Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Sara Forsdyke, Slaves Tell Tales: and Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xv, 275. ISBN 9780691140056. $39.50.

Reviewed by Matthew A. Sears, Wabash College (

Version at BMCR home site


Ancient Greek farmers, craftsmen, and slaves, though comprising the vast majority of the population of any given polis, have left scarcely any trace of their thoughts, desires, or even their actions. Far from the elite producers of literature, art, public works, legal decrees, and honorific inscriptions, these "people without history" are notoriously difficult for the modern student of antiquity to glimpse. While material evidence, from house foundations to loom weights, can shed some light on the everyday lives of such people, Forsdyke turns – paradoxically – to the literature of the elite in order to find vestiges of popular culture. Carefully and cleverly piecing together clues left, often unwittingly, by literary authors, Forsdyke greatly advances our knowledge of both the discourses and the practices of the ancient Greek masses. As she argues, ancient Greek popular culture was deeply political, an essential part of the fabric of the polis.

The book is sensibly organized into three main sections: a lengthy introductory chapter outlining Forsdyke's theoretical and methodological approach, and including a concise list of key arguments; two chapters on "discourses," highlighting case-studies of popular themes and stories preserved in elite literature; and two chapters on "practices," dissecting the form and function of non-elite collective actions within the ancient Greek polis. A short and useful concluding chapter rounds out the book.

Forsdyke spends considerable time in the introduction explaining ways that non-elite popular culture can be glimpsed within elite literary works. Popular culture, as Forsdyke cautions, is hardly a uniform phenomenon, but rather is highly variegated and in most cases a blend of mass and elite cultural forms. The literature of the elite therefore often appropriates the "living" culture of non-elites, and various methods can determine the survival and original meaning of the appropriated material. For example, since popular material is frequently out of place within literature aimed at an elite audience, inconsistencies in the narrative or breaks in the ideological framework can alert scholars to elements from popular culture. Works such as tragedy and comedy that were composed for a mixed audience often include material from folktale, proverb, and other non-elite forms, which likely conveyed very different meanings to mass and elite respectively. To elaborate on this point Forsdyke draws on the work of James Scott, a scholar of contemporary South East Asia, who argues that the lower classes often employ coded forms of speech in the presence of elites whereby seemingly innocuous folktales, fables, and proverbs conceal a subversive political message. Many survivals of popular culture might thus be best understood when viewed as the coded speech of the under-class (14-15).

Forsdyke relies extensively on comparative evidence drawn from historians, anthropologists, and theorists working on a range of non-classical times and places. Most of her comparisons are derived from early modern Europe, the ante-bellum American South, and modern Asia. Though, as Forsdyke concedes, there are certainly great differences between ancient Greece and these other eras, they share important commonalities including the necessity of continual labor to work the land and the importance of measures such as debt-relief in order to quell peasant unrest. By using comparative evidence, Forsdyke aims at – and succeeds in – fleshing out ancient Greek popular culture to an extent that has been impossible on the basis of the ancient sources alone. She also offers ancient Greece as a new data set to contribute to theories of mass-elite interaction in the post-ancient world. Importantly, she shows that since the ancient Greek masses shared many of the same attitudes and practices as peasants, workers, and slaves of other periods, supposed watershed events such as the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern slavery should be viewed as part of a continuous chain of developments in mass-elite relations.

A Chian slave revolt, as reported by Nymphodorus of Syracuse and preserved in Athenaeus, provides the first case study in the section on "discourses." As the story goes, a slave named Drimakos escaped and began an alternative community for other runaway slaves on Chios. He ruled his new slave community justly – if strictly – and the free Chians were forced to concede to his terms. Drimakos, in turn, promised the Chians that he would refuse to accept any runaway slaves that had been treated well by their masters. The Chians, however, eventually set a price on Drimakos' head until he nobly sacrificed himself for the good of both communities. Both free and enslaved Chians subsequently honored Drimakos with a cult. After first arguing that the story as preserved cannot possibly be true, Forsdyke shows how the Drimakos fantasy serves a double purpose. First, in the eyes of the slaves on Chios, Drimakos' revolt and foundation of an alternative society repeats a theme common to folktales, namely the notion of social reversal with slaves on top and masters on the bottom. Forsdyke compares this episode with the widespread peasant theme of utopias of unending holidays where the land produces great bounty of its own accord. Second, this story would also have been relevant to the Chian slave-owners and elite in that it reinforced the preexisting social order, both in the strict governing regime established by Drimakos, and also in the necessary concessions granted by the Chian masters to their slaves to prevent further slave desertion. Drimakos did not aim at abolishing slavery, but simply wanted better conditions for the slaves on Chios. Forsdyke does an admirable job of showing how the same episode could be read so differently by mass and elite. In this chapter her argument might have benefitted from a discussion of two famous ancient Greek peasant utopias, namely the land of the Cyclopes in the Odyssey and the country of the Scythians in Herodotus. Both cases likely preserve elements of popular folktale, while in their literary context they seem to represent criticism of the uncivilized nature of the Cyclopes and Scythians.

