A couple of days ago, Verne Troyer died.
Little people have long had their place in public and private entertainment.
In Roman times, they often featured as ‘freaks of nature’, being the object of ridicule and abuse.
Among the most remarkable stories in that regard is that of Zercon.
Zercon is introduced as a ‘court-jester’ by the late-antique Greek historian Priscus of Panium in his description of the court of Bleda, the brother of Attila the Hun.
Zercon, of Moorish origin, quickly became a token gift to provide amusement for the high and mighty due to his overall appearance as well as his stammer (τραυλότης) (Prisc. frg. 13.2 (I p. 287) Blockley):
Διὰ δὲ κακοφυίαν σώματος καὶ τὸ γέλωτα ἐκ τῆς τραυλότητος τῆς φωνὴς καὶ ὄψεως παρέχειν (βραχὺς γὰρ τις ἦν, κυρτός, διάστροφος τοῖς πόσι, τὴν ῥῖνα τοῖς μυκτῆρσι παραφαίνων διὰ σιμότητος ὑπερβολήν), ῎Ασπαρι τῷ ᾽Αρδαβουρίῳ ἐδεδώρητο . . . καὶ Ἀττήλας μὲν οὐδὲ τὴν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ὄψιν· ὁ δὲ Βλήδας ἥσθη τε λίαν αὐτῷ φθεγγομένῳ οὐ μόνον γέλωτος ἄξια, εἰ μή γε καὶ βαδίζοντι καὶ περιττῶς κινοῦντι τὸ σῶμα.
Because of his physical deformity and the laughter which his stammering and his general appearance caused (for he was rather short, hunchbacked, with distorted feet and a nose that, because of its excessive flatness, was indicated only by the nostrils) he was presented to Aspar, the son of Ardabur (. . .). Attila could not stand the sight of him, but Bleda was most pleased by him, not only when he was saying amusing things but even when he was not, because of the strange movements of his body as he walked.
The amusement that Zercon provided is described as follows (Prisc. frg. 13.3 (I p. 289) Blockley):
τότε δὲ διὰ τὸν τῆς εὐωχίας καιρὸν παρελθὼν τῷ τε εἴδει καὶ τοῖς ἐσθήμασι καὶ τῇ φωνῇ καὶ τοῖς συγκεχυμένως παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ προφερομένοις ῥήμασι (τῇ γὰρ Αὐσονίων τὴν τῶν Οὔννων καὶ τὴν τῶν Γότθων παραμιγνὺς γλῶτταν) πάντας διέχεε καὶ ἐς ἄσβεστον ὁρμῆσαι γέλοτα παρεσκεύασε πλὴν Ἀττήλα.
Now, during the banquet he came forward and by his appearance, his clothing, his voice and the words which he spoke all jumbled together (for he mixed Latin, Hunnic and Gothic) he put all in a good humour and caused all to burst into uncontrollable laughter, except Attila.
To the modern scholar, Zercon’s extraordinary level of multilingualism, in conjunction with an apparent communication disorder, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this report.
To Bleda and his court, however, Zercon was little more than a freak, whose presence serves the sole purpose of entertainment.
There is, however, evidence, for rather more sympathetic treatment – and in this context one must mention the funerary inscription of Hector, a Phrygian performer and (arguably, though by no means certainly) the slave of Vespasian’s wife Flavia Domitilla.
The following piece, dating to the second half of the first (or early second century?) A. D., was discovered inscribed in the city of Rome (CIL VI 10098 (cf. p. 3906) = VI 33961 = CLE 1110 = ILS 5172, EDR 109247; image source here; for a detailed discussion in French see here):
Qui colitis Cybelen et qui Phryga plangitis Attin
dum vacat et tacita Dindyma nocte silent
flete meos cineres. non est alienus in illis:
Hector et hoc tumulo Mygdonis umbra tegor.
ille ego qui magni parvus cognominis heres
corpore in exiguo res numerosa fui:
flectere doctus equos, nitida certare palaestra,
ferre iocos, astu fallere, nosse fidem.
at tibi dent superi quantum, Domitilla, mereris
quae facis exigua ne iaceamus humo.
In English translation:
You who worship Cybele and mourn Attis the Phrygian, when there is time and when the heights of Dindymon lie silent in soundless night, weep over my ashes. There is no stranger in these: I, Hector am covered by this tomb, a shade of Mygdon no less.
A little heir of a big name, I myself was a versatile thing in a tiny body: I was taught to control horses, to fight in the resplendent palaestra, to make jokes, to deceive cunningly, to recognise trustworthiness.
So – may the Gods grant you, Domitilla, whatever you deserve, as you allow us to rest under more than just a thin layer of soil.
Praised for his skills in the same way other performers were, this piece, though full of hardly subtle references to Hector’s dwarfism, at first would appear to paint a sympathetic picture to a distinguished artist.
At the same time, one cannot help but notice the reference to the cult of Cybele – seemingly a reference to Hector’s Phrygian origins (though one that typically combined spectacular performances with infliction of self-mutilation) – as well as the final couple of lines which are, unsurprisingly, about the benefactor behind the tomb: Domitilla.
Considering the presentation of this memorial, it would therefore not seem to be entirely unreasonable that Domitilla, too, saw the freak of nature in Hector – a spectacle for others to behold, a versatile thing (res numerosa), but still just that: a thing.
So why bother and write an epitaph?
The inscription gave Domitilla one last chance to benefit from her little play-thing – a final opportunity to represent herself as benefactor and good patroness, a final way to derive personal gain from Hector’s abilities (in which she presumably had invested a fair amount).
The struggles of the artist, by contrast, remain unseen.