The Master’s Fantasy

This perverse epigram in the form of a sepulchral inscription is preserved without attribution in the Greek Anthology.

7.179 (Greek Anthology)

Even now, from beneath the earth, master,
I’m steadfast in my devotion to you,
Just like in the old days.
I haven’t forgotten how you got me
Back on my feet, three times, when I was sick.
Now you’ve laid me under this sheltering
Cover, which declares: Manes, a Persian.
You did right by me, master, and for that
You’ll have slaves who are indebted to you
And who are all the more eager to serve.

σοὶ καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ γῆν, ναί, δέσποτα, πιστὸς ὑπάρχω,
ὡς πάρος, εὐνοίης οὐκ ἐπιληθόμενος,
ὥς με τότ᾽ ἐκ νούσου τρὶς ἐπ᾽ ἀσφαλὲς ἤγαγες ἴχνος,
καὶ νῦν ἀρκούσᾐ τῇδ᾽ ὑπέθου καλύβῃ,
Μάνην ἀγγείλας, Πέρσην γένος. εὖ δέ με ῥέξας
ἕξεις ἐν χρείῃ δμῶας ἑτοιμοτέρους.

A Thought:

Plato on the Docile Slave. For Plato the problem of slavery isn’t ethical, but practical: how to make a human being “readily accept the condition of servitude” (ῥᾷον δουλεύσειν) and become “as docile as possible” (εὐμενεστάτους)? (Laws 777d and 776d, respectively). To accomplish this, he counsels “the best strategy is to treat them properly” (εἰς δύναμιν ὅτι μάλιστα, τρέφειν δ᾽ αὐτοὺς ὀρθῶς), by which he means masters should not physically injure their slaves (Laws 777d). Plato’s assumption is that “kind” treatment would induce obedience.

Aristotle on Asian Slaves. For Aristotle, non-Greeks comprise “a community of slaves, male and female alike” (ἡ κοινωνία αὐτῶν δούλης καὶ δούλου) and Greeks are their rightful masters (Politics I.1252b7-8). But Asians come in for particularly harsh judgement: “Concerning the people of Asia, although they are intelligent and capable, they lack spirit, and as a consequence they are always ruled over and enslaved (τὰ δὲ περὶ τὴν Ἀσίαν διανοητικὰ μὲν καὶ τεχνικὰ τὴν ψυχήν, ἄθυμα δέ, διόπερ ἀρχόμενα καὶ δουλεύοντα διατελεῖ [Politics VII. 1327b27-28]).

The Idealized Slave: There’s congruence between Plato’s exhortation to good treatment (his admonition against injury) and the epigram’s account of the master nursing the sick slave. Also, the epigram’s slave isn’t just docile, but ideally so. We can say that if there were two routes out of slavery, manumission and death, the master denied the slave the former, but this fictional slave denied himself the latter. Even death is not the end of his happy servitude. It’s no wonder that the grave marker identifies him as Persian–his race (γένος), according to Aristotle, marked him out for servitude. The epigram is a fantasy about servitude, and it’s as distasteful as Plato’s and Aristotle’s views.

Athenian red-figure jug attributed to the Pan Painter, 500-450 BC. A youth, probably a slave, carries a couch and table for a symposium. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.