an object purchased by an enslaver. Pliny underscores this by adding that he was “foul in appearance besides.” 

[market sounds fade in and out; includes multiple criers advertising their wares, bells ringing, indecipherable crowd noises] 

Pliny’s tale brings Clesippus out of the laundry vat and into a slave market, likely somewhere in the city of Rome. Well, it was not exclusively a slave market; in addition to enslaved people, clearly luxury goods like the fancy candelabrum were also passing through this space. How Clesippus gets from one place to the other, from the fuller’s vat to the market, is obscured—does he belong to the crier who sells him? To the person wanting to sell the candelabrum? Perhaps like the candelabrum style, he had once come from Corinth in Greece. Or perhaps he and the light fixture were both originally from the city of Rome, but the candelabrum was made after the fashion of Corinth and his Greek name was given to him—for that added je ne sais quoi of fashionable “Greekness.”

If Clesippus was waiting to be sold, he might have stood on an auction block, likely nude or half naked. And he probably would have heard the herald or praeco yelling out any of his “hidden conditions,” so that any enslaver who purchased him would know exactly what he or she was getting for their money.

We know nothing concretely about the agency of enslaved people in this instance. Historian Dea Boster, who writes about disability and slavery in a nineteenth century American context, draws insights from disabled and formerly enslaved people’s accounts of being sold and explores agency on the auction block. According to her findings, some people who endured slavery would strategically play up or disguise bodily or mental conditions that they might anticipate an enslaver would devalue. It’s hazardous, of course, to make comparanda between such vastly different times and spaces as ancient Rome and the Atlantic slave trade, but it is not without value to consider these voices in imagining ancient experiences. Perhaps people with physical disabilities especially would have done similarly, assessing the stakes in whosoever their future enslaver might be.

Pliny does not tell us how Clesippus reacts, nor how he might have felt, as he was uprooted. What would it mean to him, to have been given away for free, as the deal-sweetening add-on for a luxury light fixture? 

And what did Gegania, the woman who purchased Clesippus and the candelabrum, think? Perhaps she was pleased to have obtained an enslaved human being at no extra cost to herself—a significant discount in a Roman market. Perhaps her thoughts turned to the slightly supernatural.

[slightly eerie music fades in]

In letters of the time period especially, sent between elite, slave-owning Romans, enslaved people are written about as being purchased for their unique qualities. Such people sometimes occupied a conceptual category somewhere between prodigia, things of ill omen—or more succinctly, “freaks”—and deliciae, a sexually or otherwise affectively appealing “pet” or “darling”. 

Scholars have also observed that people with spinal curvature were not simply treated as physically different but also possibly supernaturally powerful. Representations of people with curved backs in material culture suggest that they were apotropaic, that they (or at least their backs) possessed the ability to ward off the Evil Eye. Across the Mediterranean and across centuries from the Hellenistic period through the early Roman imperial period, miniatures of figures with spinal curvature were produced in various materials including bronze, silver, and stone. Some of these miniatures have holes, suggesting that they could be strung up on walls and hung outside of doorways, perhaps as good luck charms—or more specifically, charms to ward off bad luck. 

[tintinnabula (wind chime) noises; slightly eerie music fades out]

For Gegania to purchase an enslaved human being for no other function than for him to be an object of amusement or sexual or aesthetic interest could be hazardous socially, depending on her circle of friends. She could be deemed frivolous by certain moral thinkers at Rome, particularly those of a Stoic philosophic persuasion. In brief, Stoicism was a school of thought, popular among literary circles in Rome in this period, that emphasized the importance of eschewing the ephemeral and material and viewed luxury as morally dangerous.

Still, wealthy Romans, especially in the centuries after Clesippus’s life, were willing to pay vast sums of money to purchase “rare” enslaved people for no other purpose than amusement.

Indeed, so lively was the trade in these “rare” enslaved human beings that a specific market at Rome existed to sell them. The teratōn agora, literally translated as the “market of monsters,” was a popular enough phenomenon that Plutarch, in the second century CE, chastised the moral bankruptcy of those who desired to gawk at people there instead of at people he thought of as beautiful and worthwhile to look at. 

