Few, if any, scholars today would deny, if asked, that the life experiences and even the identity of slaves in Greece, and, indeed, elsewhere, cannot be reduced merely to the fact that they were their masters’ slaves. Like their masters, who, while being masters, could also see themselves and function as, for example, Athenian citizens, fathers, farmers, soldiers and so on, the slaves too could see themselves and function as, for example, Paphlagonians, miners, eranistai , members of a family. 1 Nonetheless, it is only rarely that these other identities and functions of enslaved people become the focus of scholarship on Greek slavery. Instead, the focus has usually been placed on the relationship between master and slave: in particular, on the extremely asymmetrical character of that relationship, which involves the total domination of the slave by the master and an understanding of the slave as property and tool of the master. 2
This focus has proved extremely valuable for the study of Greek slavery because it has allowed scholars to gauge the degree of exploitation, oppression and domination enforced upon slaves and to study the function and effects of such exploitation and domination on the individual slave-owners and on the economy and society as a whole. It has also allowed them to examine some of the ways in which slaves reacted to such domination, particularly strategies such as acquiescence and adoption of the master’s values or disobedience and sabotage. 3
Much scholarship on the representations of slaves and slavery in Greek drama has adopted this focus and has shown how in this respect the plays in essence ‘mirror’ reality, as they dramatize oppression and domination, as well as some slave reactions to such oppression. Such scholarship has also shown how the plays, although occasionally exposing the contradictions in the ideology which sustained and naturalized slavery, ultimately affi rmed that ideology and contributed to the continuous acceptance and justifi cation of slavery. 4 Specifi cally for the plays of Menander, scholars have shown how slaves are represented as wholly dependent on the whims and the wills of
their masters and as thinking and acting as if their whole existence revolves around that of the masters. Not only are they sometimes beaten, or threatened by severe punishments, by their masters on stage, but they are also presented as fully immersed in the masters’ values and as acting to further not their interests but those of their masters. This is true even for those slaves who are shown as clever and scheming and as tricking or ridiculing their masters or other slave-owners. 5 Scholars have also shown how the overall plot of the plays (which is always centred around the fates of citizens, not slaves), the naming conventions of the plays (which clearly demarcate slaves from citizens), and the specifi c repertory of masks used in performance, served to reinforce not merely the acceptance of slavery, but specifi cally the idea of slavery as natural, despite the fact that particular slave characters are occasionally presented as morally superior to, and more sympathetic than, some citizen characters. 6
The focus on the relationships between masters and slaves, then, has contributed much to our understanding of Greek slavery and its representations in drama. However, there are also limits to and problems with such an approach, which some historians of slavery have recently started to acknowledge and explore. 7 I will single out two problems that are most relevant for my purposes.