CJ Online Review: Forsdyke, Slaves Tell Tales

posted with permission:

Slaves Tell Tales. And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. By Sara Forsdyke. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii + 265. Hardcover, $39.95/£27.95. ISBN 978­-0-14005–6.

Reviewed by Carl A. Anderson, Michigan State University

In this original and imaginative study, Sara Forsdyke seeks to understand the ways that ordinary farmers, craftsmen and slaves in ancient Greece made sense of their world and their place in it. Following an introduction, the book is organized into two major sections, Discourses and Practices, each of which contains two chapters. Endnotes for the individual chapters are followed by the Epilogue. The bibliography, index locorum and general index round out the work.

The introductory chapter, “Peasants, Politics, and Popular Culture,” asks how historians of ancient Greece might begin to recover a world view of non-elites given the paucity of surviving evidence. For the perspectives and experiences of these groups Forsdyke suggests going beyond the confines of ancient Greek history to examine comparative studies of popular culture from later historical periods, and argues how such an approach might be used to produce an analysis of non-elite culture in ancient Greece. She is careful to stress the importance of recognizing the distinct social and cultural context of ancient Greece in the study. Forsdyke offers a brief survey of relevant research of cultural historians, political theorists and anthropologists of popular culture and concludes with an overview of her key assumptions before moving on to a more detailed discussion comparing the economy, social structure and political institutions of the Greek city state with those of the other societies that she surveys.

Part One: Discourses

This part begins with Chapter 2, the longest chapter in the book, “Slaves Tell Tales: The Culture of Subordinate Groups in Ancient Greece.” Forsdyke draws on the political scientist James Scott’s model of the “hidden transcript” and the “public transcript” in popular culture to show how oral story-telling, folk tales, fables and proverbs can appeal to non-elite audiences, but also function to affirm the ideology of the dominant social class.[[1]] The “hidden transcript” is defined as the ways peasants and disempowered groups talk about and understand their place in the world among themselves when those in authority are not present. The “public transcript” concerns the ways such groups present themselves before their social superiors.

The first case study is the tale of the Chian slave-hero Drimakos, whom both masters and slaves honored in cult (Athen. 265d–266e). Drimakos ran away to the mountains, established a refuge for slaves fleeing cruel uncaring masters, conducted raids on the local landowners, and negotiated a treaty and armistice. Surprisingly, the story also presents Drimakos advocating the return of slaves who fled their owners without justification, and appearing in dreams after his death to warn certain masters of the plots their slaves were making against them. Forsdyke points to the tale of the Roman bandit hero Bulla Felix as another example of a marginal figure negotiating benefits for his followers by engaging the ruling class. The author links these two tales as well as other forms of story telling, such as proverbs, animal fables, and tricksters tales, to the themes of role reversal, fantasies of magical abundance, and revenge of the weak against the strong common to popular culture. Whether they circulated in ancient Greece or Rome, early modern Europe, the slave experience of the antebellum United States, or modern peasant society in Malaysia, these informal modes of communication, the author suggests, are key to uncovering the hidden perspectives and world views of non-elite groups in ancient Greece.

The remainder of this chapter concerns the ways in which the story of Drimakos can be understood as a collaborative creation of slaves and masters. Forsdyke begins with a proverb attributed to a comedy of Eupolis: “A Chian has bought himself a master” (PCG 5: 296). What matters is that the proverb shows that slaves (at least in fantasy) could be “on top.” Advancing this observation, she suggests that the proverb in Eupolis’ comedy may have something to do with the fact that “there was something about the slaves of Chios that made them a fertile source of the popular imagination, even in Athens” (85). This has some support in the historical record (cf. Thuc, 8.39.3, 8.40.2), inviting Forsdyke to speculate that slaves and masters invented the tale of Drimakos “to stabilize their relations: a dual hero-cult and corresponding aetiological legend through which slaves and masters enacted and articulated the terms of their mutual accommodation” (87). This strikes the reader as a fresh and original interpretation that explains what appears merely to be an entertaining story. It also invites the reader to reflect anew on the ways in which stories told by or about slaves in Greek literature might be understood by enslaved populations in the ancient Greek world.

