BMCR 2012.04.18

Reading Ancient Slavery

, , , Reading Ancient Slavery. London; New York: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. x, 235. ISBN 9780715638682. $40.00 (pb).

This volume contains eleven papers originally presented at a conference on ancient slavery and its legacy held at Royal Holloway and the British Library to celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Colonies in 1807. The essays tackle the difficult problem of recovering slave voices and agency from evidence (ancient literature and art) that by its nature obscures those very perspectives. While some essays are more successful than others, as a whole they attest to the ingenious efforts of current scholars to read ancient literature ‘against the grain’ and ‘make silence speak.’

The first paper, R. Alston’s “Re-reading Ancient Slavery,” demonstrates the pervasive influence of Marxist thought on twentieth-century interpretations of ancient slavery. Alston argues for a new approach that moves away from questions of whether ancient Athens and Rome were “slave societies” and whether ancient slaves had class consciousness. Alston rightly argues that the Marxist concept of a slave mode of production does not accurately describe the economy of classical Athens or Rome since free smallholders seem to have played a significant role alongside slaves. Alston suggests that analysis should shift both from agricultural labor to all labor, including domestic labor, and from economic production to social reproduction. In particular, Alston stresses the role of slaves in the ancient household, and the ways that household labor of slaves contributed to economic and social (re)productivity. It should be noted that scholars like Keith Bradley have already shifted scholarly interest towards the social and political aspects of ancient slavery, not just its role in the economy.1 Nevertheless, Alston places useful emphasis on the overlap between the occupations of slave and free in agriculture and craft production. Also helpful is his argument that slave resistance that fell short of full-scale rebellion nevertheless disrupted “the systems of domination” and therefore constituted evidence of meaningful opposition to slavery as a system, not just to individual slaves’ personal experience of enslavement.

Patrice Rankine suggests that the idea of Odysseus as slave lurks behind many scenes in Homer’s Odyssey. Relying on Orlando Patterson’s definition of slavery as the forceful domination of an individual who is denied a social identity—is “socially dead”—Rankine argues that Odysseus illustrates these features of slavery in three scenes: the encounter with Calypso, his visit to Phaeacia, and the story of the love of Ares and Aphrodite. In the last episode, Rankine argues that the capture and domination of the mighty Ares by Hephaestus in the Song of Demodocus suggests the potential for Odysseus to be captured and dominated like a slave. A simpler and less tortured analysis, however, might be that Demodocus’ song serves as comic relief after the tense competition between Odysseus and the Phaeacian youths.

Leanne Hunnings argues that Homer’s Odyssey is an imaginative precursor of slave-management manuals of the classical antiquity such as Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Cato’s De Agricultura, as well as the many such handbooks produced in the antebellum American South. Hunnings suggests that various passages in the Odyssey instruct the slave owner on how to reward and punish slaves so as to extract good service from them. Eumaeus and the errant serving-women, naturally, serve as exemplars of the two endpoints of the spectrum of slave behaviors and their management. Hunnings makes a number of excellent observations about the ways that Eumaeus internalizes the slave owners’ ideology, although she perhaps ought to have stressed that even Eumaeus does not conform to the ‘socially dead’ slave of Orlando Patterson’s classic definition. Unlike the non-Greek slaves of classical Athens, slaves in the Odyssey have a social identity. For example, the social origins of both Eumaeus and Eurykleia are known, and each enjoyed certain privileges as a result.

William Thalmann argues persuasively that representations of slaves on Greek vases and Hellenistic figurines served to reinforce ideologies of slavery among the free, and especially to naturalize the inferiority of the slave. Thalmann shows that slaves were often depicted as smaller in size than their masters, as well as physically deformed or at least crouching or twisting their bodies in poses that diverged from the upright citizen posture idealized by Aristotle. In addition, slaves were often represented engaging in menial labor—for example, carrying objects for their masters, or bent low working at a furnace of a foundry. While much of this is familiar, Thalmann also interestingly explores how slaves might have reacted to such depictions. Thalmann wisely leaves the possibilities open, noting, for example, that slaves viewing a hydria showing (probably) Thracian slave women carrying water from the fountain might either choose to celebrate the fact that such slave labor is an object of interest to the free who were the primary consumers of such objects, or—more pessimistically—be confirmed in their subjectivity.

