BMCR 1999.05.18

Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture: Differential Equations

, , Women and slaves in Greco-Roman culture : differential equations. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. xii, 287 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415162296. $75.00.

The contributors to this slim volume examine how ancient societies were dependent upon slave holding and the subordination of women. This subject was the focus of a panel organized by the Women’s Classical Caucus at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in Atlanta in December 1994. The papers presented in the panel and published here reveal how women and slaves interacted with one another in ancient Greece and Rome by examining evidence as varied as epic, drama, elegy, medical literature, autobiography, and archaeological finds. A central argument of most papers is that the distinctions between male and female and servile and free were inextricably connected. The subtitle of the book, “differential equations,” refers to that intersection of gender and slavery (p. 3).

The introductory essay by Joshel and Murnaghan outlines the aims of the panel and book. While the problem of recovering the “voices” of women and slaves is acknowledged this does not inhibit much conjecturing by the editors and the rest of authors here. The editors conclude that “… while we will always have special trouble recovering the subjectivities of ancient women and slaves, the differential equations of slavery and gender can teach us to relinquish the pseudo-subjectivities constructed in ancient male and masterly texts and practices” (p. 21). It is a cautionary conclusion, admonishing students of classical societies to be mindful of the voiceless elements in those societies, namely women and slaves.

In “Female Slaves in the Odyssey,” W. Thalmann tackles head-on the inherent problem of combining the two categories, women and slaves, which have customarily been studied in isolation. He uses the Odyssey as a vehicle for thinking about the relation between women and slaves because it was used to transmit certain attitudes about an ideal form of society. In its treatment of female slaves, the Odyssey presents certain anxieties surrounding class and gender that are found in a hierarchical, androcentric culture. Good and bad slave behavior is modeled on socially constructed expectations for elite men and women. Likewise, the narrative polarizes women into the chaste (Penelope) and the unchaste (Helen or Clytemnestra). Ultimately, the Odyssey represents women and slaves in similar ways, which then serve the interests and enhance the self-image of the male elite.

In “‘I, Whom She Detested so Bitterly’: Slavery and the violent division of women in Aeschylus’ Oresteia,” D. E. McCoskey focuses on the violent encounter between Clytemnestra and Cassandra as a model of the multiple structural tensions created by ancient Greek slavery. Following a detailed discussion of this scene, McCoskey compares historical narratives written by women in the American South and, finally, considers the ways in which the Oresteia scene highlights tensions in modern feminism. Defending her use of nineteenth century sources, McCoskey notes that the arrangement of ancient Greek society and economy around the oikos is analogous to the southern plantation. Both slavery systems exhibited parallel gender dynamics. This is, in my opinion, the most original and provocative essay in the collection. McCoskey successfully uses a comparative methodology to identify and explicate the intricacies of power relationships among the elite, slaves and women.

In “Slaves with Slaves: Women and Class in Euripidean Tragedy,” N. S. Rabinowitz is concerned with the class origins of classical literature. She approaches gender and class as interconnected categories by analyzing the representation of enslaved Trojan women and their relationship to more ordinary enslaved women in Euripides’ Trojan War plays. The tendency in scholarship from Herodotus on is to treat both class and gender as monoliths, with neither varied by the other. She had hoped to find evidence of class-consciousness in the plays but her research yielded negative results. She concludes instead that the playwright and the dramatic form dominated the characterization of the female servants.

In “Women and Slaves as Hippocratic Patients,” N. Demand examines the medical treatment for slaves and free women, two groups who shared marginalized characteristics. Demand concentrates on case histories recorded in the Epidemics. The Hippocratic texts were written by doctors who were itinerant and so give a non-Attic perspective to the otherwise mostly Athenian sources on the attitudes to and treatment of women and slaves. Her investigation of these specialized texts found that they support the general societal view of the inferiority of both slaves and women.

In “Symbols of Gender and Status Hierarchies in the Roman Household,” R. P. Saller analyses the ways in which freeborn women and slaves were formally differentiated or assimilated in ways of address, law, and ritual. Saller finds that there was a major symbolic distinction between the shame of slavery and the honor that privileged male citizens and also protected freeborn females.

In “Villains, Wives, and Slaves in the Comedies of Plautus,” A. Rei posits that comedy is valuable for exploring the hierarchies of Roman society because the characters behave contrary to the norms of ordinary life. She examines in detail the roles of the clever slave and the dowered wife in Casina. The prominence of slave tricksters in plays reflects the large influx of slaves into Rome that occurred during late third and early second centuries BCE. Rei finds that anxiety about possible economic empowerment of women runs parallel to an anxiety concerning the empowerment of slaves. The comedies, however, ultimately reinforce existing social arrangements, which ensure social equilibrium.

