Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.35

Winfried Schmitz (ed.), Antike Sklaverei zwischen Verdammung und Beschönigung: Kolloquium zur Rezeption antiker Sklaverei vom 17. bis 20. Jahrhundert. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, 40​.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2016.  Pp. xii, 259; 7 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783515110891.  €46.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Perry, University of South Florida—Sarasota-Manatee (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

2017 marks the centenary of Vladimir Lenin’s return from exile and rapid rise to dominance, and one of the most evocative portraits of his speaking and leadership styles can be found in a 1939 novel about Spartacus, the “revoliutsiia rabov” (“revolution of slaves”).1 While he had not yet fully broken with Communism as “the god that failed”, Arthur Koestler used Lenin as the model for his Spartacus, a speaker who senses “the self-contained, aloof hostility, the malign stupidity of the buzzing human mass” before him and tailors his speech accordingly.2 Howard Fast’s very different version of the Spartacus legend—composed during his imprisonment for Communist affiliation and self-published in 1951—became the one permanently etched in most late- 20th-century minds, due to the 1960 film. Nevertheless, even this portrait had been scrubbed of much of its original Marxist content in order to soothe the jittery sensibilities of American audiences.

As this partial Nachleben of the most famous of ancient slaves indicates, the reception of ancient slavery in the past several centuries is contentious, multi-faceted, and intricately connected to real-world events. Schmitz’s collection of papers—appropriately dedicated to the memory of Heinz Heinen, who devoted much of his scholarly output to these questions before his death in 20133—is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the reception of antiquity. Nevertheless, several of the essays do not adequately engage the specifically ancient aspects of the reception of slavery, nor the singular figure of Spartacus himself, nor the contemporary parallels that were raised by many of these cultural products. While this review addresses a few omissions and missed opportunities in the individual essays, the subject-matter of the colloquium is significant, and two pieces in particular (by Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto and by Schmitz himself) are signal contributions that should be read by a wide circle of scholars.

Schmitz’s introduction briefly sketches out the parameters of the papers that follow, and it draws particular attention to the wider intellectual currents of, especially, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century abolitionist movements. He deftly analyzes the “biedermeierliche[n] Selbstdomestikation” of Spartacus, “the Social Revolutionary” in the period, while also pointing out Spartacus’ many theatrical appearances—even in a fragmentary treatment by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the celebrated author of Nathan the Wise, from 1770. However, even here, the immediate backdrop of the first successful large-scale slave rebellion in history, in Saint-Domingue, which led to the creation of Haïti, is not addressed.

Two subsequent essays address echoes of ancient slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, but, judging from the scope of these papers, those echoes seem faint. The bulk of Uwe Baumann’s piece, on (ancient?) slaves and slavery in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, concerns Philip Massinger’s The Bondman, first performed in 1624. While it is always useful to introduce drama from the time of Shakespeare that is not Shakespeare, Baumann also discusses metaphorical concepts of slavery (e.g. “slaves of passion”) to the detriment of some probable references to actual ancient slaves. Unless I am mistaken, I detect an allusion to Spartacus—at least as described in Plutarch’s life of Crassus—in 2 Henry VI, II.3, in which Warwick kills his horse “because I will not fly” the field of battle. Throughout his career, Shakespeare relied heavily on his translations of Plutarch, and the ancient resonances contained within this early play (there is even a reference to Olympic victors’ crowns later in the same scene) are pronounced. Similarly, Andreas Wacke’s reflections on the German indentured servants who were transported to colonial Pennsylvania seem disconnected from the theme of, specifically, ancient slavery. The one exception to this may be the so-called “redemptioner”, a bond-servant who is working off the price of his passage until “redemption”, whose parallels to Roman slave law are only addressed in a short footnote on p. 59. Even here, though, contractual references to “the year of our redemption” are surely more redolent of Christian concepts than pre-Christian ones?

Four papers survey appearances of ancient slaves in historical novels, contemporary crime fiction, film, and television, but these also fail sufficiently to contextualize the artistic products and to be fully comprehensive. Ulrich Eigler makes glancing references to several romances produced in the 19th century, but the slaves who appear in novels like The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Fabiola (1854), Quo Vadis (1895), and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ4 (1880) are not the most significant characters. This makes the absence of Raffaello Giovagnoli’s famous 1874 rendering of a Garibaldian Spartaco all the more troubling. The confrontation between Spartacus and Catiline (Capitolo III) and another moonlit conversation between Spartacus and Caesar (Capitolo IX) may not be historically feasible, but they do illustrate the heroic potential of a slave liberator, particularly against the backdrop of real revolutions during this century. Cornelia Ritter-Schmalz analyzes slaves in a series of novels published in the 1990s and 2000s, dealing especially with their attendant themes of sexual exploitation and sexuality in general, but she does not, for example, discuss the other novels of Steven Saylor, whose works form the crux of her paper. In recent years, Saylor has moved outside genre fiction and has published two superb historical novels, tracing the experiences of one family throughout Rome’s history. The second of these, Empire (2010), deals in a sensitive way with the familiar story of the execution of L. Pedanius Secundus’ enslaved household in 61 CE.

