One of the lesser-used types of fill in hc_bingo is meta, so I decided to do a little analysis of slavery as depicted in the TV show Atlantis, as compared with real world slavery in ancient Greece, and also slavery as it appears in Greek mythology.
I may have got slightly carried away...
Unsurprisingly, it fills the 'Slaves' prompt on my hurt/comfort bingo card.
Slavery in Atlantis
If you ask the average person to list things they know about the ancient world, once they’ve worked their way through the famous monuments and the famous emperors and kings, and maybe a few philosophers, chances are someone will think of slavery. Slavery was a big part of the ancient world, with most civilisations having slaves to varying degrees, and the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome in particular having entire economies more or less based on slavery.
Given that Atlantis is essentially a fantasy world based very heavily on mythological Greece, with a whole pile of bits from later Archaic and Classical Greece, and few bits of Roman civilisation thrown in for good measure, let’s take a look at what the world of Atlantis has to say on the subject of slavery.
The short answer, sadly, is not a lot. That in itself is interesting, and something we will come back to later, but for now let’s take a look at what little we see in canon.
The first time we come across any reference to slaves is in episode 1.3 – A Boy of No Consequence, when the boys run afoul of Heptarian and are condemned to become ‘slaves of Poseidon’ and forced to participate in the dangerous bull leaping games.
The phrase, ‘Poseidon’s slaves’ gets bandied around rather a lot this episode, but in truth it does not appear to be slavery as we would normally use the term. True, they are all deprived of their liberty and forced to participate in the ritual games, but once they have done so they are all free to leave and pick up their lives as they were before. It actually seems far more like some sort of elaborate trial by combat, justified in society by the idea that the gods will decide their fate in the arena. This is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to the Medieval trial by combat, in which a fight to the death decided who was right, the theory being that God would not let an innocent person be defeated.
Staying on the subject of arena combat, it is clear that the Pankration of episode 1.7 – The Rules of Engagement and the coronation games of episode 2.3 – Telemon are combat tournaments open to free citizens, based loosely on the ancient Greek fighting games, and a less nasty version of Roman gladiatorial games. However, it may be possible to argue that episode 2.11 – Kin may be another example of slavery. In this episode, like in 1.3, the people who are fighting in the arena are largely being forced to against their will, and being slaughtered for entertainment.
Even here, though, it does not appear to be slavery as such. It seems that the people being thrown into the arena are criminals and undesirables and anyone who made the mistake of opposing Pasiphae. Here, more than any other occasion, parallels could be drawn between this and Roman gladiatorial games. It is true that sometimes the Roman games involved buying slaves and throwing them into the arena to fight (and usually to die) for entertainment. But in Atlantis, even under Pasiphae’s rule, they seem to have entirely bypassed the part where they are enslaved and bought, and merely cut out the middleman and thrown the criminals into the arena.
Going back to episode 1.3, however, even if the ‘Poseidon’s slaves’ thing may be something of a red herring, we do have some oblique references to slavery in Elpis and Cyrus’ back-story. It is not entirely clear how the others in the team came to be ‘Poseidon’s slaves’, but Elpis does talk about how she and Cyrus had been taken by slavers before journeying to Atlantis, so it seems possible that once they arrived in Atlantis they were bought specifically to be used in the bull leaping tournament. That seems a little harsh, as it was an almost certain death sentence, and slaves were expensive so it seems counter-intuitive that they would be bought purely for the bull leaping ritual. However, Elpis speaks of Cyrus stealing food for them both during the time when they were slaves, so they may have been condemned to their fate in the arena as a punishment for that, instead of simply being sold as labourers or domestic slaves when they eventually reached Atlantis. Unfortunately, we do not have enough evidence to work with from canon, and when they do all triumph in the arena, Elpis is allowed to walk free along with the others, despite apparently having been a slave even before being brought to the arena.
One other occasion where we have mention of slavery is episode 1.8 – The Furies, when we meet the characters of Nilas and Otus. Nilas explains that Otus was a slave on the island of Samos, and that he ‘dared to speak out’, (presumably against his masters) and had his tongue cut out as punishment. Otus apparently also killed someone, and while it is not entirely clear from the dialogue, the implication seems to be that he killed his master. Nevertheless, he is now apparently working for Nilas as a free man.
