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Slaves, Sex, and Transgression in Greek Old Comedy


This dissertation examines the often surprising role of the slave characters of Greek Old Comedy in sexual humor, building on work I began in my 2009 Classical Quarterly article ("An Aristophanic Slave: Peace 819-1126"). The slave characters of New and Roman comedy have long been the subject of productive scholarly interest; slave characters in Old Comedy, by contrast, have received relatively little attention (the sole extensive study being Stefanis 1980). Yet a closer look at the ancestors of the later, more familiar comic slaves offers new perspectives on Greek attitudes toward sex and social status, as well as what an Athenian audience expected from and enjoyed in Old Comedy. Moreover, my arguments about how to read several passages involving slave characters, if accepted, will have larger implications for our interpretation of individual plays.

The first chapter sets the stage for the discussion of "sexually presumptive" slave characters by treating the idea of sexual relations between slaves and free women in Greek literature generally and Old Comedy in particular. I first examine the various (non-comic) treatments of this theme in Greek historiography, then its exploitation for comic effect in the fifth mimiamb of Herodas and in Machon's Chreiai. Finally, I argue that humorous references to sexual relations between slaves and free women in the extant comedies blur the line between free and slave in order to maintain a more rigid distinction between relatively wealthy Athenian citizen males and a lower class comprising slaves, metics, foreigners, and the poorest Athenian citizens.

Chapter two examines what I term the "sexually presumptive" slave characters of Old Comedy. I argue that the audience is sometimes made to identify with a male speaking slave character who threatens to usurp the sexual role of his master and/or exposes free female characters to sexual comment, jokes, manhandling, and innuendo. I demonstrate that this phenomenon is more prominent in the genre than is generally recognized, in part through new interpretations of several passages. The latest extant play, Wealth (388 BC), affords the most interesting examples; I argue that the slave character Cario, who shares the role of comic hero with his master in alternating scenes, repeatedly reverts to sexual humor that is multiply determined as transgressive (i.e., the location, specific sex acts, participants, manner of narration, and associations involved are all conspicuously contrary to ordinary ancient Greek social norms).

The third chapter addresses scenes with slave characters who make sexual jokes that do not threaten to usurp the dominant position of their masters, but may be jokes at their own or another character's expense. I examine in depth the final scene of the Ecclesiazusae, where (as I argue) a female speaking slave character engages in playful sexual innuendo with both her master and the Athenian audience. Finally, a close reading of the sexually aggressive, parodic, transformative game of song-exchange played at Wealth 290-321 by the slave Cario on the one hand and the chorus on the other further illuminates the interaction between slave and free characters in the context of sexual humor on the comic stage and the probable reactions of the audience to such material.

In chapter four, I balance out my arguments for slave characters as the active instigators and beneficiaries of sexual humor by noting that slaves in Aristophanic comedy are often treated as sexual objects for the sake of a joke. Such slaves are either brought onto the stage as silent characters or imagined verbally as the passive recipients of aggressive sexual action (often in song). This phenomenon, as I argue, is closely connected with the tendency of Old Comedy to use sex as a symbol for comic victory and rejuvenation. Further, I argue that the silent female slave characters of Greek Old Comedy were played by real female slaves, whose bodies were sometimes exposed to the audience in order to unite them in shared erotic desire. Because these mute female slave characters tend to appear in the celebratory final scenes of the plays and often take on the role of alluring symposiastic entertainers (such as aulos players and dancers), I argue that their exposure creates the impression that the members of the audience are participating together in a public symposium.

Finally, my fifth chapter treats the association of slave characters with non-sexual violence in the extant comedies. As with sexual humor, I argue that in physically abusive humor slaves play roles on both sides of the equation: they are beaten or threatened onstage for the amusement of the audience, but they also function as tools of violence against others. First I examine scenes in which slaves function as passive objects of staged or threatened physical abuse--as presented in South Italian vase paintings and in the texts of our extant comedies themselves--and consider what effect such humor might have had on ancient audiences. Finally I consider the corresponding evidence for the use of slaves (both private and public) as instruments of physical violence in comedy, and their occasional instigation of violent acts on their own initiative.

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