Monday, August 26, 2013


Ben Akrigg, Rob Tordoff (ed.), Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 271. ISBN 9781107008557. $99.00.

Reviewed by Deborah Kamen, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Compared to slaves in Roman comedy, slaves in Greek comedy have received relatively little attention.1 This edited volume, which grew out of a conference co-hosted by York University and the University of Toronto in 2008, successfully fills a gap in the scholarship and lays the groundwork for future studies.

The first chapter, "Introduction: slaves and slavery in ancient Greek comedy," is written by Rob Tordoff, one of the volume's editors. At 63 pages, it is the longest in the book, providing a comprehensive introduction to the institution of slavery in Athens (and to the major debates in the field), as well as an overview of how slaves are represented in comedy and the relationship between representation and reality. Ultimately, Tordoff argues that the audience of Greek comedy—slaveholders and non- slaveholders alike—relieved their anxieties and frustrations by watching a comic version of the master-slave relationship, while also deriving pleasure from the ultimate restoration of normative relations of dominance and subordination.

S. Douglas Olson's chapter, "Slaves and politics in early Aristophanic comedy," analyzes the roles played by slaves in Aristophanes' earliest surviving comedies and explores the comic poet's use of the master-slave relationship to talk about the Athenian state. Olson demonstrates that in Acharnians slaves are represented as extensions of their masters' will; in Peace some tension between master and slave is introduced; in Wasps slaves are threatened with discipline and offer no resistance to their masters; and in Knights the Paphlagonian slave pretends to be good while trying to undermine his master Demos. Olson concludes that these varying representations can be read as an allegory for contemporary Athenian politics, wherein the master represents the people, and the slaves its politicians. Just as bad slaves/politicians care only about themselves, good ones want to help their household/the community; in no cases, however, should the master/state let itself be enslaved to its slaves/politicians.

In "Slavery, drama and the alchemy of identity in Aristophanes," Susan Lape tackles two simultaneous, yet contradictory, ideas present in Aristophanes' comedy: an essentialist view of slavery and a flexible conception of identity. She first demonstrates that Aristophanes' attacks on democratic leaders and poets for their servile/foreign origins reinforce the essentialist idea of natural born slaves and natural born citizens. The idea of a "transmutable self," on the other hand, can be seen in Frogs, where Xanthias acts more like a master than his master Dionysus does, and where a basanos seems to reveal no essential difference between Xanthias and Dionysus (and thus between slaves and citizens). But this transmutability is also undercut as the play unfolds: the parabasis makes clear that the incorporation of slaves into the citizen body is acceptable only if aristocrats remain leaders of the city, thus reasserting a sort of essentialism. In the end, Lape suggests that Dionysus' choice of Aeschylus over Euripides marks a rejection of the transmutable self seen in the "Euripidean" first half of the Frogs.

Donald Sells' chapter, "Slaves in the fragments of Old Comedy," compares the comic slave as represented in Aristophanes and in non-Aristophanic Old Comedy. Looking first at the "Aristophanic slave" (the slave of Peace 819-1126, Xanthias in Frogs, Cario in Wealth), he argues that these slaves are empowered but are also agents of their masters. He then turns to non-Aristophanic comic fragments, where slaves appear most often in domestic contexts as instruments of the household; even slave-prostitutes are generally found in and around the household. In a few cases, slaves are portrayed working in a setting outside the home, e.g., as miners, and possibly as archers as well (the latter speculation is based on the presence of the Scythian archer in Aristophanes' comedies and the possible appearance of a Scythian archer on two South Italian vase paintings). Sells concludes that, compared to the Aristophanic slave, the non-Aristophanic slave has limited agency and is more closely linked with his occupational context.

Ben Akrigg contends in "Aristophanes, slaves and history" that the emergence of the clever slave in the later plays of Aristophanes supports a particular reconstruction of classical Athenian economic and social history, and that paying attention to historical context can yield more convincing interpretations of the poet's depiction of slaves. Building on his previous work, Akrigg argues that the population decrease in late-fifth/early-fourth century BCE Athens had important economic consequences, among them an increase in slaves' value to their masters. This development led masters to experience difficulties in maintaining control over their slaves, a problem compounded by mass slave desertion after the Spartan occupation of Decelea and large-scale manumission at the Battle of Arginusae. In light of these realities near the end of and after the Peloponnesian War, Akrigg suggests that Aristophanes' later plays aim to relieve slaveholders' anxieties by, on the one hand, presenting clever slaves with power (like Karion in Wealth), on the other, demonstrating that this power can be kept in check by a good master.

In "A comedy of errors: the comic slave in Greek art," Kelly Wrenhaven examines artistic representations (terracotta sculptures and vase paintings) of slaves on the comic stage. Pointing to visual depictions of the grotesque costume worn by the most absurd characters in comedy (including but not limited to slaves), she argues first that these depictions reflect real-life costumes, and secondly that the costume's details — padded bellies and rear ends, oversized phalloi, masks with exaggerated features — are meant to represent slavish traits like lustfulness, lack of self control, and a tendency to gossip. She then demonstrates that although it is relatively easy to distinguish, both in art and presumably on stage, the grotesque figure from the "ideal" comic figure (i.e., the young Greek man), it is often difficult to distinguish slaves from other "non-ideal" free characters (e.g., old men, old women, laborers). Ultimately, Wrenhaven suggests that comic costumes (and comedies themselves), while drawing on and reinforcing slave stereotypes, simultaneously call attention to the challenge in telling free from slave, and more broadly, to the fact that physical appearance does not always reflect one's internal nature.

