Dikaiopolis and Xanthias, a critical reading (Part 1)

We first meet Dikaiopolis in the popular textbook, Athenaze, reading 1α. He is an αὐτουργός, that is – he owns a small farm allotment and works it with his own hands. He is by no means rich, but he is at least wealthy enough to own one enslaved person. We are also treated to a characterisation of Dikaiopolis. He πολλάκις στενάζει and bemoans his lot in life, but we are also told

ἰσχῡρός ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ἄοκνος· πολλάκις οὖν χαίρει· ἐλεύθερος γάρ ἐστι καὶ αὐτουργός·

That is, he is strong, unshirking [in his labours], and therefore [also] frequently is happy. The basis for his happiness – freedom and economic self-sufficiency.

Because we are introduced to Dikaiopolis first, we have initial identification – here is the protagonist of the story that we are to identify with. He is male, free, and a worker. Although Athenaze works within the tropes of Attic comedy, we must nonetheless recognise that we are being brought in to Athenian society through a particular lens – that of male citizens.

In the second chapter, titled Ο ΞΑΝΘΙΑΣ, we meet the enslaved. We are told immediately about him:

ὁ Ξανθίᾱς δοῦλός ἐστιν, ἰσχῡρὸς μὲν ἄνθρωπος, ᾱ̓ργὸς δέ·

Xanthias is an enslaved person, a strong human, but lazy. The name is drawn from Attic comedy, and represents a distinct facet of slave-naming – Greek (as with Roman) slaves are typically named for their origin (‘the Syrian’) or a physical feature (‘the yellow one’). Whatever name they bore before is erased by a name given by their enslavers. Xanthias is described as ‘strong’, ‘but lazy’. This characterisation represents Dikaiopolis’ perspective, without doubt. We are further told that Xanthias doesn’t work, unless his enslaver is present.

The text, probably unintentionally, provides immediately the opportunity of a critical reading. Is it laziness, an essentialising characterisation of an enslaved person, that causes Xanthias not to work? Or is this a form of resistance? Xanthias sole task in his enslaver’s eyes, and his value, is his ability to πονεῖν, to do rough toil. Toil that benefits his enslaver. Within the small degree of agency that Xanthias has, we might rather read this as a consistent strategy of the enslaved to resist the coercion and alienation of his own labour.

The chapter goes on, with Dikaiopolis the enslaver summoning Xanthias, who responds slowly, and castigating him for being lazy. Dikaiopolis retorts with surprising candour, “Why so harsh, enslaver? I am not lazy but am already hurrying”. If we accept the narrator’s description of Xanthias’ actions here and elsewhere, Xanthias does move slowly (repeatedly, we must question whether this is laziness, resistance, or the unspoken effects of physical punishment), which Xanthias reframes as “I am hurrying”. Within the same pericope, Dikaiopolis says “come here and συλλάμβανε (help)”. Again, we must ask, is it right to consider the coerced labour of the enslaved as ‘help’? The extraction of πόνος from Xanthias serves Dikaiopolis’ benefit, not a common (συν) good.

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