Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Kelly L. Wrenhaven, Reconstructing the Slave: the Image of the Slave in Ancient Greece. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 195. ISBN 9780715638026. $80.00.

Reviewed by Deborah Kamen, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site

In this book, Kelly Wrenhaven aims to reconstruct "the ideology of Greek slavery" (5). Rather than attempting to piece together a "historical reality" (5), she examines literary and visual representations of slaves, which, she argues convincingly, were informed by a desire to naturalize and justify the institution of slavery.

In the short introduction (9pp.), Wrenhaven concisely lays out the aims and parameters of her study. Focusing on evidence primarily from fifth- and fourth-century Athens (with occasional forays into earlier periods and other poleis), she also draws parallels with the American South where appropriate. What is most novel about Wrenhaven's approach is that she does not restrict herself to one medium: she surveys representations of slaves in multiple genres of literature (philosophy, oratory, drama, historiography, etc.) as well as in multiple types of material culture (vase paintings, funerary reliefs, figurines, etc.). The only thing I found lacking in the introduction was an explicit acknowledgement of other work done in this field: although she does cite a few recent works on the ideology of the "Other,"1 there is little discussion of how (if at all) she sees her work interacting with other scholarship on the ideology of Greek slavery.

Chapter 1, "The Language of Slavery," examines the role of language in representing slaves. In the first section, Wrenhaven explains the connotations of the most common terms for "slave" (doulos, andrapodon, oiketês, and pais), arguing that this range of terminology illustrates the Greeks' multifaceted conception of slaves. She turns next to the ways in which slaves are represented speaking in Greek literature. Since the stereotypical slave was a foreigner, Wrenhaven looks first at how the Greeks viewed foreign languages and peoples more broadly and then turns to the representation of barbarian slaves in Attic drama, discussing (among other examples) the Phrygian slave in Euripides' Orestes and the Scythian archer in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousai. She argues that drama's representation of slave speech—including, e.g., boisterous shouts, stilted or simple language, and accented Greek—reveals a conception of slaves as "socially dead" (31). This argument is perhaps better supported by the next section, in which she argues that the renaming of slaves by their new masters removed the slave's former identity (and along with it, his or her kin affiliations) and imposed a new one. Wrenhaven also points out the significance of slaves' new names: some suggest a foreign origin (even if it does not reflect the slave's true origins), thus painting the slave as a barbarian, whereas others draw upon personal characteristics, generally traits that masters wished their slaves would possess (e.g., Ergophilos, Parmenon). In her examination of addresses to and from slaves, Wrenhaven finds that whereas slaves generally address free people by name or by title, free people most often refrain from addressing slaves by name. Comedy provides an exception to this rule, but she suggests that here names may be used to reinforce slaves' foreign origins.

Chapter 2, "The Slave Body," explores representations of the slave body in literature and art. To contextualize this topic, she begins, wisely, by first discussing the Greeks' beliefs that one's character was reflected in one's appearance (i.e., physiognomy) and that the environment in which one was born and grew up affected one's body and character (i.e., environmental determinism). She then argues that in contrast to kalokagathia, the moral and physical goodness characteristic of elites, slaves (and others considered slavish, like free laborers) were thought to manifest in their bodies a sort of "reversed kalokagathia," visible in their engagement in menial labor, their quick gait, and their lack of self-control and tendency toward drunkenness. Wrenhaven next argues that the slave's body was considered "fit for abuse" (63), and that the divide between slave and free bodies was both reflected in and reinforced through legally sanctioned violence, including judicial torture (basanos) and the whipping and rape of one's own slaves.2 (Although legal penalties existed for the killing or hubristic treatment of slaves, Wrenhaven rightly points out that in practice they offered the slave little protection.) Finally, Wrenhaven turns to identifying slaves in Greek art. She first identifies a number of (mostly) derogatory markers of slave status, including small size and barbarian features (e.g., light-colored or reddish hair, non-Greek ethnic features, dark skin, tattoos). She then demonstrates that some slaves are depicted in a more idealizing light, reflecting their benefit to their masters: so, e.g., relatively attractive (projecting sexiness and advertising their masters' wealth); matronly (good for wet-nursing); or even deformed(!) (good for entertainment). Somewhat surprisingly, Wrenhaven does not engage in this discussion with Nikolaus Himmelmann's Archäologisches zum Problem der griechischen Sklaverei (Mainz 1971), the canonical study of slave iconography in Greek art.3

