BMCR 2021.02.30

Slaves and masters in the ancient novel

, , , Slaves and masters in the ancient novel. Ancient narrative. Supplementum, 23. Eelde: Barkhuis, 2019. Pp. xvii, 282. ISBN 9789492444196 €95,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Slaves and Masters in the Ancient Novel features a selection of intriguing contributions that were originally delivered as papers in occasion of the 7th Rethymnon International Conference on the Ancient Novel (RICAN 7), organized in 2013 by the volume editors Michael Paschalis and Stelios Panayotakis. The present volume is to be placed within the largerframework of the Ancient Narrative Supplementa series, constantly advancing scholarship on pivotal themes in Greek and Roman fiction.

As Costas Panayotakis remarks in the Introduction, the ubiquitous presence of slaves in Greek and Roman society is not matched with an equal prominence in ancient literature. Nevertheless, the Graeco-Roman novelistic narratives can provide important insights into the complex dynamics between slaves and masters, for two reasons: (1) by the time they were circulating, slavery was a highly debated topic; (2) these novels abound in slave characters, as well as in references to captivity and oppression, both in a very real and metaphorical sense. Both aspects underpin the ensuing chapters, even if in diverse and uneven ways.

Fluidity of social status is the thematic fulcrum of the first three chapters. John Hilton (Ch.1) ties it to the female protagonists of the Greek novels, highlighting the tendency to dwell more on their experience, despite the presence of enslaved elite characters of both sexes. The novels’ heroines embody concerns mirroring historical reality (like the tainted production of legitimate heirs), blended with literary models that range, as expertly shown, from what is easily identified as tragedy to the less expected orations of Dio Chrysostom. Additionally, Hilton explores how the heroines’ use of their marriageability to re-obtain freedom reflected a path known to be open to some female slaves. However, his broader conclusion that ancient fiction gave a voice to the enslaved seems undermined by his own remark that such works never questioned slavery and treated it with empathy only when elite characters were involved. Status changes are also Koen De Temmerman’s premises when discussing the impact of slavery and eugeneia (noble birth) in the speeches and behaviours of the characters in the Greek novel (Ch.2). Failure to respect the clear-cut distinction imposed between them by nature and fate results in a pejorative characterization. However, the elite characters’ enslavement renders slavery a rhetorical device and psychological weapon to pursue the protagonists’ agendas as well as a prime theme in their soliloquies. De Temmerman rightly maintains that, insisting on the enslaved eugeneia, the canonical Greek novels intentionally blur this contrast ‘in playful, paradoxical and ambiguous ways’ (p.33). Then, William M. Owens explores enslavement and freedom as he shifts the focus onto readership, arguing that Chariton’s work was enjoyed by ex-slaves too (Ch.3). Owens acutely illustrates that, in recounting the first part of his plot, Chariton devised a double narrative. The explicit one, duly describing the experience of slavery from the masters’ perspective, appears interwoven with a second, more subtle one, made up of ‘silences and inconsistencies’ (p.38), where ex-slave readers could find a critical view on the otherwise rarely questioned attitudes of masters towards their subordinates. Moreover, Owens claims, the second part of the story, where the protagonists regain their freedom, would have been cathartic for readers who had experienced slavery.

