Historicising Greek slavery

The current project will engage with a major aspect of ancient Greek history: that of slavery and its fundamental effects on the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of the Greek world. Traditional approaches to Greek slavery examine it as a relationship of property which was unilaterally defined by the masters and which turned slaves into fungibles and social dead. Slavery defined the nature of Greek history: Greek society was based on the fundamental distinction between slave and free; Greek politics were restricted to adult free citizens, while slaves were perennial outcasts and outsiders; Greek economy was based on slave labour which provided Greek elites with the income and leisure necessary to engage with their political, athletic or literary pursuits. It is also generally accepted that slavery remained essentially unchanged in the course of a millennium of Greek history: the only points of historical change concern the emergence of Greek slave societies during the archaic period and their demise in late antiquity.

This project aims to challenge these long-held assumptions and provide a novel theoretical approach to Greek slavery. Its major premise is that we need to understand slavery not as an entity with an essential nature, but as the contradictory outcome of a variety of interrelated processes which changed significantly in the course of Greek history. Instead of conceiving slavery as a static relationship unilaterally defined by the masters, we have to conceive it as a process of negotiated domination in which the agency of masters, slaves and other groups played important, if asymmetrical, roles. Instead of a simple distinction between slave and free, we shall explore how the dialectical relationships between slaves and masters, slaves and free, and within the slave community created historically diverse forms of slave groups and identities. While traditional scholarship approaches slavery as a relationship of property and as a form of social death, slavery has always been a complex agglomeration of various modalities, which co-exist in diverse configurations ranging from mutual compatibility to irreconcilable contradiction. Instead of a simplistic distinction between free and slave labour, I will explore the variety of slaving strategies that co-existed within the same society and the variety of aims that slaves could be used for and the plurality of ways in which these aims could be fulfilled. The different slaving strategies created different forms of slaves and different forms of interaction between slaves and freemen.

This approach opens the path to historicise Greek slavery as a process that changed significantly in space and time and in which slave agency played a crucial role. The project will focus on new methodologies for examining ancient sources in order to explore slave agency and the historically changing forms of slavery. Among its prominent aspects will be the utilisation of forms of evidence that so far have been largely ignored (e.g. onomastics) and a consistent focus on the lessons of comparative history.

Dr Kostas Vlassopoulos
University of Nottingham

Kostas was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2012.