In chapter 3, "The Good Slave," Wrenhaven argues that even positive representations of slaves serve to naturalize and rationalize the institution of slavery. One might have expected more discussion here of the work of William Thalmann, who has long argued that the ancients held in their minds simultaneously a "benevolent" and a "suspicious" model of slavery, both of which served to justify the institution.4 Much of this chapter deals with representations of domestic slaves on Attic tombstones, beginning with tombstones memorializing slaves. After describing how to identify slave-nurses (the archetypal good slaves) in tomb reliefs—in addition to physical characteristics, the occupation "nurse" or the standard good-slave epithet chrêstê are sometimes included in accompanying inscriptions—Wrenhaven points out that these representations convey an affectionate and almost familial connection between the good slave and her master or mistress, as well as the slave's usefulness. Wrenhaven continues with a brief discussion of funerary representations of the slave-nurse's male counterpart, the paidagôgos, to whom many fewer memorials were erected. Turning next to domestic slaves depicted on their masters' or mistresses' tombstones, she offers up additional visual criteria for their identification (e.g., performing loyal service and expressing sorrow at their masters' passing; for female slaves, holding out boxes or providing infant care; for male slaves, holding flasks or strigils). Explaining the function of these representations, she contends that slaves (and the items they carry) are included primarily in order to advertise their masters' wealth, leisure, and kalokagathia. Next, Wrenhaven demonstrates the ways in which Athenian tragedy explores the complex relationship between the good slave and her master. Surveying good slaves in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Sophocles' Women of Trachis, and Euripides' Hippolytus, Andromache, and Medea, Wrenhaven finds that all of these representations illustrate the paradox that the more intimate a good slave is with her master or mistress, the greater the potential she has to give bad advice or be disloyal. Wrenhaven then briefly examines the figure of the good slave in comedy and oratory, comparing her to the "mammy" figure in the American South. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of what Wrenhaven calls "the collectible nurse" (123). Examining late Classical and early Hellenistic terracotta figurines of nurses, who consistently have kind, wrinkled faces and flabby, hunched bodies, she contends that this representation (itself very similar, she points out, to representations of Aunt Jemima) reflects precisely the features one wanted in a wet-nurse.

In the final chapter, "War Captives and the Natural Slave: Euripides and Aristotle on Slavery," Wrenhaven argues that even though there was never anything like an abolition movement in ancient Greece, a cultural dialogue did exist about the "naturalness" of slavery. Since Euripides and Aristotle provide particularly good testimony for this dialogue, she begins, chronologically, by looking at the representation of war captives in Euripides' Trojan War plays.5 Unlike other slaves discussed thus far, the female war captive emphasizes her formerly free status and noble origins, lamenting her current (unnatural) status as a slave. By representing, often alongside one another, both slaves by convention and slaves by nature—e.g., Andromache and her nameless loyal slave, respectively—Euripides demonstrates, on the one hand, that fortune is volatile (i.e., anyone can become a slave), on the other, that a change in status does not necessarily produce a change in one's nature (since the enslaved Andromache remains in a sense noble). Ultimately, Wrenhaven argues, Euripides uses the figure of the war captive to voice a challenge to a number of deeply entrenched dichotomies, including freedom/slavery, Greek/barbarian, human/animal, and male/female. She contends that Aristotle, by contrast, reifies and defends precisely these dichotomies by setting up a rigid divide between natural and conventional slaves (while still, of course, conceding some exceptions). Aristotle's arguments about the natural slave, she argues, are best understood when viewed not in light of the "reality" of slavery but in light of Greek ideology: in this way, we can see that in constructing his ideal "natural slave," Aristotle assimilates Greek ideas about, for example, physiognomy, environmental determinism, the "good slave," the "bad slave," the slave as tool, and the slave as animal. Although there is no concluding chapter to the book, the case study of Aristotle serves as a conclusion of sorts, since it is in his relatively brief treatment of slavery that the disparate elements of Greek ideology discussed in this book come together.

The text is lucidly written and almost entirely free of errors.6 I spotted only a handful of typographic mistakes and inconsistencies in transliterated Greek. Although more engagement with previous scholarship might have been an asset, Wrenhaven makes a valuable contribution to the field: given the breadth of material she covers and the clarity of her prose, her book will be of interest to anyone working on ancient slavery and will make an especially good addition to undergraduate courses on Greek slavery.


1.   In this context she cites, among other works, Cohen 2000. The only Cohen 2000 listed in the bibliography is Edward Cohen's The Athenian Nation (Princeton 2000), but I wonder if she meant to cite Beth Cohen, ed., Not the Classical Ideal (Leiden 2000), a work not included in the bibliography.
2.   Although Page duBois' Torture and Truth (New York 1991) and Virginia Hunter's Policing Athens (Princeton 1993) are both included in the book's bibliography, Wrenhaven cites neither work in this discussion. On slave punishment, see also Hans Klees, Sklavenleben im klassischen Griechenland (Stuttgart 1998), chapter 6 (not in Wrenhaven's bibliography).
3.   See also Sian Lewis, "Slaves as Viewers and Users of Athenian Pottery," Hephaistos 16/17 (1998/9) 71- 90 (not in Wrenhaven's bibliography).
4.   Wrenhaven does mentions Thalmann's idea of the "suspicious model" in a footnote, but cites only his "Female Slaves in the Odyssey" (1998). Neither "Versions of Slavery in the Captivi of Plautus," Ramus 25 (1996) 112-45 nor The Swineherd and the Bow (Ithaca 1998) appear here or in the bibliography.
5.   See also K. Synodinou's On the Concept of Slavery in Euripides (Ioannina 1977) (not in Wrenhaven's bibliography).
6.   So, e.g., the list of Attic manumission inscriptions in 164n.70 omits Agora I 5656 (though it is correctly included in 169-70n.5); and in both notes, Agora I 5893 is included, but perhaps should not be, since it lists dedications of phialai not by freed slaves but by trierarchs.

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