Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 13.
Richard Alston, Edith Hall and Laura Proffitt (edd.), Reading Ancient Slavery. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. x + 235, incl. 17 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-7156- 3868-2. US$40.00/UK£25.00.
The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
This work is a collection of papers delivered at a conference held in 2007 to mark the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. We might therefore expect this collection to focus on the similarities and differences between the slave-holding institutions of modern and ancient history.[] However, the authors have not chosen to go down this well-trodden path. Rather, each of the collected papers forms a part of a cohesive work on the representation, ideology and subjective experience of slavery in the ancient world from The Odyssey to Artemidorus' Interpretation of Dreams. This is a book that would sit well in any university library. It is perhaps less accessible to students beginning their studies on the ancient world, but should be consulted by advanced undergraduates, graduates and scholars of Greek, Roman and comparative slavery.
Richard Alston's introduction, 'Rereading Ancient Slavery,' establishes the theoretical basis for the chapters that follow and provides a critical review of modern scholarship to date. Alston examines whether the ancient societies of Greece and Rome can justifiably be called 'slave societies'. He argues that the arbitrary categorisation of a civilization as a 'slave society' is no longer particularly useful, as it tends to lead to arguments about definitions, and scholarship would be better served by more nuanced interpretations (pp. 1-10). Alston proposes an approach in which we view slavery as a 'social formation' created by various 'technologies of domination' -- ways of thinking and behaving that force subordinates into particular groups, though these groups are not necessarily homogeneous (pp. 10f.). Thus, he makes a convincing case for reading slavery, an approach that continues an important trend in modern scholarship towards examining the representation of particular social groups.[] This approach reveals the perceptual filters people applied when thinking about, writing about, or looking at slaves: 'The servile depiction facilitates our understanding of the master' (p. 15).
In 'Odysseus as Slave: The Ritual of Domination and Social Death in Homeric Society,' Patrice Rankine examines the social practices that reinforce slave status (pp. 34-50). Rankine argues that The Odyssey illustrates the development of slavery as an institution in the world of the poem. Rankine uses several critical episodes in the story of The Odyssey, to demonstrate how relationships of power and subordination were perceived by Homeric audiences. Representations such as the execution of the twelve slave-women in Book 22 remind slaves that they can at any time become the victims of violence or murder. Odysseus' journey also tells the élite that at any time one may become a slave, as a result of defeat in war, or the capriciousness of gods or goddesses. Rankine shows that the Homeric audience were expected to take a specific message from Odysseus' example: his character and actions could set him free.
Leanne Hunnings' chapter continues with the concept of slave death in Homeric literature and society, arguing that The Odyssey creates a conceptual framework to characterise slavery and maintain it as a real-world institution (pp. 51-71). Hunnings' chapter complements Rankine's preceding argument. Hunnings situates The Odyssey within Greek society, arguing cogently for its place as a critical expression of culture and ideas. Like all art and literature, The Odyssey also influences and creates social reality (pp. 51-53). Hunnings extends her examination of the impact of The Odyssey to the slave-owners of America, who thought so highly of Classical literature that they believed its heroes' examples ought to be followed in the modern world (pp. 67f.).[]
Chapters 4 and 5 examine the representation of slaves in the visual arts. William G. Thalmann demonstrates the importance of art in creating and perpetuating slavery, arguing that the visual arts articulate the same cultural ideas that we find in Greek and Roman literature, law and philosophy (pp. 72-96). The depiction of slave bodies, their postures, physical features and comportment reflect Greek ideas about the differences in character and capacity between slaves and free men and women. While this is perhaps unsurprising, Thalmann's chapter is interesting and cogent. Kelly L. Wrenhaven's chapter asks whether the use of slaves in art is an expression of the Greek artists' need to define beauty (physical and moral) by visually representing its antithesis (pp. 97-120). Art becomes more complicated when artists feel the need to define what makes a 'good' slave. Wrenhaven focuses on the depiction of slave bodies, which are portrayed carrying out manual labour, as the victims of violence, and as possessions of élite slave- owners. 'Good' slaves are obedient, show their deference by their posture and facial expressions, and are physically beautiful. Artists could therefore use masters and slaves to articulate particular ideas and ideals.
Boris Nikolsky's chapter, 'Slavery and Freedom in Euripides' Cyclops,' examines the ideas and metaphorical meanings of slavery and freedom in drama (pp. 121-32). The dramatic technique of reversing characters' roles allows the writer and his actors to explore these ideas in different ways. Through an exploration of motifs associated with slavery and freedom, the ancient authors explored democratic freedom and tyranny (pp. 131f.). Continuing the discussion on the political aspects of slavery, S. Sara Monoson re-examines Aristotle's controversial theory of natural slavery (pp. 133- 51). Monoson demonstrates that Aristotle's ideas about slaves are best taken in the context of his argument about the ideal size and structure of the State. These ideas, though morally unacceptable to modern Western readers, do not conflict with Aristotle's philosophical arguments, as other scholars have asserted.[]
In 'Family, Slavery and Subversion in Menander's Epitrepontes,' Laura Proffitt examines slave families in the fragmentary evidence of Menander (pp. 152-74). Proffitt rightly urges caution in this approach, and the reality of life as a slave remains elusive. This is in keeping with Alston's remarks in the Introduction. Proffitt's chapter is one of the most successful in this volume. The argument is sophisticated, emphasising the holistic interpretation of texts in their social and cultural contexts, and she convincingly demonstrates that the slaves of the Epitrepontes are able to confront the prevailing ideology to embrace freedom.
William Fitzgerald's chapter is the first in this volume to focus on the Roman aspect of Greco- Roman slavery (pp. 175-91). Fitzgerald looks at slaves in Latin literary vignettes (from Horace and Propertius) and, specifically, how they are used to better present the point of view of major characters, to make a scene complete, or to make the deus ex machina appear natural. Slave characters remain 'stock' characters, however, reflecting the social value system and the expectations of the élite authors. Deborah Kamen continues the discussion of Latin literature with a chapter on the slaves of Martial's epigrams (pp. 192-203). Kamen shows that Martial depicts slaves defying their masters, using several different strategies including passive- aggressive resistance, but that Martial does not allow the slaves he depicts to retain power over their masters.
The final chapter in this book is from Edith Hall, 'Playing Ball with Zeus: Strategies in Reading Ancient Slavery through Dreams' (pp. 204-28). Hall analyses Artemidorus' Interpretation of Dreams, arguing that Artemidorus treats the experiences of slaves and free men in the same way. While Artemidorus' interpretation of a dream usually emphasised what it meant in terms of power relations (p. 215), he nevertheless tells his reader what the dream means for each dreamer: slave, free, male and female. Hall's conclusion is that Artemidorus saw all human beings as 'psychologically the same' (p. 224).
Reading Ancient Slavery is a high-quality collection of papers at the leading edge of modern scholarship on the representation and subjective experiences of slaves. Each of the contributors provides a valuable theoretical and interpretative framework through which the reader may reach a greater understanding of the psychological and social impacts of slavery from Homeric times to the Roman empire.
[] For a recent treatment, see Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari (edd.), Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern (Cambridge 2008).
[] For example, Lauren Petersen, The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History (Cambridge 2006); Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Harvard 2007), P. E. Easterling and Edith Hall (eds), Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession (Cambridge 2002).
[] This topic is comprehensively treated by theatre historian Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., Black Dionysus: Greek Tragedy and African American Theatre (Jefferson 2003).
[] Notably, Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge 1996).