No overarching elements are present in the following essays. Stephen M. Trzaskoma concentrates on the essential role played by slavery in Xenophon’s novel. Trzaskoma shows that due to Habrocomes and Anthia’s numerous changes of ownership, enslavement permeates every book of the Ephesiaka, with the protagonists’ servile condition protracted much longer than that of any other Greek romance’s main character. The couple also tends to fall into slavery together, creating what Trzaskoma labels a ‘complementarity’ (p.61) between the protagonists. This shared and (almost) perpetual slavery traces patterns revealing Xenophon’s coherent structuring of the plot and gives a heroic and romantic texture to the protagonists’ bond. Next, Ken Dowden’s chapter (Ch. 5), along with its appendix, offers an account of the range of servile terminology in the Greek novel, and use thereof. If his statistics attribute the highest servile appearances to Iamblichos’ Babyloniaka, where they are in a surprisingly exact accordance with legal, social and historical reality, Dowden argues that slavery is not organic to its plot and provides a sharp explanation: due to the oriental setting of the novel, slavery becomes an ancillary element, replaced by despotism as the main threat of the plot. Surveying the slave characters of Leukippe and Clitophon, and the relationships with their masters, Alain Billault (Ch.6) underlines on the other hand the presence of literary echoes with New Comedy; he concludes however that reality also had a considerable impact on the description of the servile condition. This claim, which takes into account the servile threat of punishment and Leukippe’s change of identity after the enslavement, is almost exclusively dependent on an interpretation advanced by Patterson,[1] without engaging with further scholarship or ancient sources other than the Greek novel. Ewen Bowie (Ch. 7) foregrounds the exceptionality of Daphnis and Chloe with its shrunk cast, in which human characters are somewhat replaced by animals. After shrewdly proving their Theocritean inspiration and substantial role in the plot, Bowie turns to the servile terminology. It is only when he paints a compelling bigger picture at the end of the chapter that the combination of animals and slaves in the spotlight gains meaning:  their treatment in the novel hides allusions to Roman culture and power, through which Longus might be cryptically criticizing Roman domination.

The last contributions on the Greek novel are devoted to Heliodorus’ Ethiopika. Silvia Montiglio explores the absence of helping slaves in this novel, which mostly features servants of questionable moral fibre (Ch.8). Montiglio cleverly makes sense of these marked exceptions through the lens of geography and genres: these slaves reflect the corrupt moral landscape of Athens. As the plot moves to Ethiopia (which looks more like a Utopia, as Montiglio notes) slaves become figures to be neglected, while the Ethiopika abandons comic conventions for a more tragic and epic inspiration. Finally, John Morgan and Ian Repath (Ch. 9) focus on slavery as a metaphor of love, through the relationship of Thisbe and Cybele with their respective mistresses. The mistresses’ lust, aided by unworthy slaves, reverses the slave-master dynamics and shows interplays with the tragic figure of Phaidra. This full subjection to passion is shown to contrast with the chaste protagonists, whose love is the platonic one of the dialogue Phaidros.

John Bodel (Ch.10) inaugurates the section on Latin novels, drawing attention to the freedmen’s speeches delivered in Petronius’ Satyricon (Sat. 41.9-46). Bodel illustrates that these table-talk samples are arranged symmetrically in contrasting pairs, gaining length while we move towards the end of the exchange. Moreover, seen against the backdrop of the manumission vignettes preceding the conversation, they would confirm the traditional idea that the Cena Trimalchionis encapsulates Petronius’ attack on freedmen and the inescapable mark of slavery. Costas Panayotakis (Ch.11) concentrates on the relationship between (mostly) male slaves and masters, with a particular view to servile beauty, in Petronius. The chapter accepts Encolpius’ free status and underlines how he resorts to slavery when his free condition puts him in jeopardy. This gives slavery a new declination, as an occasional positive ace up the sleeve, and places the Satyricon in a low-life world where social boundaries are quite permeable. On this note, the chapter’s second point illustrates how the relationships among good-looking slaves and their masters sometimes reverses the slave-master dynamics. Finally, the analysis of the terms employed to identify slaves and describe their physical appearance during the Cena episode proves Trimalchio’s influence on Encolpius’ narration and the frequent pairing of slavery and attractiveness—something unimaginable for the Greek novel. Panayotakis’ contribution, due to its richness, may at first sight look overly complex, but so is the multifaceted idea of slavery expressed in the Satyricon.