A final interesting interpretation offered by Thalmann is the idea that some Greek vases depict not only differences in status between free and slave, but also between elite and humble laborers ( banausoi). Thalmann makes such a case for the famous depiction of the foundry on an early fifth-century kylix, on which differences in size, clothing and activity appear to distinguish between the leisured elite onlookers and the free and slave laborers. If this interpretation is correct, then Thalmann provides visual evidence for a common class perspective between slaves and the mass of ordinary citizens the ancient Greek polis. This visual evidence correlates well with the increasing recognition among scholars that free citizens often toiled alongside their slaves in menial occupations, despite the ideal distinctions between slave and free in our elite sources.2

Kelly Wrenhaven examines representations of the slave body in literature and art and argues that both positive and negative representations served the purposes of the master. Against Joseph Vogt, who saw representations of good and ‘faithful’ slaves as indicative of the recognition of the humanity of the slave, Wrenhaven argues that the representation of well-behaved and good-looking slaves served to illustrate the master’s wealth, prestige and good taste. Representations of ‘ugly’ (or non-Greek) slaves on, the other hand, only pointed up the ‘beauty’ (or Greekness) of the master. Interesting and horrifying, in this regard, is the phenomenon of deformed or handicapped slaves, who were apparently prized for their ability to entertain at dinner parties. Wrenhaven even speculates that there was a specialized market for malformed slaves, namely the Kerkopon agora, named after the Kerkopes, or monkey-like thieves in the Heracles myth.

Boris Nikolsky examines the significance of the theme of slavery in Euripides’ satyr play, Cyclops. Nikolsky indentifies two fundamental meanings to the idea of slavery—one relational and the other moral. In the relational sense, both Odysseus and the satyrs are slaves in so far as they are subject to violence and coercion at the hands of the Cyclops. In the moral sense, Odysseus and the satyrs are distinct, since the former has the moral qualities of the freeborn, while the satyrs are inherently slavish. Indeed, even after liberation from the Cyclops, the satyrs remain slaves in a moral sense, though now they are slaves of Dionysus. Nikolsky associates these relationships with various ideologies and political debates under the Athenian democracy, particularly the ideological contrast between slave and free, but also the distinction between different groups among the free, namely the chrestoi and poneroi, between whom critics of the Athenian democracy made firm distinctions in the late fifth and early fourth centuries.

Sara Monoson argues that, despite its repugnant nature, there is nothing philosophically inconsistent or unsound in Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery. Following the lead of such scholars as Richard Kraut and Malcolm Schofield, Monoson suggests that Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery fits both his discussion of citizenship and of political constitutions. For Aristotle, rule of a state and rule of a slave are different in kind, not just in degree. True statesmanship involves rational deliberation, and citizens are those who partake of the work of politics by ruling and being ruled in turn. Slaves, whose capacity for reason is deficient by nature, are capable only of the sort of practical reason that is involved in mastering a craft. Nevertheless, by pairing up with a fully rational master, slaves not only create the material conditions that allow the master to engage in civic life, but also gain the opportunity to exercise modest virtues of their own, such as temperance and courage. The ideal state for Aristotle is one in which only those fully capable of rational deliberation are citizens. Lest we consider that Aristotle’s classification of non-Greek ‘barbarians’ is irrational and racist, Monoson adds that this argument was based on empirical observation, namely the fact that barbarians tolerated despotic rule in contrast to the Greeks who struggled to develop their political knowledge and their democratic (or at least constitutional) forms of rule.

Monoson’s heroic attempt to rescue Aristotle’s argument from its critics is largely persuasive. The main sticking point, however, is not the philosophical consistency of the theory, but its willful denial of full rationality to slaves. Furthermore, Monoson seems to soften the moral repugnancy of Aristotle’s theory by suggesting that slaves can develop moral capacities (a master “supplies rational direction and a pathway to participation in excellence” p. 135). A natural slave can become a better slave, it seems, but he can never have the opportunity to develop political rationality of the citizen and thus earn the philosophical credentials needed, according to Aristotle’s theory of citizenship, to shed his slave status. A natural slave is therefore a slave for life, on Aristotle’s theory, despite the more optimistic vision offered by Monoson.

