Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece


Most studies of ancient Greek politics focus on formal institutions such as the political assembly and the law courts, and overlook the role that informal social practices played in the regulation of the political order. Sara Forsdyke argues, by contrast, that various forms of popular culture in ancient Greece--including festival revelry, oral storytelling, and popular forms of justice--were a vital medium for political expression and played an important role in the negotiation of relations between elites and masses, as well as masters and slaves, in the Greek city-states. Although these forms of social life are only poorly attested in the sources, Forsdyke suggests that Greek literature reveals traces of popular culture that can be further illuminated by comparison with later historical periods. By looking beyond institutional contexts, moreover, Forsdyke recovers the ways that groups that were excluded from the formal political sphere--especially women and slaves--participated in the process by which society was ordered.

Forsdyke begins each chapter with an apparently marginal incident in Greek history--the worship of a dead slave by masters on Chios, the naming of Sicyon's civic divisions after lowly animals such as pigs and asses, and the riding of an adulteress on a donkey through the streets of Cyme--and shows how these episodes demonstrate the significance of informal social practices and discourses in the regulation and reproduction of the social order. The result is an original, fascinating, and enlightening new perspective on politics and popular culture in ancient Greece.


A lot of grassroots history is like the trace of the
ancient plough. It might seem gone for good with
the men who ploughed the field many centuries
ago. But every aerial-photographer knows that,
in a certain light, and seen at a certain angle, the
shadows of long-forgotten ridge and furrow can
still be seen.
—E. J. Hobsbawm

THIS BOOK ATTEMPTS to understand the ways that ordinary farmers, craftsmen, and slaves in ancient Greece made sense of their world and their place in it. Unlike the wealthy elites, who produced written texts illustrating their worldviews, the ordinary people of ancient Greece left little or nothing from which their experiences and perspectives can be recovered. Like the “trace of the ancient plough,” the culture of these groups is largely lost since it existed in “living” forms such as festivals and oral storytelling. Yet when seen from the right angle, the surviving evidence can reveal traces of this lost culture. This study is an attempt to excavate popular forms of culture that lie barely discernable beneath the surface of ancient Greek literature.

Yet this book is not simply an antiquarian inquiry into some curious cultural relics, but an attempt to show that forms of popular culture were vital to the practice of politics in ancient Greek communities. While the intimate linkage between popular culture and politics is not surprising to historians of other time periods, it has received less attention by historians of ancient Greece. The remarkable sophistication of the ancient Greek city-state, and especially of the classical Athenian democracy, has seduced historians into believing that the formal institutions, rather than informal social practices, were the primary locus of politics.

By contrast, I argue that diverse forms of popular culture such as festival revelry, oral storytelling, and the spontaneous collective punishment of social offenders were crucial aspects of ancient politics. Drawing on . . .

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