Martin Lindner’s erratic journey through cinematic history to spotlight “Sklaven als Heldenfiguren” pauses briefly to discuss the television extravaganza Spartacus: Blood and Sand and several peplum films, but he gives only scant attention to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and omits entirely a 2004 film starring Goran Visnjic in the title role. It is also important to acknowledge that Timonides, the noble character played by James Mason in the 1964 Bronston Studios epic The Fall of the Roman Empire reveals himself to be a former slave—even though he is also Marcus Aurelius’ principal advisor and most trusted confidant. Anja Wieber makes a more successful analysis of films and television programs designed specifically for children in the USA, West Germany, and the UK, but the wider contexts of children’s programming—and of children’s and young adult literature more generally —are downplayed here.

One of the strongest essays in the collection investigates the role of slaves in Bertolt Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (in its English title), which began as a theater piece in 1938, morphed into a novel project, and was finally abandoned due to its “Unmenschlichkeit”. Wolfgang Will demonstrates the centrality of enslaved people to Brecht’s conception, analyzing a series of episodes Brecht had sketched out, including Caesar’s sojourn among the sea pirates. Will points out that, since the book was to take the form of a slave’s diary, this was essentially an enslaved person’s perspective on Caesar. One might only wish that Will had addressed the particular context of 1938, a year which saw a number of new investigations of the Late Republic, as Mussolini had launched a commemoration of Augustus’ 2000th birthday in 1937-1938. Moreover, there are many other appearances of Caesar in Brecht’s own work and in those of his frequent collaborators. A stanza in his 1935 poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads” observes, “Caesar defeated the Gauls, Did he not even have a cook with him?”, and Kurt Weill composed a song for a 1933 musical on the theme of “Caesars Tod”, suggesting the wider application of Caesar’s image within Weimar culture.

Henri Wallon’s three-volume Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquite/, first published in 1848, forms the basis of Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto’s compelling study of the connections between ancient slavery and human rights. Defining slavery as a “usurpation de l’homme par l’homme”, Wallon underscored the brutality of institutional slavery—no matter how anodyne it may appear in ancient documents—and insisted that its corrupting effects on humanity were irreversible, even though some slaves were freed. As such, Herrmann-Otto argues, Wallon prefigured the “slavery as social death” position maintained so forcefully by Orlando Patterson, and, having undertaken my own investigation of Wallon, I would concur that he was remarkably prescient in anticipating today’s scholarly debates.5 This leads to the article’s most interesting question: Why has Wallon’s work been so overlooked and/or actively denigrated in the 20th century? While she suggests that some of the ambivalence about Wallon has stemmed from his moralizing tone, one wonders whether Herrmann-Otto is also thinking of the bitter controversy between Moses Finley and Joseph Vogt over the “Humanität” of ancient slavery.

Perhaps the most accomplished and provocative article in the volume is Schmitz’s own study of “Slave Labor, Factory Work, and the Social Question at the Turn of the 20th Century”. In a sophisticated analysis of major and minor scholarly works, as well as overall intellectual trends in the 19th century, he contrasts scholarship of the earlier parts of the century (Adolf Ebeling and Ernst Frank) with Eduard Meyer and, especially, the specialized studies of Robert von Pöhlmann and Friedrich Oertel. Focusing on analyses of textile manufacture in classical Greece—and the interactions between enslaved and free labor in a “factory” context—he positions these studies against the “social question” confronting industrial capitalism in the period 1880-1914. Schmitz demonstrates that the trajectories Marx and Engels had triggered were pursued, even by those who did not share their ideological views. Specifically, ancient slaves were conceptualized partly as a tool the capitalists could use against the proletariat, and partly as an oppressed class that could be equated with the proletariat itself.

In sum, this collection raises essential questions that are long overdue for examination. However, many of the individual papers exemplify some of the difficulties scholars face when delving into “reception studies” in any specialized context. A tighter focus on the figure of Spartacus would facilitate a course correction in this field. Nonetheless, there is an even more critical need: to take into account the actual slaves and real revolutionary activity to liberate them, particularly in the 19th century. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the impact of the “Black Spartacus” and his associates in revolutionary Haïti, who established the first republic of liberated slaves—and also terrified the slaveholders who controlled another republic nearby.6


1.   A book by A. V. Mishulin carrying this subtitle was published in Moscow in 1936.
2.   The Gladiators, translated by Edith Simon, reprint of 1939 edition New York: Graphic Publishing Company, pp. 256-257. Michael Scammell explores the circumstances of the book’s creation in his 2009 biography Koestler, pp. 164-166, and Henry Innes MacAdam has painstakingly recreated the fascinating race between Koestler and Howard Fast to launch a film version of Spartacus’ story. (Fast, thanks to Kirk Douglas, won.) See especially MacAdam’s article in Left History 16 (2012): 55-71.
3.   See my review of Heinen’s edited volume, Antike Sklaverei: Rückblick und Ausblick, at BMCR 2011.07.46.
4.   The dash between the words is mistakenly omitted here (168), but it was rendered in this fashion in the original edition.
5.   I would add that Wallon pays remarkably modern attention to both the “adoucissements” [mitigations, consolations], principally in a type of marriage and the granting of a peculium, that masters used to control the enslaved, and to the forms and success of resistance by enslaved people, especially in the Roman Empire.
6.   A biography of Toussaint Louverture by Philippe Girard, subtitled “A revolutionary life,” was published in January 2017 by Basic Books. The impact of images of the Haitian revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Belley is well-known among art historians, and the novelist Alexandre Dumas was also only one generation removed from enslavement in Saint-Domingue. ​

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