Regine May (Ch. 12) diverts attention to Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, analysing specifically the relationship between Lucius and Photis. As this emotional tie differs from the mere sexual attraction of Lukios and Palaistra in the Onos, scholars previously juxtaposed Photis and the mistresses of love elegy. However, May deftly demonstrates the inadequacy of this exclusive definition challenging Photis’ elegiac traits as highlighted by Hindermann.[2] Showing that they carry stronger Plautine echoes too and adding further evidence to her point, May places the ancilla at the crossroads between elegiac mistress and comedic courtesan, as a marker of Apuleius’ generic polyphony. Michael Paschalis (Ch.13) compares the linguistic choices of Apuleius and Pseudo-Lucian in addressing slaves and masters. The chapter strongly re-evaluates the only apparently plain style of the Onos. If, when mentioning slaves, Apuleius uses synonyms indifferently, the Pseudo-Lucian oscillates between therapon, pais and oiketes to evoke precise semantic associations (sporting, curing, domestic contexts) which are functional to the plot. A similar case is argued for the masterly terminology and its distribution, revealing a greater prominence in the Onos. Paschalis is aware of the intrinsic difficulty that the complicated relationship between the Metamorphoses and the Onos entails, and therefore reminds us that, while an analysis of the linguistic choices is viable, no bigger factual conclusions can be drawn in terms of slave-master relationships.

Jeremy B. Lefkowitz’s discussion of the Life of Aesop (Ch. 14) closes the volume with an argument for the presence of a double vision of the Aesopic storytelling whose watershed is the author’s manumission. While still a slave, Aesop’s wisdom relies on improvisation and non-verbal communication. Once freed, however, this asset of impromptu expedients is discarded for a set of fixed and prepared stories. Lefkowitz skilfully identifies the meta-literary unfolding of this replacement, resembling the path of fables, from oral tradition to literary authority as a genre.

In its totality, the volume presents an array of thought-provoking contributions. It generates a richer understanding of slave-master dynamics, even if some of the chapters focus on these groups separately rather than targeting their interactions. In particular, the collection is extremely valuable in enhancing the hermeneutic of slavery and mastery as metaphorical and symbolical tools. The prominence of enslaved characters in the discussed novels may well constitute an inroad into servile perspectives, as noted in some chapters. How this enslaved voice is to be safely excavated from these texts (and separated from the masters’ perspectives) is not consistently tackled though. There exists also a level of analytical naivety in matching without much ado narrative tropes with reality, especially given that the narrated slavery is regularly ephemeral and ‘softened’, as in many of the examples in the Greek novel. Notwithstanding the diversity of the themes discussed, there could have been greater dialogue between the different contributions—a desideratum in many edited volumes. And with the Greek novels taking the lion’s share (nine initial chapters and a final one on the Life of Aesop), a few additional contributions on the Latin counterpart would have been desirable, for a more balanced result. Finally, as some of the chapters explore the same novels, it would have been advisable to have a coherent orthography of their titles and protagonists’ names.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Costas Panayotakis
1. The Role of Gender and Sexuality in the Enslavement and Liberation of Female Slaves in the Ancient Greek romances, John Hilton
2. Noble Slaves: the Rhetoric of Social Status Reversal in the Ancient Greek Novel, Koen De Temmerman
3. Callirhoe: A Therapeutic Slave Narrative, William M. Owens
4. Slavery and Structure in Xenophon of Ephesus, Stephen M. Trzaskoma
5. Slavery and Despotism in Iamblichos’ Babyloniaka, Ken Dowden
6. Achilles Tatius, Slaves and Masters, Alain Billault
7. Animals, Slaves and Masters in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Ewen Bowie
8. They get by without a little Help from their Slaves: The Exceptional Destiny of Chariclea and Theagenes, Silvia Montiglio
9. Mistress and Servant-women, and the Slavery and Mastery of Love in Heliodorus, John Morgan and Ian Repath
10. Liber esto: Free Speech at the Banquet of Trimalchio, John Bodel
11. Slavery and Beauty in Petronius, Costas Panayotakis
12. Apuleius’ Photis: Comic Slave or Elegiac Mistress?, Regine May
13. Masters and Slaves in pseudo-Lucian Onos and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Michael Paschalis
14. Reading the Aesopic Corpus: Slavery, Freedom and Storytelling in the Life of Aesop, Jeremy B. Lefkowitz


[1] Patterson, O. 1982, Slavery and Social Death, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[2] Hindermann, J. 2009, Der elegische Esel. Apuleius’ Metamorphosen und Ovids Ars amatoria. Frankfurt am Mein: Peter Lang.