Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C

By Virginia J. Hunter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
The Body of the Slave: Corporal
Punishment in Athens

PLUTARCH'SLife of Nicias ends with a curious but seldom discussed anecdote about the Athenians' reaction to the news of the disaster in Sicily. Initially, they heard of it from a barber, who had himself heard it from a stranger patronizing his shop in the Piraeus. Rushing up to the city, the barber caused consternation by spreading the news in the Agora. As a result, the archons convened the assembly and questioned the man. Unable to give a proper account of himself, he was declared a rumormonger (logopoios), bound to the wheel, and racked. His ordeal ended only when messengers arrived confirming what had occurred in Sicily.

Who was this luckless barber? Surely not a citizen of Athens. For under the decree passed in the archonship of Scamandrius, citizens were protected against such treatment (And. 1.43; Lys. 4.14; 13.27, 59; Harrison, 1971: 150, n. 6). Some have assumed that the barber was an alien (Bushala, 1968: 63, n. 10). More probably, he was a slave, one of a large group who practiced their trades either with or independently of their masters in the industrial districts of Athens and the Piraeus (cf. Hyp. 3; Perotti, 1974; 1976). What was the intent of the torture he underwent? Plutarch's account is unequivocal: it was not aimed at extracting information but was a form of punishment. Its intent then must have been to deter others, by example, from circulating the story. In other words, the body of the rumormonger was racked in order to ensure that the morale of the populace did not falter. 1

Plutarch's anecdote is surely apocryphal. For the most part, the wheel was used to extract information from slaves. In extreme cases, the torment preceded execution (Ant. 1.20). As a form of corporal punishment, it could be deemed cruel and unusual. 2 Nonetheless, the anecdote does call attention to a distinction between free and slave that was, in the opinion of Moses Finley (1980: 93), “fundamental” throughout most of antiquity: “corporal punishment, public or private, was restricted to slaves.” One source of Finley's view is Demosthenes, who, in two different orations (22.54–55; 24.166–67), boldly contrasts free men and slaves by the

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