Purple wool: The imperial texture of trimalchio's domestic jurisdiction

Laura Donati

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article offers a new interpretation of the theme of servile 'crime and punishment' in the Cena Trimalchionis. Focussing on scenes that directly involve the dinner host, it argues that the domestic justice system that they flesh out adds nuance to the satirical bite of the episode. An initial overview of the instances of 'crime and punishment' involving enslaved characters demonstrates how these scenes parade not just Trimalchio's wealth but his masterly power overreaching that of private domini. While previous scholarship understood Trimalchio's questionable chastisements as indicative of this parvenu's pretensions, this article shows that they cumulatively develop an image of a jumbled execution of justice-brought to life through the presence of state functionaries, judicial infrastructures and penalties normally executed by the state. The climax of this image is hidden in plain sight, in a hitherto underappreciated scene involving purple wool (54.3-5), discussion of which proves in conclusion that the instances of servile 'crime and punishment' craftily build a subplot that plays on the freedman's imperial authority. The imperial matrix already recognized in several dimensions of the Cena in earlier scholarship unmistakably characterizes Trimalchio's domestic jurisdiction too; arbitrary and unfair, it offers biting comment on the state of Roman justice during the Principate with the progressive channelling of justice through the sole authority of the emperor. In sum, the servile 'crime and punishment' theme works as a fierce attack on the imperial government, encouraging broader reconsideration of the target of Petronius' satirical pen. Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)739 – 754
JournalClassical Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2023


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