In Chapter 3, “Pigs, Asses, and Swine: Obscenity and the Popular Imagination in Ancient Sicyon,” Forsdyke analyzes Herodotus’s story about how the tyrant Cleisthenes ridiculed the inhabitants of Sicyon by renaming the Dorian tribes of the city after lowly barnyard animals, pigs, asses, and swine, and about how he attempted to expel the cult of the Argive hero Adrastus in order to introduce the rival cult of Melanippus (5.67–8). She argues that these stories are in fact invented fifth-century anti-tyrannical traditions projected back into the past. She further suggests that the names of the Dorian tribes and introduction of the cult of Adrastus were not adopted at Sicyon until the late sixth century. She draws comparative evidence from Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that the blurring of distinctions between the animal and human is a key characteristic of the popular attacks on officials of the Middle Ages,[[2]] and the model of “peer-polity interaction” centered on ethnic identity and inter-polis cultic competition to support her interpretations. Of necessity the arguments of this chapter are speculative.

Part Two: Practices

In Chapter 4, “Revelry and Riot in Ancient Megara: Democratic Disorder or Role Reversal?”[[3]] Forsdyke focuses on several accounts in Plutarch about the poor rioting and resorting to violence against the wealthy in archaic Megara (Moralia 295c–d, 304c–f). Modern historians have tended to regard Plutarch’s explanation of these incidents as evidence of a radical democracy in sixth-century Megara. Forsdyke rejects this view. Instead, she looks to accounts of rituals of temporary breakdowns and inversions of social hierarchies and norms from early modern Europe and elsewhere as a way to analyze the account in Plutarch. These comparative models, she argues, suggest a pattern across historical periods of ritualized violence and rioting as an informal, extra-legal, means for negotiating relief and reforms rather than as a form of revolutionary action. Thus the festive revelry by the poor of sixth-century Megara, apparently spinning out of control spontaneously, can be understood not as an example of the violent nature of radical democracy, a popular fourth-century critique, but as an expression of popular discontent aimed at forcing the wealthy elite to take responsibility for the distress of the poor.

In Chapter 5, “Street Theater and Popular Justice in Ancient Greece,” Forsdyke examines street theater and extra-judicial forms of punishment through practices of public shaming, particularly in cases of adultery, the collective razing of the houses of elites, and community stoning of those seen as public enemies. The author argues that these manifestations of informal extra-legal traditions overlapped and complemented institutional modes of justice, and “could also serve as a mechanism for the symbolic disciplining of the elites by the masses” (175). In both this chapter and the previous chapter of this section, Forsdyke argues that the poor as well as women and slaves participated in these rituals. She usefully summarizes the arguments of the case studies presented in the individual chapters in the epilogue.

This is a well argued and thoughtful book. Given the absence of written texts to illustrate the experiences and perspectives of common people in ancient Greece, Forsdyke must rely by necessity on inference and conjecture. Some readers may question aspects of her interpretations, as is the case with all comparative historical reconstructions, about the individual case studies and about the ways of using comparative evidence. But the fact remains that this study suggests largely unrecognized ways for ancient historians to draw on comparative history and social science research to construct a productive methodology for the study of ancient Greek popular culture.

The text is well edited. I noticed only two corrigenda, “another way…” p. 47, and “Athenaeus reminds…” p. 75.


[[1]] J. C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, 1990).

[[2]] M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, translated by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, 1984).

[[3]] This chapter contexualizes the author’s article of the same title, “Revelry and Riot in Ancient Megara: Democratic Disorder or Role Reversal?” JHS 125 (2005) 73–92.

Classical Words of the Day


This Day in Ancient History: ante diem viii idus februarias

ante diem viii idus februarias

  • 46 B.C. — victory of Julius Caesar over pro-Pompey forces at Thapsus
  • 300 A.D. — martyrdom of Theophilus Scholasticus ‘The Lawyer’
  • 1811 — birth of H.G. Liddell (co-author of the massive Greek Lexicon which is still standard and father of Alice in Wonderland)
  • 2001 — death of Emily Vermeule (author of Greece in the Bronze Age, among several other works)