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  • The Slaves and the Generals of Arginusae
  • Peter Hunt

In the second half of 406 B.C. the Athenians made two shocking decisions. They freed the slaves who had fought in the battle of Arginusae and gave them citizenship, and they condemned to death their victorious generals. I suggest that these two events were related. Specifically, I would like to argue, first, that the competition for rowers to man the huge navies of this period had extended even to slaves. The promise of freedom was intended to motivate the slaves: the grant of Athenian citizenship was an attempt to keep them rowing for Athens rather than deserting and ending up in the enemy's navy. Second, I would like to consider the trial of the generals in the context of this costly, divisive, and controversial policy. A priori considerations, historical parallels, and a few admittedly tenuous pieces of direct evidence suggest that their policy of rewarding the slaves contributed to the generals' unpopularity that made them so vulnerable to prosecution.

Slaves to Citizens

Passages in Aristophanes' Frogs and a scholiast's quotation of Hellanicus tell us that the slaves who fought in the battle of Arginusae were given freedom and citizenship. Most historians believe that the Athenians freed these slaves,1 but, given Athenian exclusiveness-manifest in Pericles' citizenship law-some doubt that they would have allowed a large group [End Page 359] of slaves to become citizens.2 The evidence, however, indicates that this was exactly what happened.

Frogs won first prize at the Lenaean festival of 405-406, about six months after the Athenian naval victory at Arginusae. Early in the play, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias are traveling to Hades. When Dionysus mocks Xanthias for complaining about the load he is carrying, Xanthias exclaims:

Dash it all, why wasn't I in that naval battle? Then I could really and truly tell you to go to blazes!

(Ar. Ran. 33)3

Fighting in the naval battle would have freed Xanthias from carrying Dionysus' baggage and allowed him to tell his master off. A bit later, Charon refuses to ferry Xanthias to Hades:

I don't take slaves, unless they fought in the life-or-death naval battle.


Again, slaves who have fought in a naval battle are treated differently from other slaves. From these passages alone, one might guess that the slaves who fought in some naval battle-Arginusae being the most recent and probable one-were given their freedom: they did not have to serve their masters and could ride with Charon rather than walking around the lake to get to Hades.

Ian Worthington argues against this, the traditional reading of these lines. Xanthias' regret at not serving in the naval battle (33) is not that he would be then be free, but rather that then he would be dead and not forced to serve Dionysus.5 Aristophanes, however, was addressing an [End Page 360] audience many of whom had either fought at Arginusae or had relatives who had. We may associate Arginusae primarily with the deaths of the unrescued crews, but in 405 Arginusae was considered a successful relief mission and a great victory. Aristophanes was addressing the living victors, for whom "to fight at the naval battle" could not serve as shorthand for "to die." Worthington's reading of lines 190-91 is also less convincing than the traditional interpretation. He claims that those who "fought in the life-or-death naval battle" are the men whose drowning after the battle gave rise to the trial of the generals. The text gives no hint or suggestion that Charon is talking about this subset of the sailors who fought in the battle. Rather, Charon refers to another subset of those who fought in the battle, the slaves: "I don't take slaves, unless . . . ." So we should stay with the traditional interpretation and the scholia to Frogs 33, which, although not an independent source, accords with our reading of Aristophanes: ("[I]n the previous year, in the archonship of Antigenes, the Athenians . . . won a naval battle around Arginusae and freed the slaves who had fought along with them").6

Our first evidence for...


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