This does not ring true for any version of slavery in the ancient world. In the Roman world, for example, if a slave killed their master, then all the slaves in the household would be put to death in retribution (this was apparently intended to encourage slaves to inform on each other if they believed any of their number were plotting rebellion). But for a slave to kill his master and to not only escape with his life, but then be freed at a later date, does not sound overly plausible.
Another interpretation of what Nilas says may be that Otus killed someone and was enslaved as a punishment. This would make more sense, although the way Nilas phrases it, “He’s paid his price,” and the fact that Otus is now free, implies that it was a sentence that lasted for a set time, rather than being enslaved for life.
One last possible allusion to slavery may be seen in episode 2.3 - Telemon, when it transpires that Telemon and Areto have both spent time in the salt mines of Headra. It is true that in Classical Athens slaves were used in the silver mines in Laurium, and it was considered a particularly nasty fate for a slave to be sent to the mines. For Telemon and Areto, however, this seems to have been a punishment in response to crimes committed. There is no actual mention of slavery, and again in this instance it seems to be treated more as a fixed term punishment in a prison (indeed, it is specifically referred to as a prison in the episode) rather than a lifetime of slavery.
Of course, it could be that we are seeing slaves in the streets of Atlantis every day and not realising it. One census in 4th century BC Athens claims that there were 400,000 slaves to a citizen population of around 35,000 (although another estimate from about a century earlier suggests 120,000 slaves to 60,000 Athenians, but either way, it would seem a significant proportion of the population were slaves). Some sources said that in Classical Athens you could not tell a slave from a free man because everyone dressed alike, so perhaps in all those market and street scenes in Atlantis, many of the people in the background may in fact be slaves.
Slaves in classical Athens could be teachers, traders, craftsmen, farmers, wet-nurses; they could hold positions of great responsibility in the household, so it was not always a life of manual labour and drudgery. But the flipside to that was that slaves were essentially property, to be used and disposed of as their master saw fit, and they were tied to their master’s household for life unless they were either sold or freed. A slave’s testimony in court was only admissible if extracted under torture, and flogging was a common punishment. And, of course, if their master wanted sex a slave could not refuse.
In ancient Greece, people could become slaves due to debt bondage, or by being taken prisoner by pirates or bandits, but by far the most common method of becoming a slave was to be on the defeated side in a war or battle or even a brief skirmish. This is also true in the world of the Greek myths, which depict a ‘heroic age’ in the distant past, and upon which Atlantis is largely based as a society concept.
In Homer’s Iliad we see numerous examples of what happens to people captured in battle, and for the most part, unless someone is a particularly rich or important individual who can be ransomed for large amounts of treasure, that fate is generally slavery. Women of the defeated side in particular suffered this fate. In the Iliad, Hector speaks of the fate which he knows will befall his wife, Andromache, if the Trojans fall: “But the pain I feel for the suffering to come is less for the people of Troy... than my pain for you, when one of the bronze-clad Achaeans [Greeks] carries you away in tears and takes away the day of your freedom: you will live in Argos, weaving at the loom at another woman’s command, and carrying water from a foreign spring... much against your will, but compulsion will lie harsh upon you.” (Iliad book VI 450-8). Indeed, much of the plot of the Iliad hinges on the treatment of a slave girl, Briseis, who was taken captive and awarded to Achilles as a ‘prize’, before being taken from him by Agamemnon. Thus was the fate of female slaves, to be given and taken at the whim of the men who owned them.
In the other great epic by Homer, The Odyssey, we see a rare example of a male domestic slave in Eumaeus the swineherd. Truthfully, his lot does not appear to be particularly arduous, and he even has a slave of his own. Nevertheless, he tells a story of how he came to be in this position; he was the son of a king, but was tricked by pirates and taken prisoner and sold as a slave (this being the other main method of becoming a slave apart from warfare).
From what we can see of the royal households in the myths, it seems likely that most, if not all, of the household servants were, in fact, slaves. While it is true that life as a slave in a large and wealthy household was a great deal better than life as a slave in the mines, the same comments about lack of liberty and being used for sex by their masters holds true. There is even a comment in The Odyssey (book I 430-3) that Odysseus’ father, Laertes, does not use his slave girls in such a way, for fear of the wrath of his wife. The fact that this was commented on at all was because Laertes’ behaviour was an exception to the norm.
