04 - Artemidorus and the Panopticism of Urban Life: The Social Worlds of Non-Elites

The Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an early 3rd century CE manual of oneiromancy, is unrivalled among literary sources for its potential to reveal the social worlds, anxieties, and aspirations of urban non-elites in the Roman world [Pack; Pomeroy; Weber; Chandezon]. This sociological approach is possible because Artemidorus is strikingly opposed to psycho-analytic approaches to dreams; instead, the dreamer's essentialized position within larger social structures (free/enslaved, rich/poor, young/old etc.) determines how dream elements should be read [Price; Thonemann].

I will argue that because of Artemidorus' essentializing categorization of dreamers and the socio-economic diversity of his clientele, the Oneirocritica offers novel insights into "a culture of mutual inspection and evaluation" [Swain, 131], a social phenomenon which, due to the nature of our sources has typically been studied from the perspective of the economic and cultural elites of ‘second-sophistic' society [Gleason; Whitmarsh]. Artemidorus shows how the panoptic force of mutual surveillance, managed and exploited by elites, was experienced very differently by the urban non-elite. The rich possessed the cultural and economic tools to deflect potential embarrassment and shame. But for the average city-dweller, the threats and traps of public visibility outnumbered the opportunities, and the boundaries between private and public were fragile and permeable. The polis of the Oneirocritica was one of mistrust and enmity, plots and deceptions, gossip and scandal.

I will trace this phenomenon through Artemidorus' formulaic language, particularly dreams that "reveal the secrets" of the dreamer (τὰ κρυπτὰ ἐλέγχει), a phrase which recurs 29 times. I will then situate these dreams among others which signify plots, deception, and slander directed at the dreamer or his family. The common feature of all these dreams is the permeability of the private sphere; the first type testifies to anxieties surrounding the exposure of one's dark truths in public, and the latter types to the dreamer's inability to see what secrets others are hiding from them. This dynamic is best captured in a dream of a river flowing out of one's oikos (2.27): for the rich man it is desirable and signifies a career as a leader of his city, while for the poor man it predicts the slander of someone in his household for adultery or disgraceful behavior.

Constant anxiety over the exposure of secrets and the defamation of one's character may be linked to a pervasive form of public spectacle in the Oneirocritica, Roman trials and punishments. We can infer from the omnipresent concern for the exposure of secrets and the frequency of dreams involving or signifying lawsuits and public punishments that this was a common concern for the dream interpreter's clientele, an "illogical" recourse in a rules-driven social field [Shaw]. This feature of Artemidorus may reflect a deterioration of social relations and the general insecurity of the 3rd century [Hahn]. If we are to follow Artemidorus' portrait of urban life, the crowded living spaces and economic insecurity experienced by the non-elite were more likely to lead to hostility and suspicion than solidarity.


Geoffrey Harmsworth, Columbia University