Review of Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece by Sara Forsdyke Princeton University Press

Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. Sara Forsdyke. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780691140056

The study of ancient Greek history has relied heavily on written literature, most of which record contemporary social and political life from the elite class’s point of view, because education is typically reserved as a privilege for the rich and powerful. As such, history fails to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of social structure, political institutions, and cultural practices that reflects the diversity and hybridity of ancient Greek society. Thus, recent studies of cultural historians have become increasingly sensitive to traces of folk and popular cultural records that are either neglected or buried beneath the “high culture” of ancient Greek literature. Sara Forsdyke’s exceptionally lucid and enlightening book Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece represents such an effort that attempts to understand ancient Greek’s social politics from the grassroots’ point of view, that is, how ordinary people and slaves understand the society they live in, how they conceptualize their relationship with the rich politically powerful, and how do they react to such a power dynamic. By exploring the other side of popular culture in ancient Greece and its relationships with politics from the ordinary Greeks’ point of view, the author examines the living mechanism of popular and folk cultural practices such as festive performances and oral storytelling that were employed as “spontaneous collective punishment of social offenders” (p.1) and treat them as vital evidence that reflect political aspects of ancient Greek society.

Forsdyke adopts a comparative methodology that compares and contrasts popular cultural practices in ancient Greek society to those in other historical societies, so that it may reveal similar patterns that lead to a fuller knowledge of ancient Greek society despite very limited remains of its popular culture. Accordingly, the author uses a “problem-oriented approach” that promises to reveal the crucial position of popular cultural practices in the political life of the Greek city-state (p. 4). This innovative approach is best illustrated in Parts One and Two, each of which deals with two aspects of popular culture, which seem ostensibly mundane but provide convincing evidence that illuminate the vital role that diverse forms of popular cultural expressions play.

Nevertheless, the author also acknowledges that such a comparative methodology may incur the criticism of being selective in choosing supportive evidence, in the sense that one could only examine superficial similarities between cultures and societies that support the argument. In response, the author emphasizes that she is not “claiming identity of either social structures or causal relations between various social and political phenomena in different historical periods” (4-5, italics original); rather, the author uses this comparative evidence to either further illuminate Greek cultural practices that were inadequately explained, or to provide frameworks within which ancient Greek evidence can be understood.

What separate the author’s comparative methodology from previous historical studies is that it focuses more on cultural similarities than differences between ancient Greece and other societies. Rather than discussing commonly acknowledged cultural specificities, the author seeks an underlying common pattern that explains how common citizens and peasants become involved in social political discourses and practices—by using popular culture to express “social discontent” (p. 5). Such a shift of emphasis effectively challenges the previous understanding of ancient Greece as an exceptional example in its political structure, and therefore potentializes the discovery of previously overlooked political life in ancient Greek society.

The author further complicates the process of collecting historical evidence of mass culture: on the one hand, Athenian evidence is too unique to reflect a general popular culture, and on the other hand, historians of Athenian culture disagree on how well the evidence reflects a non-elite perspective (p. 6). Sometimes revealed in elite writings, these elements of popular and folk culture are articulated either as literary works, such as poetry and drama, or as materials for literary creations, such as proverb, folk tales, and fables. Although the method of using popular cultural productions as historical evidence has been debated among many historians, one significant achievement of this study is that there is not a clean-cut separation between popular culture and other cultural and social expressions, nor should popular culture be an exclusive, concrete concept that is self-contained. Such hybridity makes it tricky to differentiate between mass culture and elite culture, and the pressing task is to carefully examine this evidence and explore what they meant for ordinary people. This point is especially significant to the central argument of the book, in the sense that it accommodates “the flexibility of popular culture and its ability to absorb the perspectives of different groups within a common cultural form” (p. 30).

Drawing upon previous scholarly works in anthropology, history, and political science, the author critically re-examines the Marxist belief that the peasants and common people were relatively powerless in the power dynamics between the rich and the poor. According to the author, evidence in diverse cultures and historical periods shows that there have always been conflicts between the rich land owners and peasants, where the peasants employ various cultural expressions to help them cope with the adversity of their livelihood. Thus, to imagine an ancient time when the rich and the poor interact on mutually acknowledged reciprocity and live on harmonious terms is mistaking the effect as the cause. In other words, if it seems that the poor are content in their social status, it is only because they have to rely on this constructed social order as part of their coping mechanism.

As the author delineates the social, political, and cultural conditions of ancient Greek society, it is evident that despite strong and distinctive differences in political, legal, and ideological structures between free Greek citizens and slaves, their everyday life, and a considerable portion of their social activities, are overlapped in such a large extent that they may become indistinguishable, or at least not apparently clear. The ethnically diversified slave population, wherein each group represents a different cultural heritage, produces a shared flexible popular culture. Of particular interest to the author’s argument on popular culture and politics is a “remarkably thorough incorporation of non-elite normative outlooks and practices into the ideologies and institutional structures of the state,” where the poor are effectively pacified by the rich’s public obligation toward the benefit of a wider society (p. 30). With a thorough yet concise survey of ancient Greek society and important aspects of its social structures, the author successfully contextualizes ancient Greek society in such a manner that class, gender, and social distinctions are not what separate different groups, but rather, provide necessary social conditions that promote a diversified, contested, and hybrid cultural life that challenges previous beliefs and concepts.

