Thursday 14 July 2016

Written in Water #13: On The Value of Invisible People

This grave portrait, from Roman Egypt, haunts me.
Today, I want to talk about invisibility.

Between early 2014 and late 2015 I had a brief and somewhat inauspicious career teaching Latin for this agency that supplied minority subjects for schools that couldn't justify the budget for a full time teacher. I did it online, initially through a videoconferencing set up that just about worked and then later using a fancy Flash app that totally didn't. For various reasons it became untenable and I had to quit.

Anyway, so I had this one school, in West Yorkshire, that was an absolute pleasure and if you're reading this and you were one of the forty or so kids I taught from that school, hi, I was very fond of you all, and I hope you're not reading this on the school computers, because that would get us both into trouble.

I was good at keeping kids under control, and good at teaching things. I was not as good as perhaps I should have been at teaching them things that would get them passing exams.

But. In this one school I mentioned, a grammar school of the old style, the classes were mostly female, working class and about 50% white, which is a pretty low proportion in a Latin class, I can tell you, because let's face it, no subject is whiter. And here I was teaching them Horace and Virgil and the Cambridge Latin Course (and I know it's fondly remembered but let us be honest, it has attitudes towards gender and race that are... wouldn't lie to you, more reflective of the decade in which it was written).

And one day I said, pretty much everything we read is about rich white men, have you noticed that? Why do you think that is? And a couple of the more astute pupils (and I had some really astute pupils) put their hands up and said, because it's all by rich white men?

Which was of course the correct answer.

And the question is, where were the women? You can talk all you like about the place of a respectable woman in ancient society but the fact is that these ancient women's roles were defined by men. Described by men. Critiqued by men.

People of colour had something of an easier time, at first glance (to a Roman it didn't matter what colour your skin was if you behaved like a Roman; actual colour prejudice was something that arose in the Christian era) but actually, again, how do we know what it felt like to look different? There is little or no writing by non-white people.

And poor people. Slaves. What voice did they have? The prevailing wisdom is that the Roman social order was secure, and unchallenged. But how do we know, when the the only voices that survive are from outside those classes?

Why did the slave revolts so terrify the Romans over and over that Spartacus became the name of a bogeyman? Why Columella's advice to the farmer to keep sharp tools catalogued and locked away securely at night, to keep slaves housed in a room with high small windows too small to wriggle through? Why the riots over grain, over the results of the chariot races?

I'm talking about erasure here, about the invisibility of a category of people in a story, in a history. If you grew up among the white working poor and you're suddenly in university surrounded by middle class people, you experience it. If you're gay or bi or trans and you are surrounded by straight cisgender people, you experience it. If you're a young Muslim woman and you're learning Latin from a book written for public schoolboys in Cambridge, boom, there it is.

It is always the case. But sometimes you find things in the cracks, in the gaps, the lacunae ("lacuna" is one of my favourite words, along with "inchoate" and "imaginal" – had you noticed?)

This is an inscription from a Roman building, a dedication. It was found in Lyon.
Location granted by order of Municipal Councillors
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, XIII, 2019
If you believe the body of Latin literature, women were not permitted financial independence or professional status. And yet here is a doctor, and one who is clearly not some backstreet midwife, since local officials (decurions, the Latin says, part of the municipal govvernment) have made a public decree to grant what amounts to planning permission for the building. Yes, she's showing off that she's rich enough to grant this; the emphasis is that it's her own money, and that wouldn't be an issue if she were a man, but here's the thing. She was an indepently wealthy and publicly recognised professional woman.

But aside from that, no one knows who she was.

Famous this, from Herculaneum. Consider though, that she is reading. She is writing.

Erasure happens in all sorts of ways.

For example, and this is where this falls under the remit of my project, I could tell you about Diocletian.

Diocletian and Galerius, Maximian and Constantius, pretending they're pals.
I've talked about how things went to hell in the third century, about how things fell apart so badly that even the emperors become these weird mythical figures. Diocletian was the end to that time. He brought everything in place, and instituted the First Tetrarchy, which was an attempt to secure a working system of succession. It didn't work, mainly thanks to Constantine, but at least Diocletian pulled things back from the brink. Also, he was the first Roman emperor to abdicate – deliberately, intentionally, as he had always planned. He alone got out alive.

Now, the empire's economy had gone down the pipes along with everything else. In 301, in an attempt to halt hyperinflation, Diocletian issued an Imperial Edict setting maximum prices for a whole bunch of commodities. All the commodities his flunkies could think of.

He had it inscribed on walls and on pillars all over the Roman Empire, and what we have of the text is pieced together from different ruins.
A piece of the edict re-used in a medieval church.
It includes food. Wheat, barley, rye, lentils, chickpeas, beans (mashed and not), peas (split and not), chickpeas, different sorts of wine, different sorts of cooking oils and sauces. It includes the costs of slaves, and the wages of all sorts of labourers. The costs of teachers for boys, by the day. It gives you the costs of fabric for the manufacture of clothes, too. It threatened dire consequences to any who broke it, as did all the laws of the late Empire: embezzle the public purse, lose your hands; help a girl to marry someone not approved by her father, have molten lead poured down your throat.

I won't lie to you. It didn't work all that well. There's not much evidence that it made any difference by itself, and Diocletian's later critics (many of whom were, granted, pretty sore about the persecutions) blamed him for making the situation worse. His debasing the coinage probably didn't help. But it's useful as an indicator of what a Roman in the late Empire thought things should cost, and how much a poor Roman would earn, and could afford (for example, in Diocletian's edict, a pound of pork cost nearly half a day's wages for a labourer).

Here's the section on shoes. 
Boots, mule drivers’ or farmworkers’, first quality, without hobnails, 120 denarii
Boots, soldiers’, without hobnails, 100 denarii
Shoes, patrician, 150 denarii
Shoes, senatorial, 100 denarii
Shoes, equestrian, 70 denarii
Boots, women’s, 60 denarii
That's five types of shoes for men, and one for women. And that's actually pretty much the only mention of a thing that is specifically for women in any version of the edict I've seen.

Women weren't covered by it, commodities for women didn't count. Separate entries for split peas and not, two different grades of fish sauce, half a dozen types of wine, a general list of prices for clothing fabric, five different sorts of men's footwear... But just, women's boots. Nothing else.

Women are not included in the list of standard professional wages, and remember we know that there were professional women, and even if Metilia Donata was unusual, or her profession had died out by the time of Diocletian's reconstruction, why no midwives? And of course, there were women in perfectly legal professions – entertainers, for instance – that the enforcers of law did not admit to existing. This is always the way. One of the most comprehensive pieces of ancient legislation left half the human race erased, leaving us to look in the gaps, to find them between the lines.

As the later Empire advanced, the place of women changed, and not for the better. Even those secret professional women vanished from the record. Soon a time would come when joining a convent would become a gesture of empowerment, and we saw a little of that when I looked at Pelagia and Mary, whose denial of their respective sexualities was framed as a positive, empowering thing.

As Rome fell and its history collapsed, people's stories began to fade from sight. The women were the first to go.