It is unclear if Clesippus would have been classified as a teras, or “monster,” for such a market, but he would have at least had a great deal in common with the people so classified—as someone purchased like a luxury object, merely to have their body put on display for amusement or ridicule.

[household dining noises fade in and out; indecipherable conversations, clanking of cutlery]

Clesippus would have had to adjust to life in Gegania’s house. There were different expectations for enslaved people, depending on the kind of slavery to which they were subjected. Enslaved people in the households of the wealthy and fashionable could take on a greater variety of roles than on a rural estate or in a more modest home: in addition to the work of keeping an aristocratic home running, they could serve as aesthetic and/or sexual objects, status symbols, and possibly even living, apotropaic curiosities.

Enslaved people played an essential role in household dining: they could cook, serve, and entertain. 

[soimber music fully fades in and then down a bit]

Gegania stripped Clesippus naked for the amusement of her friends, showing off the body of a human being she owned—and as Pliny notes—alongside the much more valued candelabrum.

For Pliny this exhibition was a source of shame. Was it shameful because Clesippus was a human being subjected to inhumane exploitation? Or because a woman was vainly flaunting her wealth—in particular, the purchase of a luxury candelabrum Pliny saw no need for? 

Clesippus simultaneously occupied the conceptual categories of both human and property. Perhaps Pliny’s sense of shame was incurred by considerations at both levels. On the one hand, he might have objected out of his disdain that a human being—no matter how undesirable Pliny might think him—should be stripped naked for amusement. On the other hand, he might have objected that a human being should be set beside—and indeed valued less—than such a frivolous lampstand by a frivolous woman. Or perhaps, beyond any human versus property distinction, it could be the case that Pliny viewed this kind of entertainment as vulgar, viewing it as reflective of an un-Stoic character.

[somber music fades out]

Elite male authors react to entertainments like this with disdain, disrespect, shame, and dislike. At the same time, these reactions are diffuse in direction, as they target both the luxurious people putting on the display and the enslaved people put on display. These authors disparage the enslaved people as less than fully human even as they cast a judgment over their enslavers.

Historical accounts, too, use stories of enslaved people in the imperial household as representations of the emperor’s reprehensible character, as mirrors of one another’s disreputable qualities. The logic of these stories is that “monstrous” emperors put their inner, moral deficiencies on display by collecting, possessing, and flaunting “unusual” enslaved people for the delectation of their guests. They dehumanized the so-called “monstrous” enslaved people in two important ways: first, by suggesting that their physical condition somehow renders them less than human. And second, by reducing them to metaphors, rather than people fully realized in the narrative.

Not horrifying to a Roman audience for the same reasons, but likely horrifying to us, is Clesippus’ next experience. The dining room and the bedroom of Gegania are not far apart in Pliny’s narrative. The way Pliny writes it, Gegania dragged Clesippus from one to the other, posthaste, to satisfy her immoderate lust.

[somber music fades in]

Sexual exploitation of enslaved people—no matter their formal role in a householdwas ubiquitous in ancient Rome. Enslavers often targeted “othered” bodies for sex, fetishizing their differences. This is especially true of eunuchs, for example, enslaved people whom enslavers castrated, in part to preserve their boyish looks. Elite men often purchased eunuchs for their own pleasure.

Literary authors like Pliny are particularly obsessed with such exploitation by mistresses. This motif satirizes the “loose morality of women,” and particularly of wealthy, luxuriating women. 

On top of the fact that they are luxurious (already a count against in some circles), these women are characterized as so sexually ravenous that they will engage in sexual acts with anyone and everyone. These sexual encounters are used as a measure of depravity. This trope obfuscates what was likely a similar phenomenon in male enslavers: we know that elite men did the same.

