CHS 2020 Spring Fellows | Kostas Vlassopoulos

Ancient Slavery: A Sourcebook

During his CHS fellowship, Kostas Vlassopoulos will work on a sourcebook which engages with a major aspect of ancient history: that of slavery and its fundamental effects on the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of the Greek and Roman worlds. The sourcebook is based on a new theoretical approach to ancient slavery. Traditional approaches employ a top-down perspective, seeing slaves as passive objects of domination and exploitation, and ancient slavery as an institution that was unilaterally created by masters and remained static for the whole millennium of antiquity. Vlassopoulos espouses a radically alternative approach; its major premise is that we need to understand slavery not as an ahistorical entity with an essential nature, but as the contradictory outcome of a variety of interrelated processes which changed significantly in the course of antiquity. Slavery was the historical outcome of an asymmetrical negotiation of power between masters, slaves and other groups and factors (e.g. the political community, interstate relations). Slaves tried constantly to modify slavery, not only by negotiating as best as they could the terms of their relationship with their masters, but also by creating communities and lives of their own, below and beyond slavery. This approach emphasises the significance of slave agency, and restores the full dimensionality of ancient slaves, by exploring not only their lives as human commodities and enslaved labourers, but also the full range of identities and roles taken up by slaves, and the complex ways in which those wider identities and roles shaped and were shaped by slavery.
A major consequence of this approach is its focus on diversity and its historical results. 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 simple distinction between slave and free, the dialectical relationships between slaves and masters, between slaves and freemen, and within the communities that slaves created and participated, produced historically diverse forms of slave groups and identities. Within the same society there existed a variety of co-existing slaving strategies, a variety of aims that slaves could be used for (leisure, production of goods, income, prestige, management) and a plurality of ways in which these aims could be fulfilled. These diverse slaving strategies created different forms of slaves and different forms of interaction between slaves and freemen.
As a result of this new approach, this sourcebook on ancient slavery aims to innovate on the range of sources employed. Because of the static and top-down approach they follow, most general works, and even many specialist studies, tend to focus on a very limited range of primarily literary sources. A major aim of this volume is to introduce to the study of ancient slavery an immense range of sources which so far have been largely unknown to both general readers and specialists. This includes poetic and prose works like those of Herondas and Alciphron, medical, astrological and oneiromantic treatises, popular collections of fables, jokes and proverbs, and patristic sources; particularly strong attention is devoted to the wealth of epigraphy, papyrology and visual and material culture for exploring slave agency and the diversity of slavery across space and time.

Kostas Vlassopoulos

Kostas Vlassopoulos studied ancient history at the universities of Athens, Crete and Cambridge. Between 2005-2015 he taught ancient history at the University of Nottingham, before moving to the University of Crete, where he is currently Associate Professor in Ancient History. His research interests include the social and economic history of the ancient Greek world, the history of slavery, the history of intercultural relations in antiquity, the history of political thought and the historiography of ancient history. He is the author of Unthinking the Greek Polis: Ancient Greek History beyond Eurocentrism (2007); Politics: Antiquity and its Legacy (2010); and Greeks and Barbarians (2013). He has co-edited the volumes Slavery, Citizenship and the State (2009); Communities and Networks in the Ancient Greek World (2015); and Violence and Community in the Eastern Mediterranean World (2017). He is currently co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Slaveries.