Forsdyke takes her next case-study from Herodotus' account of the reforms of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon. In the sixth century, because of hostility to Argos, Cleisthenes allegedly removed the cult of the Argive hero Adrastus and forbade the recitation of Homeric poetry due to its frequent mention of "Argives." He also renamed the Sicyonian tribes "Swinemen, Assmen, and Pigmen," while calling his own tribe "Leaders of the People." Forsdyke, drawing extensively on the work of Bakhtin concerning obscene humor and the popular degradation of the high, argues that these bizarre tribal names actually reflect the original tribes of Sicyon and were based on toponyms rather than animals. Later anti-tyrannical traditions corrupted the names in order to mock Cleisthenes. Similar mockery was also behind the anti-Argive measures attributed to the tyrant, showing him to be a sacrilegious defiler of a cult and a buffoon who failed to recognize that Homer used "Argive" as a synonym for "Greek." The entire Cleisthenes story amounts to a popular critique of elite rulers, an appropriation of historical and quasi-historical events by the masses in order to mock their political and social superiors.

The section on "practices" opens with a discussion of events in sixth-century Megara. According to Plutarch, a democratic government at Megara stoked the insolence of the masses, encouraging them to barge into the houses of the rich and demand – with the threat of violence – to be feasted by their unwilling hosts. The unruly Megarians also attacked a group of Peloponnesian ambassadors. On the basis of Plutarch, most scholars have concluded that there was some sort of democracy in Megara as early as the sixth century. Forsdyke, however, demonstrates that Plutarch's account is derived from fourth-century anti-democratic discourse rather than the historical situation in the sixth century. There were various laws passed in Megara in the sixth century, including a repayment of interest to the poor, which mirrored Solon's reforms at Athens. Forsdyke argues that such legal measures should be seen in conjunction with the practice of the poor being treated to hospitality by the rich – a practice shared by many cultures, including early modern Europe – as a means by which the existing social order was maintained. Solon, after all, seems to have been called upon by the rich to enact various reforms not to establish a new order but to prevent a violent popular uprising. The story of the poor taking advantage of and threatening the rich at Megara also evokes popular festivals in which the roles of rich and poor were reversed. Sometimes, though, festival revelry could break out into real violence if the condition of the poor deteriorated too much.

With the final case-study, Forsdyke discusses the relationship between popular and formal justice, which Forsdyke argues were largely complementary. Even Athens, hailed by modern scholars as a bastion of the rule of law, sanctioned and often codified popular measures such as the violent abuse of adulterers. Public shaming rituals witnessed by all manner of polis residents, including metics, women, and slaves, frequently supplemented formal punishments meted out by the courts. The citizen and non-citizen masses took an active role in such popular justice, affording a level of participation not available through the regular formal channels. Forsdyke mentions the example of the stoning of Lycidas, a member of the Athenian boule during the Persian invasion who proposed that the terms offered by Mardonius be presented before the Athenian people. Outraged, the members of the boule summarily stoned Lycidas to death. Afterwards a group of Athenian women spontaneously rushed to Lycidas' house and stoned his wife and children, providing a popular counterpart to the more "formal" actions taken by the members of the boule. Forsdyke argues that even this gruesome episode should not be viewed as mob violence, but rather an established ritual that served to prevent even greater outbreaks of violence. I doubt, however, that the Lycidas episode should be taken as anywhere near typical. More convincing are Forsdyke's examples of houses being razed and laws allowing for tyrants and supporters of tyrants to be summarily killed with impunity. Forsdyke rightly cautions against drawing a fine line between formal and popular justice, especially since every polis seems to have made use of a mixture of both. I would go further and ask whether the popular acts Forsdyke mentions should not also be included as formal measures in a sense since in many cases such measures are spelled out in legal codes.

This book deserves the careful consideration of every serious Greek historian. Forsdyke has chosen her case studies well, and each one makes for a fascinating discussion. Most importantly, her methodological approach is very effective and should introduce many ancient historians to new avenues of research even where ancient sources are sparse. The book has extensive citations and discussions of modern scholarship in the endnotes, and the bibliography is full and rich. At the same time, the main text reads clearly and offers enough (but not too much) introductory and general material to appeal to the non-specialist reader.

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