[somber music fades out]

In Pliny’s telling, Clesippus’s journey from dining room to bedroom is short. His journey from Gegania’s bedroom into her will is even shorter. Clesippus, after everything he has endured, becomes fabulously wealthy in the wake of Gegania’s death. He begins to worship the candelabrum like a god. It is unclear what this means, or even indeed whether Pliny is relating this fact in earnest. Perhaps Pliny is exaggerating the role the candelabrum played in Clesippus’s freed life. Perhaps not. Indeed, the candelabrum might have adorned an altar in Clesippus’s home, taking a place among his personal ritual devotions. If this account of personal religious fervor is indeed literally true, as it very well might have been, Clesippus’s idolization of the candelabrum is understandable. This candelabrum was with him, a constant and instrumental companion from the slave market to the end of his tale. 

In Pliny’s view, the infamous association of the scandalous mistress with her absurdly priced candelabrum will live on for all time. But whose shame is it for the reader? Pliny gives shame to Gegania, but he also gives some, too, to Clesippus—he inscribes shame in servitude and spinal curvature and sexual exploitation. He frames Clesippus’s body as disgusting, partly because of his spinal curvature, and therefore uses his disability instrumentally, to heighten Gegania’s shame. In doing so, he casts Clesippus into the position of an abject object.

Even if he is something of a “success story,” as Pliny seeks to paint him, Pliny’s version of this “success story” is not preserved on the tomb. Again assuming that Clesippus of the tomb and Clesippus of the Pliny story are one and the same person, perhaps we can read the shame of Clesippus’s story into the silence of the inscription.

[contemplative music fades in]

What lingers uneasily when we consider the tale and the tomb in context is the precarity in which Roman society placed Clesippus’s body. The trajectory of his life was dependent on so many variables. He happened to be purchased by Gegania. Gegania, in a way that I think is emotionally fraught for us, happened to uplift him out of the condition of enslavement upon her death. Did the real Clesippus, contrary to Pliny’s tale, spare Gegania the kind of judgment Pliny casts at them both—a judgment that flattened their stories and made their true lives unknowable? Perhaps he also honored Gegania for making him wealthy upon her death. After all, he did not immortalize the supposedly shameful story in stone, even though Pliny tells us that he immortalized it in other ways, by associating it with the candelabrum style. If the inscription and the tale describe the same man, all that remains of the Pliny’s account story in the inscription is Gegania’s name: as part of the standard process of manumission, the name of Clesippus’s former mistress was made part of his freed name for all time.

[contemplative music fully fades in, then down a bit]

Or was the story of Clesippus truly the tale of sweet revenge for the real Clesippus, as Pliny cast it? Perhaps it was the view of Clesippus himself that, after enduring exploitations and insults, he had triumphed in the end, in freedom and in wealth. The silence of his tomb on this point might suggest such a view. [contemplative music ends] But we will never know for sure: it is, after all, a silence.  

[contemplative music fades in]

Hannah Roussel: Thanks for listening, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Dr. Emily Lamond. Another thank you to the voice actors in order of appearance Theo Mathurin and Scott Testorelli. Thank you also to Patti Weintraub for their guidance on voice actor introductions. The audio for this episode was edited by Allie Goodman, Reverb Effect’s season three producer. Allie started the production on this episode during her time as season producer, and we are thankful for her continued work.

Our editorial board is Kira Thurman, David Tamayo, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Pragya Kaul, Paige Newhouse, Sophie Wunderlich, and Hannah Tweet. Gregory Parker is our executive producer, and I’m your host and season producer, Hannah Roussel. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates into the present. This is Reverb Effect.  

[contemplative music ends]


[1] Cleh-sip-us Gegg-ann-ee-us magg-iss-tur Cap-it-oh-lee-nuss, magg-iss-tur Loo-pear-core-um, wee-ah-tore trib-you-nick-ee-us. Cleh-sip-us Gegg-ann-ee-us. Leader of the Cap-it-oh-lee-nee, leader of the Loo-pear-key, trib-you-nish-ee-an messenger.

[2]  Gegg-ann-ee-ah

[3] Sess-tur-sees

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