Servile Invective in Classical Athens

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Deborah Kamen


Accusations or insinuations of servile ancestry were pervasive in classical Athenian oratory, even in instances where the litigants had no discernable slave history. After examining the ‘servile invective’ used by Demosthenes and Aeschines in their paired speeches, I argue that one source of this invective was attacks against individuals who actually had been or were descended from slaves. I contend further that servile invective reveals contemporary concerns about manumission and naturalization, processes that not only incorporated ‘outsiders’ into the demos but also revealed the fluidity of (ideologically fixed) status categories like slave/free and citizen/non-citizen. Finally, I suggest that one effect of this rhetoric in the case of non-servile litigants (like Aeschines and Demosthenes) was to stir up status-related anxieties in the jury, thereby aligning the jurors with the speaker against his opponent.

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