Ancient Mediterranean
Slavery in Antiquity
  CLAS115 • Slavery in Antiquity

Olson Dorce





ILAB 0217
MWF @15h10-16h00


Alain Locke Hall 268
MWF 14-15h00 & by appt

Ancient Slavery examines a specific institution of the Mediterranean World where not only did certain people consider others as chattel, exploiting them as a type of transferable property, but those slaves also provided the primary mode of permanent labor, more than half of the work force in both agriculture and industry. The institution proved so central to the economy, society, and culture of ancient Greece and Rome that they earned themselves a place on the very short list of historical slave societies, alongside Brazil, the Caribbean and the Southern United States.

We will trace the origins of chattel slavery in the Ancient Near East (i.e. Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Egypt and the Levant) in order to understand these precedents and to allow for comparison and contrast to Greece and Rome. We will treat various interconnected topics, such as the sources for slaves, their economic and social impact, their life experiences, and their manumission (legal liberation), and episodes of resistance (from non-compliance, to sabotage and theft, to open revolt.

We also examine rare criticisms and common justifications for slavery, which was considered both normal and natural, with its legitimacy largely unchallenged. We will consider the ideological approaches to slavery that have developed in modern historiography as a result of the abolitionist movement, as well as ideological debates arising from competing economic theories of labor (e.g. Capitalism vs. Marxism), continually relying upon fragmentary, scattered and biased evidence—very little of it derived from the experiences of slaves themselves.

We study the development of the slave systems within ancient societies, how the system was maintained, the problems posed by the dependence on slaves in economy, the social impact of such unequal power relationships, and the impact of the incorporating manumitted (liberated) slaves and their children into society. From written sources, we study how slavery functioned in practice, as well as what literary elites imagined about agricultural and household slaves (all of our literary evidence comes not from slaves themselves but from the viewpoint of adult, male, free Roman citizens). From non-literary sources, we rely upon material evidence (e.g. tomb monuments) and sociological approaches to the past (e.g. demographic evidence, comparison to early modern slave societies).

The core goals of this class are:

  • to acquire factual and conceptual knowledge of slavery within the Ancient Mediterranean World, encompassing diverse civilizations, with a particular sensitivity to the influence of ancient concepts on the modern institution
  • to appreciate the analytical skills scholars use to research and recover the past
  • to appreciate change and continuity over time, in diverse regions, among diverse cultures
  • to become an independent, intellectual inquirer into the past

This course will treat reading and writing as critical thinking processes; we will remove the mystery and emphasize the mechanics of active reading and persuasive writing. You will learn how:

  • to read ancient literature critically
  • to refute and/or accommodate opposing viewpoints
  • to write with clarity, brevity, and specificity
  • to avoid logical fallacies
  • to collect, synthesize, and access data systematically, and
  • to use this data to reinforce an effective argument