- Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece by Paulin Ismard
This book, which first appeared in French under the title La démocratie contre les experts: les esclaves publics en Grèce ancienne (Paris 2015), explores the origins, duties, and status of public slaves, dēmosioi, in classical Athens and the ancient Greek polis. It is not, however, a systematic treatment of dēmosioi, the tasks they performed, or the variations in public slavery that existed throughout the Greek world. Instead, Ismard’s main argument is that public slaves, by virtue of their specialized knowledge and marginalized status, played a significant role in both the administration and the ideology of the ancient Greek city. Dēmosioi possessed the skills and expertise that allowed city-states to function, but their status as slaves kept them from exploiting that knowledge to their own advantage and against the interests of the citizen body. Not only did democracy depend on slavery, “slavery was the price to be paid for direct democracy” (135).
The argument is grounded in a comparitivist approach that introduces examples from Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world (6–8, 57–58, 78–79, 100–102) to elucidate the distinctive character, vis-à-vis private slaves, of dēmosioi. It also considers evidence for public slaves from numerous Greek cities, so that its picture is not confined to Athens alone. Moreover, Ismard relies not only on inscriptions and prose authors typically encountered in studies of Greek political institutions, but also on texts less traditionally cited, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (112–17), Plato’s Phaedo (117–20), and even the New Testament Acts of the Apostles (120–25).
These strengths, however, are often offset by a casual approach to evidence. Examples from Athens and elsewhere are mingled indiscriminately, as if public slavery were an unchanging entity exhibiting little if any variation across time and space. Democracy too is regarded as the standard form of polis government in all periods and regions, and although Ismard looks beyond Athens, that city in its classical guise is the model through which the ancient Greek city-state in all its complexity is understood. Conclusions often rely on evidence open to multiple interpretations, where additional clarification and supporting argument would be welcome.
The case of the Athenian Nicomachus is representative of this loose style of argument (66–67, 88–90). Nicomachus had served as one of the anagrapheis responsible for revising Athens’ laws at the end of the fifth century, and he was subsequently prosecuted for misconduct in office. The speech (Lysias 30) on which our knowledge of Nicomachus depends claims that his father was a public slave and that Nicomachus himself had acquired citizenship illegitimately. Charges of servile origins are, of course, commonplace in the speeches of the orators and possess limited historical value. Here, however, they are taken seriously: Ismard regards the plight of Nicomachus as “emblematic” of the “expert slave” in Athenian society (90). And yet Nicomachus was an Athenian citizen, not a slave, as Ismard himself concedes. So too were the others (nowhere mentioned by Ismard) who served alongside him. Surely their appointment as anagrapheis shows that the Athenians did rely on citizens, including ones of allegedly low status, to carry out important administrative tasks.
All this is not to deny the importance of public slavery in ancient Greece or to suggest that the role of dēmosioi was limited at Athens or elsewhere, and [End Page 273] Ismard performs a valuable service by calling attention to their contributions to polis government. Even if all his conclusions are not accepted, his book should provoke further debate on ancient slavery, democracy, and their indisputably close relationship.