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Now We See You, Now We Don’t: Displacement, Citizenship, and Gender in Greek Tragedy

Hallie Marshall

University of British Columbia

Some Greek tragedies have female choruses that we immediately recognize as being geographically displaced or on the verge of displacement, such as the chorus of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women, Euripides’ Phoenician Women, Trojan Women and Hecuba, and are pointed to as examples of how tragedy speaks to the realities of war and displacement. These plays represent a range of female experiences and are important for our understanding of how women suffer in war, both in antiquity and in the present. This paper will argue, however, that there are other displaced women on the ancient Athenian stage who are not recognized as such, but who represent an important facet of this narrative: slave women. While the choruses of Trojan Women and Hecuba trace the first two parts of a narrative in which the women of Troy are first transformed from free women to property, and then put on ships for transport, scholars generally do not recognize the choruses of plays such as Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers as representing the final step in the transition of female choruses from women displaced by war to women enslaved. Yet there are a number of choruses comprised of slave women, from Electra’s choephori to the slaves who are to found abroad in Iphigenia among the Taurians and Helen.  
There are two parts to this paper. In the first part of the paper I catalogue the female slave choruses, examining both how they are described within the plays themselves and how they are described by scholars. I will query what is being described by the term ‘chorus of Greek slave women’, tracing a narrative line from the chorus of Trojan Women, still identified with their homeland and ruling family, through the chorus of Hecuba, physically removed from their homeland but still identified as Trojan, to choruses who, whatever their origins, are identified by the homeland of their owner, even when that owner is herself displaced, as in IT and Helen. In the second part of the paper, I examine the stark contrast between the characterization of men and women in the choruses of Greek tragedy, starting from the observation that not a single extant tragedy represents a male chorus as enslaved or in the process of being enslaved. When male choruses are not representative of the local citizen population (as they are in Agamemnon, Oedipus at Colonus, Herakles, etc.), they are still citizens, with their absence at from home explained by their role as sailors in times of war (Ajax, Philoctetes). I conclude by examining what these patterns tell us about both the conception and reality of slavery in fifth-century Athens, and also what it says about modern audiences when we focus on women in the midst of war, but fail to be concerned or moved by their final fate.

Session/Panel Title

Theatre of Displacement

Session/Paper Number


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