SHGW: Lecture 2

2019-20: Slavery and Honour in the Ancient Greek World

Public lecture 2, 6th December 2019

Meadows Lecture Theatre, Doorway 4, School of History, Classics & Archaeology

 Prof. David Tandy (University of Leeds)

Slavery, honour, and ideology in Homer

This paper tackles the role of elite ideology in depictions of slavery and honour in Homer. There are historians who emphasise that slaves are presented by Homer in accordance with elite expectations, e.g., Eumaeus the Good against Melanthius the Bad in the Odyssey, and in Iliad 18 the field hands who exhibit nearly boundless joy as they toil on the Shield.

Thus the valuation and standing given these figures, named and unnamed, are in line with the ideology of those who control both production and poetic recitation. But this is not so simple or so undisguised, as it is possible to see gradations of honour meted out and withheld according to where an individual slave is positioned in the spectrum of production. The animal representatives are clearly ranked good-to-bad, Eumaeus the pigman, Philoetius the cowboy, Melanthius the goatherd, each ranked in accordance with the importance of their hoofed product within elite ideology.

Separately, we can see that the only named agriculturalist slave in the Odyssey, Dolios, is presented as inferior to the livestockists, and that in general the arena of agricultural production is grotesquely understated (this last point will be briskly demonstrated). The reason for this discrimination against agriculture has two possible explanations. One is that in the great conflict over land usage, between the devotion of bottom lands to flocks and herds for display and the devotion of those lands to growing grains to feed an increasing population, the favouring of animals against grains in the Odyssey is an ideological statement in favour of animal use of these prime lands, clearly of interest to those in power.

The other explanation for the denigration of agricultural production is to hide the fact that this production was an important source of income for the big estates, in fact the only piece of the productive spectrum that was executed for export through the strategy of extensive surplus-generating agriculture. Downplaying agriculture would distract listeners from this particular important elite strategy of wealth generation.

But by any analysis, it is demonstrable that any honour that attends slaves in the Odyssey reflects both elite ideology in general and the elite strategy in the context of public poetic recitation; as such, we can learn much about the real world of the poems by calculating the efforts of the elite stratum to disguise it. In addition to the foregoing analysis of predominantly male field slaves, this paper will also dissect the arena of the predominantly female domestic slaves, especially on Ithaca and Phaeacia, whose individual positions on the scale of honour are also affected by the elite struggle to promote ideals and suppress uncomfortable truths.

Video of the event:


search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close