Above: A wall in old Ahvaz, Iran. Source: Unsplash. Creator: Ashkan Forouzani. License: Unsplash license.

Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama

ed. Ben Akrigg & Rob Tordoff, 2013

How did audiences of ancient Greek comedy react to the spectacle of masters and slaves? If they were expected to laugh at a slave threatened with a beating by his master at one moment but laugh with him when they bantered familiarly at the next, what does this tell us about ancient Greek slavery? This volume presents ten essays by leading specialists in ancient Greek literature, culture and history, exploring the changing roles and representations of slaves in comic drama from Aristophanes at the height of the Athenian Empire to the New Comedy of Menander and the Hellenistic World. The contributors focus variously on individual comic dramas or on particular historical periods, analysing a wide range of textual, material-culture and comparative data for the practices of slavery and their representation on the ancient Greek comic stage.

The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume I: The Ancient Mediterranean World

ed. Keith Bradley & Paul Cartledge, 2011

Volume 1 in the new Cambridge World History of Slavery surveys the history of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world. Although chapters are devoted to the ancient Near East and the Jews, its principal concern is with the societies of ancient Greece and Rome. These are often considered as the first examples in world history of genuine slave societies because of the widespread prevalence of chattel slavery, which is argued to have been a cultural manifestation of the ubiquitous violence in societies typified by incessant warfare. There was never any sustained opposition to slavery, and the new religion of Christianity probably reinforced rather than challenged its existence. In twenty-two chapters, leading scholars explore the centrality of slavery in ancient Mediterranean life using a wide range of textual and material evidence. Non-specialist readers in particular will find the volume an accessible account of the early history of this crucial phenomenon.

Page duBois, a classicist known for her daring and originality, turns in this new book to one of the most troubling subjects in the study of antiquity: the indispensability of slaves in ancient Greece. DuBois argues that every object and text in the world of ancient Greece bears the marks of slavery and the need to reiterate the distinction between slave and free. And yet the ubiquity of slaves in ancient societies has been overlooked by scholars who idealize antiquity, misconstrued by those who view slavery through the lens of race, and obscured by the split between historical and philological approaches to the classics. DuBois begins her study by exploring the material culture of slavery, including how most museum exhibits erase the presence of slaves in the classical world. Shifting her focus to literature, she considers the place of slaves in Plato’s Meno, Aristotle’s Politics, Aesop’s Fables, Aristophanes’ Wasps, and Euripides’ Orestes. She contends throughout that portraying the difference between slave and free as natural was pivotal to Greek concepts of selfhood and political freedom, and that scholars who idealize such concepts too often fail to recognize the role that slavery played in their articulation.

The Ancient Economy

M.I. Finley, 1999

"Technical progress, economic growth, productivity, even efficiency have not been significant goals since the beginning of time," declares M. I. Finley in his classic work. The states of the ancient Mediterranean world had no recognizable real-property market, never fought a commercially-inspired war, witnessed no drive to capital formation, and assigned the management of many substantial enterprises to slaves and ex-slaves. In short, to study the economies of the ancient world, one must begin by discarding many premises that seemed self-evident before Finley showed that they were useless or misleading. Available again, with a new foreword by Ian Morris, these sagacious, fertile, and occasionally combative essays are just as electrifying today as when Finley first wrote them.

The scale of ancient slave-owning varied from period to period and from place to place. In certain instances, especially in classical Athens and in Roman Italy of the Late Republic and Principate, it became particularly prominent. But despite fluctuations of scale, slavery as a concept was never altogether absent from ancient Mediterranean life. Ideologically, members of society were divided into two broad categories: those who were free and those who were not. . . . For Greeks and Romans throughout their history, slavery was a defining and distinctive element of culture. Across time and place slavery, or ‘unfreedom’, took different forms. Debt-bondage, helotage, temple slavery and something akin to serfdom are all attested. . . . Chattel slavery [was] the most extreme form of unfreedom in antiquity, in which the slave was conceptualised as a commodity, akin to livestock, and was owned by a master who had full capacity to alienate his human property, by sale, gift, bequest or other means. For the slave the result was a state of social death in which all rights and sense of personhood were denied. The appearance of this form of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean has led to the dominant modern view that Greece and Rome offer the first examples in world history of what can be called genuine slave societies. Precisely how and when those societies arose, and how they should be understood to be genuine, are matters of ongoing debate. . . . But if a single origin for the practice and maintenance of chattel slavery in antiquity can be identified, it lies in the right of victors in warfare, endemic to the ancient world, to dispose of the defeated as they saw fit: to free, hold to ransom, or kill them; or to retain them in a state of servitude as long as they wished. Slavery in antiquity can be regarded accordingly as a cultural manifestation of the ubiquitous violence in society that incessant warfare typified, bringing into being social relationships in which absolute power was exercised by some over others whose lives had been spared after military conquest.

