BMCR 2023.02.42

The representation of slavery in the Greek novel: resistance and appropriation

, The representation of slavery in the Greek novel: resistance and appropriation. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 244. ISBN 9780367348755.



In The Repre­senta­tion of Slavery in the Greek Novel Owens presents a thorough investig­ation by an experienced scholar into an aspect of the Greek novels that has previously been taken for granted as merely one of the standard elements of ancient fiction. Instead, Owens presents a refreshing argu­ment that slavery was an impor­tant theme in these novels and he concludes that the two non-sophistic novels (by Xenophon of Ephesus and Chariton) ‘subvert the way the elite thought about slaves’ (p. 2), possibly because they were themselves ex-slaves writing in part for ex-slave readers, and that the later fictions ‘imply an ideological point of view more in con­form­ity with this thinking’ (p. 3). This pre­lim­inary state­ment of the find­ings of the research is later expanded in the conclusion to include two points of specu­lation: that Xeno­phon and Chariton may have been influenced in their repre­sen­tation of slavery by the inclusion of events in Italy and Magna Graecia and ‘Roman practices’ in them (pp. 217-219) and that the neglect of the ancient novels in the history of litera­ture prior to the late twentieth century may have arisen because of their associ­ation with slavery (pp. 219-220).

The last two riders to Owens’ overall thesis are, by his own admission, speculative and are hardly given sufficient space for in-depth argument, but his main contentions are set out in detail in six engrossing chapters. Understandably, by far the most attention is paid to Xenophon (Chapter 1, ‘Ephesiaca: enslavement and folktale’, pp. 27-55) and Chariton (Chapter 2, ‘Callirhoe: narratives of slavery explicit and implied, told and retold’, pp. 56-87), followed by a further chapter on these two works (Chapter 3, ‘Two novels about slavery’, pp. 88-120) that explores the argument further. This takes up almost exactly half of the book, leaving three chapters for Longus (Chapter 4, ‘Daphnis and Chloe: slavery as nature and art’, pp. 121-150), Achilles Tatius (Chapter 5, ‘Slavery and literary play in Leucippe and Clitophon’, pp. 151-184), and Heliodorus (the rather jejune Chapter 6, ‘Aethiopica: love and slavery, philosophy and the novel’, pp. 185-213).

Owens prepares the ground for his argument in the Introduction (pp. 1-26), in which the socio-political context of slavery in the United States and in the ancient world are discussed. Here important notions, such as slavery as social death, the social degradation wrought by oppression, the stereotypes of slaves held by the ruling elite, the covert resistance of slaves to such attitudes and practices, explicit and hidden ‘transcripts’ (and fable, Roman New Comedy, and mime as examples of the latter) are explicated. Owens is well informed about the modern discourse about the history of slavery in the USA and in the ancient world.

Since nothing is known of the actual social status of Xenophon of Ephesus apart from the probability that his name is a pseudonym, Owens’ case for seeing him as an ex-slave writing in part for ex-slaves depends on the sympathy with which he represents the enslavement of the main characters and the prominent role played by the slaves Leucon and Rhode in helping them to survive their ordeals. But does this mean that, by the end of the novel, ‘they have become their former masters’ friends and fellow freedmen’ (p. 49), even though Anthia and Habrocomes have recovered their free, elite status and are again the masters of their erstwhile fellow-slaves (Rhode calls herself and Leucon the οἰκέται of Anthia and Habrocomes at 5.12.5), as Owens also states (p. 46)? At the conclusion of the novel the elite lovers live the lives of ‘those celebrating a festival’ and build expensive tombs for their parents, while Leucon and Rhode are merely described as ‘partners in everything with those with whom they had been raised’ (κοινωνοὶ πάντων τοῖς συντρόφοις, 5.15). Elsewhere (pp. 93-94) Owens argues that Xenophon’s use of folktale motifs, such as the tale of Potiphar’s wife, and oral modes of narration in the Ephesiaca suggest that he had been a slave, but even fables were not the exclusive preserve of slaves and freedmen, as the fable in Hesiod Works and Days 202-212, on the futility of resistance to those in power, shows, despite Hegel’s dictum ‘Im Sklaven vangt die Prosa an’.[1]

There is rather more to go on in the case of Chariton, especially his status as a scribe of the rhetor Athenagoras (Ἀθηναγόρου τοῦ ῥήτορος ὑπογραφεύς, 1.1.1), as Owens convincingly shows (pp. 93 and 113 notes 30-32). Chariton displays a detailed knowledge of the law governing the sale of slaves and its ethical context (1.12, 14, cf. pp. 59 and 81 notes 10-12) and the ‘implicit narrative’ of Callirhoe’s slavery and her dilemma in concealing her marriage to Chaereas, and the supposition of her child on Dionysius, must have made readers of the novel reflect on the circumstances she found herself in. These are, however, not unique moral problems, as the fourteenth and fifteenth discourses of Chariton’s contemporary, Dio Chrysostom, show. Owens reinforces his case by arguing that the prevalence of the Scheintod motif in Chariton and Xenophon, the themes of symmetrical ἔρως and σωφροσύνη, the unheroic heroes of these novels (and at the same time their nobility), and the ambivalence that these authors show towards the ‘bad behaviour’ of the main characters during their ‘enslavement’, would have had a special significance for ex-slaves (pp. 103-110). But again, most of these features are not exclusive to Chariton and Xenophon and can be seen to be at work in Achilles Tatius.