Laura Profitt uses Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism to suggest that the slave characters of Menander’s Epitrepontes articulate critiques of slavery and impulses towards transgression of status boundaries that are not wholly muted by the ‘authoritative’ voices of free characters. Contrary to much recent scholarship (e.g., by D. Konstan, S. Lape and K. McCarthy), Proffitt argues that Menander’s comedy articulated alternative worldviews— specifically those of slaves—that destabilized rather than reinforced the dominant ideology of free slave-owners. If Proffitt is correct that comedy had the potential to undercut hegemonic discourses of the dominant classes, then one must further ask why those dominant classes were willing to tolerate it. This is not a question she asks—and indeed it would be difficult to answer—but it does seem to demand a response.

William Fitzgerald argues that although Latin literature silences slaves by embracing them within the worldviews of the slave-owners, nevertheless this literature “allows itself to be read from the perspective of its own blind-spots.” For example, in Horace Satire I, the perspective of a slave is reproduced as Horace compares himself to a “resentful ass,” the allegorical equivalent of a slave in fables, who is compelled to listen to a man who buttonholes him as he walks on the Via Sacra. Even more remarkably, the slave Lygdamis appears prominently in the drama played out between Propertius and Cynthia in Propertius 3.6. Fitzgerald suggests that the obsessive repetition of Lygdamis’ name reveals an anxiety about slavery, specifically whether a slave can be a reliable intermediary between himself and his lover. In this way, the tensions inherent in the system of slavery become apparent – the tension between the ideology of slavery that denies the humanity of slaves, and the reality that slaves are human, and not mere extensions of the will of their masters.

Deborah Kamen examines examples of slave resistance and agency in Martial’s epigrams. She shows that the poet represents slaves resisting, and even refusing, the sexual advances of their masters. In addition, some (male) slaves play the active sexual role, buggering their own masters in a way that apparently destabilizes the sexual politics of slavery. Yet Kamen shows that the slave only resists and refuses the master as part of a sexual game in which the master is turned on by the “Saturnalia of the bedroom.” In the case of slaves as active partners in a sexual relationship, the slave is merely a “tool in Martial’s invective toolkit.” In other words, the theme of a master being sexually dominated by their own slave serves to discredit the master, not to empower the slave.

The volume ends with an essay by Edith Hall, who provides a fascinating overview of the evidence for slaves’ dreams in Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica). Hall suggests that this work reveals unparalleled evidence for the experiences and psychological state of slaves. For example, many dreams are interpreted from the perspective of the trusted slave, whose dreams seem to betray an anxiety about losing the trust of the master or mistress. More optimistically, other slave dreams suggest a preoccupation among slaves with the hope of freedom. Perhaps even more significantly, Hall argues that the fact that slaves’ dreams are taken seriously alongside the dreams of the free means that Artemidorus acknowledged the common humanity of slaves and free. His interpretations moreover, suggest that he considered slaves to be motivated by the same anxieties about status (though with different starting point) as the free.

In sum, these essays provide much interesting material and raise provocative, if not always convincing, interpretations. Scholars of ancient slavery, as well as of ancient literature, philosophy and art, will find much to think about in this very worthwhile collection.


1. See e.g., Keith Bradley Slavery and Society at Rome, Cambridge, 1994, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire. A Study in Social Control, Oxford 1987 and Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.-70 B.C. Indiana, 1998.

2. See for example, A. Bresson L’économie de la Grèce des cités. Paris, 2007; Harris, E. M. 2002. “Workshop, Marketplace and Household. The nature of technical specialization in classical Athens and its influence on economy and society” in P. Cartledge et al. eds. Money, Labour and Land. Approaches to the economies of ancient Greece. London. 67-99; K. Vlassopoulos 2007. “Free Spaces: Identity, Experience and Democracy in Classical Athens” Classical Quarterly 57 (2007) 33-52 and “Slavery, freedom and citizenship in classical Athens: beyond a legalistic approach” European Review of History 16 (2009) 347-363.