Keith Bradley & Paul Cartledge

The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. I

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Ancient Slavery & Modern Ideology

M.I. Finley, 2017

Slaves have been exploited in most societies throughout human history. There have, however, been only five genuine slave societies, and of these, two were in antiquity: classical Greece and classical Italy. Here distinguished historian Sir Moses Finley examines those two not in isolation, but in comparison. In this thought-provoking study of slavery in ancient Greece and Italy, Finley discusses how slave societies came into being and considers the moral, social, and economic underpinnings that allowed them to prosper. His comparison of ancient slave societies with their relatively modern counterparts in the New World opens a new perspective on the history of slavery. Finley's inquiry sheds light on the complex ways in which ideological interests affect historical interpretation.

Economy and Society in Ancient Greece

M.I. Finley, 1981

This collection of 14 strikingly original essays offers the general reader, the student and the scholar a rare and stimulating view of classical antiquity. Drawn from three decades of M.I. Finley's renowned scholarly inquiries, the essays focus on the community of the Greek city, the problem of slavery and dependent labor in the ancient world, and the Mycenaean and Homeric worlds of early Greece. Finley provides brilliantly detailed analyses of important and often neglected aspects of classical society; each essay invites readers to rethink and redefine their own approach to the ancient world.

This is an authoritative and clearly written account of the main issues involved in the study of Greek slavery from Homeric times to the fourth century BC. It provides valuable insights into the fundamental place of slavery in the economies and social life of classical Greece, and includes penetrating analyses of the widely-held ancient ideological justifications of slavery. A wide range of topics is covered, including the development of slavery from Homer to the classical period, the peculiar form of community slaves (the helots) found in Sparta, economic functions and the treatment of slaves in Athens, and the evidence for slaves' resistance. Throughout the author shows how political and economic systems, ideas of national identity, work and gender, and indeed the fundamental nature of Greek civilisation itself, were all profoundly affected by the fact that many of the Greek city-states were slave societies.

Slaves and Slavery
in Ancient Greece

Sara Forsdyke, 2021

Slavery in ancient Greece was commonplace. In this book Sara Forsdyke uncovers the wide range of experiences of slaves and focuses on their own perspectives, rather than those of their owners, giving a voice to a group that is often rendered silent by the historical record. By reading ancient sources 'against the grain,' and through careful deployment of comparative evidence from more recent slave-owning societies, she demonstrates that slaves engaged in a variety of strategies to deal with their conditions of enslavement, ranging from calculated accommodation to full-scale rebellion. Along the way, she establishes that slaves made a vital contribution to almost all aspects of Greek society. Above all, despite their often brutal treatment, they sometimes displayed great ingenuity in exploiting the tensions and contradictions within the system of slavery.

Ancient Slavery and Abolition: From Hobbes to Hollywood

ed. Edith Hall, Richard Alston, and Justine McConnell, 2011

A pathbreaking study of the role played by ancient Greek and Roman sources and voices in the struggle to abolish transatlantic slavery and in representations of that struggle in the twentieth century. Thirteen essays by an interdisciplinary team of specialists from three continents, led by the Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome at Royal Holloway University of London, ask how both critics and defenders of slavery in media ranging from parliamentary speeches to poetry, fiction, drama, and cinema have summoned the ghosts of the ancient Spartans, Homer, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Pliny, Spartacus, and Prometheus to support their arguments.

Slaves were found virtually everywhere in the economy [of Athens], from banking to trade, retail, crafts and industries, prostitution, mining and agriculture. A large number of slaves were owned by the polis and employed in various offices and functions in what would today be referred to as the ‘public sector’. Perversely, but unsurprisingly, we know far more about tiny minority groups of highly skilled, specialized or valuable slaves than we do about the vast majority of slaves at Athens. The slaves mining silver in the district of Laureion and working on the farms of Attica must have vastly outnumbered slave bankers such as Pasion. One effect of the elitist bias of our sources is that we know most about the very small number of slaves who became rich in the banking industry, who were high-class, high-fee prostitutes such as Neaira, or who were highly literate and numerate archivists and accountants for the polis. Slaves of this type appear in the Athenian law-court speeches . . . and in political documents ranging from inscriptions on stone to the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia. . . . Even when we catch more than a glimpse of domestic and agricultural slavery, it is in the context of a household and estate belonging to a very rich man. . . . Our evidence for the roles and functions of slaves and slavery at Athens thus appears in quantities almost inversely proportional to the numbers of slaves found in any given sector, and perhaps even in an inverse relationship to their real importance to the Athenian economy.