In respect of its treatment of the theme of slavery, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, as often, stands apart from the other novels, and is rather more ambivalent. The status of the main characters is initially obscured, and the violence of ἔρως that is inherent in nature is gradually revealed as part of their erotic education. Soon, however, social violence intrudes into the rural idyll in various forms, culminating in the arrival of the owner Dionysophanes and the revelation of the status of Daphnis as a slave and Chloe as free. Owens argues that it is at this point that the importance of τέχνη πολιτική is made apparent (pp. 137-141) with interventions in the narrative by those from the city that resolve the disparity in social status between the rural lovers. This, according to Owens (pp. 142-143) makes the novel an ἀντιγραφή of how slavery is represented in the other novels, since, although the violence towards slaves is not glossed over, it is justified ideologically as part of a broad cosmic order (p. 143). Nevertheless, Owens argues that, by representing social inequality in Thucydidean terms as the result of arbitrary violence, Longus makes it possible for the modern reader to interpret the narrative as a critique of the inherent injustice of slavery (pp. 144-145). This is Owens’ most balanced and most nuanced chapter.

In Leucippe and Clitophon slavery at first appears to be relegated to the background: the trusted personal slaves of the main characters simply appear without introduction in the narrative (Satyrus and Clio at 1.16.1), their role in the execution of events is glossed over (Clitophon attributes the miraculous rescue of Leucippe entirely to Menelaus at 3.23.1), and they often disappear from the story without explanation (Satyrus is last heard of moving in with Clinias at 7.6.6, well before the concluding events of the novel). However, Owens shows that Clitophon’s dependence on Satyrus lends the slave agency so that he paradoxically assumes a dominant role in events, possibly causing Clitophon to harbour some resentment against him. Melite too is somewhat dependent on her slaves, but her actions in protecting Lacaena/Leucippe from Thersander, and her concern to spare Pasion the consequences of his involvement in the escape of Clitophon from prison, reflect, according to Owens (p. 166) an idealized version of master-slave relations. On the other hand, Thersander is an angry and violent master (p. 173), metaphorically enslaved by his desire for Leucippe, and the confrontation between him and Clitophon in the temple of Artemis (8.1) is full of intertextual allusion and literary play. The echoes of Chariton in Leucippe and Clitophon are ubiquitous, and Achilles draws on his predecessor extensively in his account of Leucippe’s enslavement. However, to argue that Achilles’ treatment of the theme of slavery draws on his own ‘unconscious exercise of the privilege he enjoyed as a slave owner’ (p. 178n3) is speculative, as is Owens’ suggestion that the author is also responsible for the abrupt termination of the novel as narrative ‘payback’ for his ‘self-absorbed narrator’ (p. 178).

Despite the fact that Heliodorus’ Aethiopica is by far the longest of the ancient novels, Owens’ chapter on this novel is the shortest of all. It is becoming increasingly apparent that The Ethiopian Story is a new departure in ancient fiction, informed by very different concerns from those of the earlier novels. A rather greater acknowledgement of this, especially the influence of Neoplatonism (as opposed to Platonism) and Christian ethics was needed in Owens’ analysis, which makes an overneat distinction between higher and lower wisdom at 3.16.3-4 (in which astrology and theurgy show their hand) and the contrast between heavenly love (in the case of Theagenes and Charicleia, with its Christian-like overtones) and the vulgar loves of Demainete and Arsace. To view this distinction as an ‘elite stereotype’ (p. 207) is to miss some of the subtlety of Heliodorus, who portrays Thyamis’ action in putting the two lovers, who had just survived battle against the bandits on the shores of Egypt, on his own horse and that of his guard, while his soldiers walked alongside them to ensure that they did not fall off (1.4.2-3), as imparting a kind of honour on their captivity, since, as a result of their beauty and nobility, the ruler appeared to be the slave and the man in power chose to minister to his captives (δουλεύειν ὁ ἄρχων ἐφαίνετο καὶ ὑπηρετεῖσθαι ὁ κρατῶν τοῖς ἑαλωκόσιν ᾑρεῖτο).

This book demonstrates that slavery does indeed play a significant role in the ideology and artistry of the ancient Greek novels. While it is not without blemish,[2] Owens has produced a careful study of unfree status in the genre. Questions will be raised about the implications of this book for the question of the readership of the ancient novels and the notion of realism in them (especially in minds of the more traditional ancient historians of slavery), but this in-depth investigation of forced labour in ancient fiction contains many useful insights and will make a significant impact.



[1] See the discussion in Patterson, A. 1991. Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 1-12.

[2] On p. x the list of abbreviations is otiose, out of place (it refers to the bibliography), and lacking a number of items (JRS, HSCP, G&R, AJP); Di Virgilio in the bibliography needs to be on its own line; there is an intrusive definite article in ‘exploits the slavery’ (p. 111); ‘tr.’ Should precede ‘Freese’ on p. 139; boukokloi should be boukoloi (p. 161); there is no doubt about the retinue of Menelaus (p. 180n38) as the phrase οἱ ἀμφὶ τὸν Μενέλαον at 3.5.5 shows; and φοινικόπτερον is mis-translated as ‘phoenix’ instead of ‘flamingo’ (p. 196).