Nevertheless, there was another side to a slave’s situation. Of the many layers of kinship and loyalty and duty in heroic Greece, the smallest scale was that of the oikos, which is generally translated to mean ‘the household’. Even slaves were part of the oikos, meaning that they benefited from the protection of the oikos just as much as the free family members. Indeed, when Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles in Hades (Odyssey book 11 489-91), Achilles laments his fate and claims that he would rather be a thes in the land of the living than a king in Hades. A thes was a free man, but one who did not own land, and who was compelled to labour for others for their living. In Achilles’ view, a thes is the lowliest and least desirable position in society that he can think of, not a slave. This is because thetes were not part of an oikos, and had no security and no one to rely on in times of need. A slave, at least, had that.
But I digress. Coming back to the subject of how this relates to the world portrayed in Atlantis, it is notable that in the royal household, far from being full of slaves, it is implied that the servants, such as Korinna and Medusa, are in fact paid employees. Indeed, the reason Medusa travels to Atlantis in the first place is to find work at the palace. They are always referred to as ‘servants’ in the show, which is a suitably ambiguous word when viewed in this context.
The city portrayed in Atlantis is in some ways more akin to later Greek cities than the mythical heroic age which it largely purports to show, but we may, perhaps, stretch the analogy from the Homeric poems and suggest that Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules are more akin to the position of thetes, in society. It is true they form a household together, in a loose sense, but they have no land, no stored wealth, and no trade or profession between them. As we see most obviously in episode 1.11 - Pangs, income is a constant issue, and they are forced to take on any jobs that are available to avoid starvation and being thrown out of their home. Slaves, at least, are almost guaranteed food and shelter. Although, of course, the other side of the argument is that slaves could not drop everything and go off on adventures every other week either, so one suspects that in that regard, at least, a thes was in a better position.
So, what have we learned in this roundabout tour of canon examples and historical and mythological slavery? One thing that stands out is that when we get any hint of slavery at all in Atlantis, is tends to be presented as a ‘punishment’, usually for criminal or socially undesirable activity. There is no suggestion that people might become slaves simply by being on the wrong (i.e. losing) side in a war, or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by simply being unlucky.
Essentially, there is practically nothing in the show that we would recognise as true slavery, and there is very little indication at all that slaves play any part in the economy or society of Atlantis. Given how big a part of the real and mythological ancient Greece it was, this at first glance seems surprising, until you perhaps give it a little more thought. Let’s remember that first and foremost this is a family show on the BBC. The writers may simply have felt that slavery as an integral and socially acceptable part of society was unsuitable material for a family show and younger audiences.
Let’s take that a step further, though, and look at it from a character point of view. The Jason of series 1 still had a fairly modern day mind set, and no doubt if he had come into contact with any overt slavery he would have been appalled, and he would probably have attempted to intervene and do something to stop it. This would have brought him into conflict with society at large, but more importantly it would have brought him into conflict with Hercules and Pythagoras, who, let’s not forget, have grown up in this society and would see absolutely nothing wrong with it.
Pythagoras and Hercules might not necessarily be comfortable with slavery, they might even live in fear of it happening to them, but they would have no cause to question it as a basic aspect of society. And this is not the sort of mindset that modern ‘family audience’ scriptwriters want two of their main protagonists to have, especially not for characters who are supposed to be the ‘heroes’. At worst, it might alienate viewers from the characters of Pythagoras and Hercules, and within the show itself, it might create a moral divide between Jason and the other two that cannot be overcome without one side or the other completely negating their beliefs in how society works.
Given this as the likely outcome of any plot that involves slavery, it’s entirely possible that the writers simply decided it was more hassle than it was worth to open that particular can of worms.
The World of Odysseus, M.I. Finley 1954 Pimlico
The Iliad, Homer, translated by Martin Hammond 1987, Penguin Classics
The Odyssey, Homer, translated by E.V. Rieu, revised translation by D.C.H. Rieu 1991, Penguin Classics
Eureka – Everything you ever wanted to know about the ancient Greeks but were afraid to ask, Peter Jones, 2014, Atlantic Books
Who Were the Greeks?, BBC4 documentary written and presented by Michael Scott, 2013