Rob Tordoff

'Introduction' in Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama

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Ancient Greek & Roman Slavery

Peter Hunt, 2017

This book provides an introduction to pivotal issues in the study of classical (Greek and Roman) slavery. The span of topics is broad―ranging from everyday resistance to slavery to philosophical justifications of slavery, and from the process of enslavement to the decline of slavery after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The book uses a wide spectrum of types of evidence, and relies on concrete and vivid examples whenever possible. Introductory chapters provide historical context and a clear and concise discussion of the methodological difficulties of studying ancient slavery. The following chapters are organized around central topics in slave studies: enslavement, economics, politics, culture, sex and family life, manumission and ex-slaves, everyday conflict, revolts, representations, philosophy and law, and decline and legacy. Chapters open with general discussions of important scholarly controversies and the challenges of our ancient evidence, and case studies from the classical Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods provide detailed and concrete explorations of the issues.

The ancient Greek statesman is a familiar figure in the Western political tradition. Less well known is the administrator who ran the state but who was himself a slave. Challenging the modern belief that democracy and bondage are incompatible, Paulin Ismard directs our attention to the cradle of Western democracy, ancient Athens, where the functioning of civic government depended crucially on highly skilled experts who were literally public servants―slaves owned by the city-state rather than by private citizens. Known as demosioi, these public slaves filled a variety of important roles in Athenian society. They were court clerks, archivists, administrators, accountants, and policemen. Many possessed knowledge and skills beyond the attainments of average citizens, and they enjoyed privileges, such as the right to own property, that were denied to private slaves. In effect, demosioi were Western civilization’s first civil servants―though they carried out their duties in a condition of bound servitude. Ismard detects a radical split between politics and administrative government at the heart of Athenian democracy. The city-state’s managerial caste freed citizens from the day-to-day responsibilities of running the state. By the same token, these public servants were unable to participate in the democratic process because they lacked the rights of full citizenship. By rendering the state’s administrators politically invisible, Athens warded off the specter of a government capable of turning against the citizens’ will. In a real sense, Ismard shows, Athenian citizens put the success of their democratic experiment in the hands of slaves.

The orthodox view of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean holds that Greece and Rome were its only 'genuine slave societies', that is, societies in which slave labour contributed significantly to the economy and underpinned the wealth of elites. Other societies, traditionally labelled 'societies with slaves', are thought to have made little use of slave labour and therefore have been largely ignored in recent scholarship. This volume presents a radically different view of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean world, showing that elite exploitation of slave labour in Greece and the Near East shared some fundamental similarities, although the degree of elite dependence on slaves varied from region to region. The differing degrees to which Eastern Mediterranean elites exploited slave labour represents the outcome of a complex interplay between cultural, economic, political, geographical, and demographic factors. Proceeding on a regional basis, this book tracks the ways in which local conditions shaped a wide variety of Greek and Near Eastern slave systems, and how the legal architecture of slavery in individual regions was altered and adapted to accommodate these needs.

The name "Helots" evokes one of the most famous peculiarities of ancient Sparta, the system of dependent labor that guaranteed the livelihood of the free citizens. The Helots fulfilled all the functions that slaves carried out elsewhere in the Greek world, allowing their masters the leisure to be full-time warriors. Yet, despite their crucial role, Helots remain essentially invisible in our ancient sources and peripheral and enigmatic in modern scholarship. This book is devoted to a much-needed reassessment of Helotry and of its place in the history and sociology of unfree labor. The essays deal with the origins and historical development of Helotry, with its sociological, economic, and demographic aspects, with its ideological construction and negotiation.

Slavery was a fundamental institution in the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, but little agreement. The modern debate has sometimes been bitter - unsurprisingly, given its background in the abolitionist atmosphere of the 19th century. As we enter the 21st century the battleground has started to shift: can the historian hope to reconstruct the life of ancient slaves, or just fragments of their image in Greek and Roman literature? More than most topics, the ancient slave has therefore attracted constant modern redefinition. But how far do we see the slave better, and how far do we, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, use the idea of the slave to offer a refracted image of ourselves?

