I’m delighted to be able to announce that my first peer reviewed article has now appeared in print! “She’s Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage: Freedwomen At Trimalchio’s Dinner Party” appears in the latest edition of Classical Quarterly.
Fortunata’s journey to this point has been rather long and arduous; it started back in the autumn of 2006, when I wrote a graduate seminar paper offering a close reading of the chapter which now forms the core of the article itself. I submitted the article to the Winkler Memorial Prize, and although it didn’t win, it did produce an encouraging e-mail from one of the judging panel. So I carried on trying to refine and rework the piece, through an outright journal rejection, and then a revise and resumbit for Classical Quarterly that happily was then accepted. I doubt any of my work is going to have a pedigree that rooted in my early academic career (unless I go back to my undergraduate thesis to see what I can salvage), so it’s wonderful to see her finally in print.
What spurred me to write the original seminar paper was the good old academic vice of close reading. I noticed features of the text which didn’t make sense, and wanted to know why. These features centered on Fortunata, the wife of the nouveau riche Trimalchio who throws an extravagant dinner party in the Satyricon, a Roman novel by Petronius. The dinner party episode is one of the best preserved sections of the novel, so we can say a lot more about context and characterisation than we can about characters who turn up elsewhere. But all of the secondary literature I found didn’t address the character of Fortunata in a systematic or significant way. The most she got was a couple of disparaging lines commenting on her past life as a prostitute. And, it seemed to me, this was not a conclusion supported by what the text actually said.
From this niggling irritation with existing scholarship, the piece grew into an argument for seeing Fortunata as a threat which Trimalchio deliberately seeks to undermine. The novel alludes to the fact that she is independently financially wealthy, but at the same time the freedmen who speak about her try to undermine her importance at every turn. A number of different threads are at work here – Trimalchio’s need to conform to the image of the freedman as the self-made man, Fortunata’s desire to appear as the ideal mater familias, the attempts to conform to the ideal of the companionate married couple, the fear of independently powerful women that results in the negative image control that the freedmen engage in. But the ultimate result is that the freedmen do their best to create as negative as possible an image of Fortunata – and, because we as readers are guided by the narrator Encolpius in what we think, critics have fallen for this poison pen portrait.
Petronius, however, has created in Encolpius a notoriously unreliable narrator. He leaves hints and clues in his text to warn us that we shouldn’t believe everything Encolpius tells us, and unravelling these clues has been a firm mainstay of Petronian scholarship. My article takes this well-accepted way of thinking about the Satyricon and turns it towards characters who have so far escaped critical attention. What comes out of this approach is some insight into the tensions in the lives of freedwomen and their partners, as well as a richer picture of a character who has previously been seen only as window-dressing.
The reaction among those who have been kind enough to let me know how they found the article has so far been very kind – I only (over-optimistically) hope that it will find such a warm reception with all its readers.