David Konstan, in "Menander's slaves: the banality of violence," explores two coexisting types of slave representation in Menander—that motivated by mimetic realism and that by dramatic purposes—with a focus on the playwright's depiction of violence. In Aspis, the slave Davus returns from Lycia with his master's "crowd of captives," prompting Konstan to suggest that the (unremarked) violence of enslavement is simply taken for granted by Menander and his audience. In Samia, by contrast, an unusual instance of on-stage violence by Moschio against his father's slave serves to demonstrate the former's maturation into an adult. Lastly, in Dyscolus, Konstan notes a difference in how Menander depicts master- slave relations in small, poor households as compared to big, well-off households: in the former, where master and slave are characterized as having shared interests, the relationship is not undercut by farce; in the latter, where a greater social gap exists between master and slave, the comic playwright employs more generic conventions (e.g., caricatures of the running slave, the complaining slave, etc.).

In "Coping with punishment: the social networking of slaves in Menander," Cheryl Cox aims to uncover the daily concerns of slaves as portrayed in Menander. She first surveys scholarship on the labor, punishment, and offenses of slaves in Athens, drawing in comparisons from the American South. Next she turns to the depiction of slaves in Menander, demonstrating the ways in which the slave's body is often at the mercy of, and his inferiority reinforced through, the master's punishment. Finally, Cox addresses how slaves in Menander cope with this control over their bodies: among other things, by complaining to and scolding their masters, acting impudently toward other free people, spying and gossiping, and engaging in "social networking," i.e., befriending, confiding in, and sharing information with other slaves. Except for the final section on social networking, most of this chapter comes unchanged from Cox's 2002 Mouseion article.

In "Sex slaves in New Comedy," C. W. Marshall examines the representation of sex slavery in Greek New Comedy and Roman adaptations by comparing it to practices in contemporary Southeast Asia. Marshall first demonstrates that the phenomenon in New Comedy of young women being captured and sold far away from home is similar to the sex trafficking found, e.g., in modern Cambodia. He then points out that most slaves (especially women) in Greece spoke little Greek, and that this linguistic isolation led to increased dependence on their traffickers (a phenomenon seen also in Cambodia). Marshall even suggests that the audience of New Comedy might have interpreted the restricted speech of slave women on stage in this light. He next turns to "sex tourism" — a (socially stigmatized) practice common today — for which he finds some evidence in the figure of Charinus in Plautus' Mercator. Lastly, drawing provocative comparisons with the graffiti of child sex slaves in Cambodia, Marshall looks at the power imbalance between customer and sex slave in New Comedy, arguing that the latter's declarations of "love" are one way of coping with her situation.

Kathryn Bosher, in "'Phlyax' slaves: from vase to stage?," examines fourth-century comic vases from Sicily and Southern Italy (sometimes called "phlyax vases") to see what they can tell us about comic developments between Aristophanes and Menander. Based on the fact that many non-slave characters on these vases (e.g., gods and warriors) wear a common type of slave mask, Bosher suggests that the Western Greeks may have enjoyed the role-confusion inherent in a slave playing a wide range of non- slave characters. Pointing out that in the latter part of the fourth century, comic slaves are increasingly represented alone or amongst non-theatrical figures, she argues that this relative isolation reflects the slave's increasing importance in comedy, and compares his depiction to Mickey Mouse standing in for the world of Disney. Bosher concludes from the abundance of vases that comedy (and in particular the comic slave) was especially popular among South Italians and Sicilians in the fourth century, and that this popularity may have contributed to the prominence of the slave character both in New Comedy and in Roman comedy.

In "Tokens of identity in Menander's Epitrepontes: slaves, citizens and in-betweens," Christina Vester demonstrates how Epitrepontes reveals that civic identity is socially constructed and status unstable. She first argues that the aristocratic tokens of the play's abandoned baby have the capacity to grant their possessor elite (i.e., civic) status. The charcoal burner Syros, for example, trying to appropriate the tokens for himself, acts like a citizen by participating in an arbitration and by defending his right to be kurios of the child. The slave Habrotonon, in turn, hopes to use a token in order to pose as the child's mother, thereby earning her freedom from her master Charisios; she too acts like a citizen, subjecting the baby's true mother Pamphile to a dokimasia in order to confirm the latter's status. Finally, the status of citizens is also shown to be mutable: because Charisios and Pamphile lack access to the tokens, their identity as citizen parents with a legitimate child is threatened.

The book ends with a bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index. The quality of contributions is strong throughout, the text well edited (I spotted only three minor typos), and the bibliography for the most part thorough and up-to- date.2 Since the papers complement one another in a number of interesting ways, it might have been beneficial to have more cross-referencing,3 but this is a small quibble. This truly engaging volume ought to be received with enthusiasm by scholars of both Greek comedy and ancient slavery.


1.   A recent exception is Daniel Walin's "An Aristophanic Slave: Peace 819-1126," CQ 59 (2009) 30- 45, cited by many of the contributors.
2.   Surprisingly, no authors cite Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz's Not Wholly Free (Leiden 2005), even when manumission is discussed. Cox's piece has no bibliography later than 2000 (except in the new section), leading to omissions like that of Page duBois, Slaves and Other Objects (Chicago 2003).
3.   Cf. Wrenhaven's chapter, which does an excellent job engaging with the other pieces in the volume.

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