In chapters 2-5, the author moves from “Part One Discourses,” which include two examples of how popular discourses reflect politics, to “Part Two Practices,” which explores the social practices of the rituals of hospitality and practices of justice. In chapter 2, the author uses a tale about how slaves negotiate the power struggle with their masters by establishing a co-dependent relationship that is predicated on mutual understanding and reciprocity. By analyzing the stylistic characteristics in this folktale and its oral tradition, the author argues that the slaves assert their political agency proactively by creating a “cult of the hero” whom both the masters and the slaves worship (p. 88-89). Chapter 3 continues this investigation on the political function of oral traditions and storytelling among common citizens that is exemplified in the story of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon. The author contextualizes this story within a broader Greek literary tradition that includes official discourses and other popular cultural expressions, and also positions it in a comparative cultural analysis with non-literary texts of other cultures in later historical periods, such as Mediaeval Europe. Similar to these discursive texts, and central to this story’s subversive political message, is its “reversal of the high and low” cultural expressions, such as the use of obscenity and grotesque bodily images (p. 113). Thus, Cleisthenes’ reforms are “playfully debased” in the non-elite popular narrative.

Chapter 4 engages a discussion on the role of social rituals of hospitality as epitomized in the reciprocal relationship between the powerful and the poor in the events of civil riots and protests in ancient Megara. By reading such civil unrests as ritualistic rather than actual, the author demonstrates that the slaves do not perform these ritual protests to seek revolutionary actions that aim to overthrow the powerful; instead, these riotous actions are strategically employed only as a means to show their discontent in social and living conditions. The powerful, on the other hand, acknowledges such intention by implementing pacifying measures through formal legislation. As such, the popular acts of protests become a warning to the rich and powerful to uphold their end of the “social contract” that ensures acceptable living conditions for the poor. Chapter 5 further explores the role of popular social acts in shaping the political relationships between the elite class and the common mass, and argues that “informal social practices continued to play a vital role in the regulation of the social order in classical Greece” (p. 145). Here the author employs public disciplinary actions such as stoning and other physical and mental punishments on social offenders as examples to prove that certain forms of popular social regulation allow the masses to exert influence over the elite.

When both the narrative anecdotes and the episodes of cultural practices are explained vis-à-vis their role in social politics, it becomes quite apparent that these examples are arranged in ascending order as they move from general social power dynamics between rebellious slaves and masters, to episodes of sociopolitical superstructure of the legal system. In other words, the evidence is presented from cultural evidence on the surface level to those that are more deeply veiled by structures that were believed to be dominated by the elite class. With these carefully arranged episodes, the author strategically demonstrates that the study of popular culture in its various forms of expressions in ancient Greek society not only complements traditional studies of politics and society revealed in formal and elite writings, but also shows that they are, in fact, a vital and indispensable component that contributes in crucial ways to our unbiased, balanced, and fuller understanding of the ancient Greek society both lineally and horizontally in the historical temporal-spatial plane.

In a very well organized epilogue, the author recapitulates the main arguments as well as how examples from ancient Greek popular and folk culture are used as evidence to illustrate the significance of popular culture. It is a little unusual that it is in the conclusion where the author chooses to explain the layout of the chapters in Part One and Two, but such reiterations contribute to a more organized and streamlined conceptualization of the entire book and its central arguments. In particular, the author presents a convincing articulation of the benefits and impact of her findings in this book to cultural historians and scholars of anthropology, namely, that the “recognition of the extra-institutional sphere of politics allows the historian to capture more  concretely the political life of (institutionally) marginal groups in Greek society,” and “comparative history and anthropological studies can illuminate aspects of Greek culture that are only faintly visible in our surviving sources” (p. 177).

Sara Forsdyke’s Slaves Tell Tales contributes to contemporary historical studies of ancient Greek society in significant ways through its interdisciplinary comparative methodology that draws upon popular cultural evidence in a manner that transcends national, social, historical, and geo-political borders. In the true spirit of a cultural historian, the author patiently, yet systematically, excavates traces of popular culture that present a society in a holographic manner, through which it could have been conceptualized. In other words, our conceptualization of the cultural and political structures of ancient Greek society gains width and depth as we explore the layers of cultural expressions and their implication in the social power equilibrium that is carefully maintained but constantly challenged.

Slaves Tell Tales is a highly readable book thanks to the author’s reader-friendly style with limited technical jargons and an exceptionally navigable structure. I would highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in ancient Greek culture and society in general, students of history and anthropology, scholars and researchers who intend to keep up with the latest development of academic studies on comparative history and cultural politics, and anyone who enjoys intellectually delightful and thought-provokingly entertaining reading experiences.

Reviewed by Jinhua Li, University of North Carolina, Asheville
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.