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Xenophon of Ephesus’ Critique of Stoic Thinking about Slavery

William Owens

Scholars have noted the influence of Stoic ideas in Xenophon of Ephesus’ novel Ephesiaka.  Dalmeyda commented that Xenophon had made his protagonists Habrocomes and Anthia into Stoics (xxi).  Perkins compared them (as well as the protagonists of Chariton’s and Achilles Tatius’ novels) to Epictetus’ construction of an ideal subjectivity that is unaffected by pain and suffering (77-103).  Doulamis detected possible Stoic influence in three specific episodes (159-160).  In this paper I reexamine those episodes and conclude the following:  In each, the reference to Stoic ideas had a specific bearing on the practical experience of slaves.  Rather than reflecting Stoic ideas approvingly, Xenophon was sharply critical of the Stoics when it came to their thinking about slavery.

Habrocomes first tried to resist falling in love with Anthia, telling himself that her beauty was disturbing to his eyes, but not, if he willed it (ἐὰν θέλῃς), to himself (1.4.3).  His attempt to resist passion through the exercise of will reflects the Stoic doctrine of choice or προαίρεσις.  Xenophon also described his protagonist’s surrender to passion in Stoic terms.  Habrocomes would become the war captive (3.1.2, αἰχμάλωτος) of Ἔρως, a metaphorical slave of love.  He would be compelled to be a slave to a girl (1.4.2, παρθένῳ δουλεύειν ἀναγκάζομαι).  Habrocomes chastised himself for his unmanliness and wickedness (Ὢ πάντα ἄνανδρος ἐγὼ καὶ πονηρός).  This self-chastisement reflects the Stoic view that slavery of the soul to passion was worse than legal slavery, an indifferent that did not depend on προαίρεσις.  Xenophon’s critique of this view emerges after Habrocomes is enslaved by pirates.  The protagonist’s real slavery will involve far more suffering than his metaphorical slavery to love. 

One of Habrocomes’ captors, the pirate Korymbos, fell in love with him and propositioned him through a comrade, Euxeinos.  Euxeinos urged Habrocomes to chalk up to fate (1.16.3, τῇ τύχῃ πάντα λογίσασθαι) the loss of his freedom and wealth.  He should forget his former life, look to his master alone, and obey him (1.16.5).  The argument reflects two Stoic ideas:  indifference to externals such as status and the necessity of accepting as a duty what Fate has ordained.  Such determinism was used to justify the existing social order (cf. Francis, 42-50). Xenophon’s pirate cited it here to argue for the sexual exploitation of the protagonist.  The constraints of Stoic virtue on the master were weaker in practice than the temptations made possible by his power.  Even a master schooled in Stoic doctrine was, like Euxeinos, a potential pirate.

When Habrocomes was the slave of Apsyrtos, his master’s daughter Manto propositioned him and threatened torture if he refused.  The protagonist, however, was unmoved by the threat.  He wrote back to Manto (2.5.4):  “Treat my body as the body of a slave (χρῶ σώματι ὡς οἰκέτου).  If you want to kill me, I’m ready.  If you want to torture me, torture me as you would.”  Habrocomes reflects the Stoic idea that physical pain, like the body itself, was an indifferent.  As she promised, Manto had Habrocomes tortured.  The experience was horrible; the protagonist had no idea what it would be like (2.6.2):  “The beatings had completely disfigured his body, unaccustomed as it was to tortures that slaves endure (βασάνων ἄηθες ὂν οἰκετικῶν).”  Xenophon’s description of the dreadful impact of torture on the naïve hero implies a critique of Stoicism’s idealistic indifference to pain, an attitude that was admirable in the abstract but entailed a great price in practice. 

Xenophon’s interest in Stoicism focuses on the implications of Stoic doctrine in reference to slavery.  His attitude is sharply critical; his point of view valorizes the practical experience of the slave, subject to exploitation and brutal punishment, over that of the theoretical wisdom of Stoic teaching.

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Slavery and Status in Ancient Literature and Society

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