In “Women, Slaves, and the Hierarchies of Domestic Violence: The family of St Augustine,” P. Clark focuses on the ways in which the representation of domestic violence is determined by cultural assumptions about slavery, women, and violence. She investigates how slavery reinforced violence against women, which was an integral part of Roman culture. The most comprehensive and explicit description of domestic violence is found in the Confessions of St. Augustine. She compares the Augustinian material to older Roman literature on domestic relationships and finds pervasive and enduring Roman attitudes toward women and violence. Domestic violence was directed toward the vulnerable and was used to preserve the hierarchies of gender, status and age.

In “Mastering Corruption: Constructions of Identity in Roman Oratory,” J. Connolly examines the de-stabilizing presence of women and slaves in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, a treatise on oratorical training. She finds that the practice of declamation demonized both women and slaves in order to promote an ideal representation of the Roman male citizen. Connolly reaches a conclusion similar to other authors in this collection in that she finds that rhetorical pedagogy acted as a moralizing justification of the existing social order.

In “Loyal Slaves and Loyal Wives: The Crisis of the Outsider-within and Roman exemplum literature,” H. Parker examines a series of stories about loyalty and betrayal by slaves and wives, which show a consistent set of narrative patterns. These provide testimony to the ambiguous position shared by slaves and wives in Roman society. The stories embody societal values and offer revealing conceptions of slave and wife, master and husband. These tales of loyal slaves and loyal wives contributed to the husband’s authority, first by granting him fame and honor for the loyalty and by offering a model to other slaves and wives.

In ” Servitium Amoris: Amor Servitii,” K. McCarthy concentrates on the ways in which slaves and women in elegy illuminate both the powers and the vulnerabilities of the elegists in their relation to peers, inferiors, and superiors. She examines the elegies of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Elegy plays around with the hierarchies that shaped the relationships between men and women, between masters and slaves, and among elite men. She argues that the practice of objectifying slaves and women created in the minds of elite men images of the outsiders that were powerful yet obscure. McCarthy concludes that the objectification of slaves and women central to elegy maintains practices and values that were accepted as cultural norms.

In “Remaining Invisible: The Archaeology of the Excluded in Classical Athens,” I. Morris investigates the archaeological remains of the silver mining area around Thorikos in rural Attica, a known site of slave habitation. Most of the slaves came from Asia Minor and the Balkans, areas with distinct ceramic and housing traditions. He, therefore, expects to find evidence of these native features in the archaeological remains. Similarly, because ancient literary sources indicate that Athenian houses were divided into women’s quarters and men’s quarters, he expects to find correlates in the excavation of Athenian houses. In both cases, however, the evidence for slaves and women is lacking. Morris posits that the mainstream material culture of Athens (read Male culture) was too pervasive and thus slaves and women were effectively silenced. Furthermore, Morris imparts intentionality to this silence on the part of the male citizenry, stating that the excluded remain invisible because the dominant male citizens wanted them so. He does admit, though, that there might remain evidence of women and slaves to be found through improved excavation methods. For example, a detailed study of the forms and find spots of the plain pottery from the area of slave habitation in Thorikos might, indeed, lead to information about those slaves, and a thorough examination of floor deposits in future excavations of domestic complexes might yield results relating to women.

In “Cracking the Code of Silence: Athenian Legal Oratory and the Histories of Slaves and Women,” S. Johnstone studies Athenian legal speeches for their representations of the conflict between citizen men; slaves and women. The slaves and women, of course are silent because they are marginal. They appear only in relationship to the free men who were the subjects of the legal stories. Johnstone, therefore, undertakes to “interrogate the silences”. He concludes that as one of the best sources of Athenian social history, legal speeches must be investigated for their silences.

In “Notes on a Membrum Disiectum,” S. Butler investigates an entry from the Prodigiorum Liber, a catalogue of events that were recognized and expiated as prodigies by Rome from 190 to 11 BCE. One prodigy reads, “A slave of Quintus Servilius Caepio castrated himself in honor of the Idaean Mother and was shipped away across the sea, that he might never return to Rome.” (Obsequens 44a). Butler presents five notes on the separate words and phrases of which the slave’s record is composed in order to discover if the entry is from a slave or only an official communication as it appeared on the parent record ( tabula dealbata). The five notes are comprised of: servus (history); Q.Servilii Caepionis (prosopography); Matri[s] Idaeae (religion); se praecidit (the body); et trans mare exportatus ne umquam Romae reverteretur (gender).

The collection of essays is somewhat idiosyncratic, reflecting as it does the interests of the individual speakers on the WCC panel. But it is valuable nonetheless for offering current thinking and investigations into areas that remain even today under-studied and under-represented in scholarship on Classical society. An extensive bibliography, adequate index and short biographies of each contributor completes the book.