Slaves rebelled in various ways in the ancient world. Sometimes, when they had the opportunity, they ran away. Sometimes they took up arms and fought their masters. Spartacus is a name familiar to many but he was only one of tens of thousands of slaves from antiquity who formed armies to fight for their freedom. We do not have as much information as we should like about these events from the ancient world, but there is more than might be assumed from a quick glance at modern histories. While one might expect modern commentators to be more sympathetic toward slaves than their ancient counterparts, the reason for a relative lack of interest in slave rebellion is perhaps not hard to find: slave armies might defeat those of their former masters for a while, even for years, but in the end slavery persisted. There was no abolitionist movement among free people, nor even any text calling for the abolition of slavery. We do not even know that the slaves themselves wanted an end to slavery for other people. It is more likely that, on acquiring their own freedom, they would simply have gone on to become slaveowners themselves. Slaves who took up arms against their masters were simply groups of individuals taking rash, if not downright foolish, action, which could never have succeeded. At the time, it must have seemed threatening to the owners to find their slaves armed and hostile, but with hindsight we can see that such groupings never had a chance of long-term success. And, it might be argued, they had no impact, or only a minimal one, on their own societies.

Theresa Urbainczyk

Slave Revolts in Antiquity

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Slavery and Social Death

Orlando Patterson, 1982

This is the first full-scale comparative study of the nature of slavery. In a work of prodigious scholarship and enormous breadth, which draws on the tribal, ancient, premodern, and modern worlds, Orlando Patterson discusses the internal dynamics of slavery in sixty-six societies over time. These include Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, China, Korea, the Islamic kingdoms, Africa, the Caribbean islands, and the American South. Slavery is shown to he a parasitic relationship between master and slave, invariably entailing the violent domination of a natally alienated, or socially dead, person. The phenomenon of slavery as an institution, the author argues. is a single process of recruitment, incorporation on the margin of society, and eventual manumission or death.

The Archaeology of Greek & Roman Slavery

F.H. Thompson, 2003

Slavery is a word heavy with emotional and political overtones -- to be owned by another person and treated as a commodity is the ultimate injustice. But this was the fate of a substantial percentage of the population of the ancient world. Slavery was essential to their societies; thus slavery is necessarily a core topic in the study of classical civilisation. Most previous studies of ancient slavery have grown out of historical and literary research. In the flood of books and papers on the subject, the archaeological evidence has often been ignored. This book fills the gap by confronting, for the first time, the archaeological evidence for slavery. This evidence is used to build up a picture of rich complexity, drawing both on historical sources or inscriptions and on archaeological studies of the development of technology and the economy. The book covers topics as diverse as the source of slaves, the nature of the slave trade, and the use of slave-labour in agriculture, mines and quarries, corn and weaving mills, and water-lifting. It concludes with chapters on restraint and slave revolts. This comprehensive and masterful book will be used both as a source of evidence and as a starting point for future research but by anyone studying the topic of slavery in any age.

The controversial thesis at the center of this study is that, despite the importance of slavery in Athenian society, the most distinctive characteristic of Athenian democracy was the unprecedented prominence it gave to free labor. Wood argues that the emergence of the peasant as citizen, juridically and politically independent, accounts for much that is remarkable in Athenian political institutions and culture. From a survey of historical writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the focus of which distorted later debates, Wood goes on to take issue with recent arguments, such as those of G.E.M. de Ste Croix, about the importance of slavery in agricultural production. The social, political and cultural influence of the peasant-citizen is explored in a way which questions some of the most cherished conventions of Marxist and non-Marxist historiography. This book will be of great interest to ancient historians, classicists, anthropologists and political theorists, as well as to a wider reading public.

Reconstructing the Slave: The Image of the Slave in Ancient Greece

Kelly L. Wrenhaven, 2014

Although the importance of slavery to Greek society has long been recognised, most studies have primarily drawn upon representations of slaves as sources of evidence for the historical institution, while there has been little consideration of what the representations can tell us about how the Greeks perceived slaves and why. Although historical reality clearly played a part in the way slaves were represented, Reconstructing the Slave stresses that this was not the primary purpose of these images, which reveal more about how slave-owners perceived or wanted to perceive slaves than the reality of slavery. Through an examination of lexical, visual and literary representations of slaves, the book considers how the image of the slave was used to justify, reinforce and naturalize slavery in ancient Greece.

Below: A terracotta votive tablet from Corinth depicting slaves at work in a mine; 5th c. BCE.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Huesca. License: Public domain.