sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5

Deborah Kamen: Greek Slavery

Deborah Kamen's Greek Slavery fills an important gap in scholarly literature. As part of the Trends in Classics' series Key Perspectives on Classical Research, her book is dedicated not to providing another introduction to Greek slavery (new introductory works have appeared in recent years in English, French, and German) but an overview of developments in the scholarly literature on Greek slavery over the last 25 years. Such a survey is long overdue: when I first encountered the subject of Greek slavery two decades ago as an undergraduate, Thomas Wiedemann's booklet for the New Surveys in the Classics series was already over twenty years old (albeit with updates, reissued in 1992 and 1997), whilst the publication of the Mainz Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur's updated Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei in 2003 (orig. 1983; now searchable online), logging ca. 10,000 items, proved simultaneously invaluable and intimidatingly comprehensive for the researcher starting out. Much has happened in the intervening years, especially in scholarship in English and French. A brief, judicious, sketch of recent key developments that takes up the baton from Wiedemann and brings graduate students (and established scholars looking to get into the topic) rapidly up to speed has therefore long been a desideratum. And the series editors chose well in selecting their author: Kamen is as well qualified as any to write on this subject, for alongside a distinguished series of publications on Greek slavery, she has - more than most others - long kept abreast of developments in languages other than English and engaged with these in her work.

Kamen succeeds admirably in her task. The book is divided into nine chapters. The first provides an overview of recent major books and edited volumes, with summaries of their coverage. It also reflects on key debates over the definition of slavery and the utility of Finley's bifurcation between 'slave societies' and 'societies with slaves'. Chapter 2 looks regionally and examines work on slavery in early Greece, as well as Classical Athens, Sparta, and Crete. (Despite not being an introduction to Greek slavery per se, Kamen devotes more space to Crete than any introductory volume has done since Garlan's four decades ago; hopefully Cretan slavery will become a major staple rather than footnote material in future introductions and general works.) Chapter 3 looks at the economics of slavery, including the slave supply. Chapter 4 examines the treatment of slaves, chapter 5 issues of sex and gender, whilst chapter 6 explores a topic that is now becoming (for good reason) the central focus of most researchers on Greek slavery: agency. (The chapter also treats resistance and revolt, which have been staple topics since the 1980s). Chapter 7 canvasses the issue of manumission, the subject of a flurry of recent studies with divergent conclusions; and chapter 8 treats the representation of slaves in literature, art, and metaphor, as well as the reception of slavery in modern popular culture and its broader cultural legacy.

Throughout her survey, Kamen provides fair and accurate summaries of recent research, and also her own judgments on what are the strongest arguments. She is consistently generous and avoids using her umpire role to engage in pushing a partisan line - the reader, whilst aware of Kamen's own view, is encouraged to read for themselves the key arguments in any debate. And whilst it would be impossible in any field marked by healthy debate for the reader to agree with all the author's judgments, Kamen's are, in my opinion, almost always convincing.

There are occasional omissions. For instance, researchers newly entering the field will find much of profit in the works of Winfried Schmitz and Julien Zurbach, as well as several specific studies not canvassed by Kamen which, in my opinion, should be key readings. [1] Minor quibbles aside, overall Kamen's survey succeeds in sketching a balanced and accurate overview of the field.

For any graduate students aiming to work on Greek slavery (and there are increasing numbers of these), Kamen's book is an indispensable vade mecum. Yet new researchers will need new topics, and Kamen's timely volume provides the opportunity to assess future directions for the subject - something that she addresses in her short epilogue (chapter 9). In other words, what have we scholars working on Greek slavery over the past 25 years been missing? And what should we do next? For Kamen, key lines of enquiry for the coming years will include more global/comparative approaches and more work on slaves' experiences. I wholly agree; but several other points come to mind. First, Greek slavery has too long been coterminous with Attic slavery, which can be justified only so far in terms of the distribution of the evidence. Despite the patchier evidence beyond Athens, there is plenty of scope for more and better regional studies. Secondly, the chronological timeframe. Greek slavery has too long been seen as coterminous with the archaic and (especially) Classical periods, with effectively all general textbooks ending in the time of Alexander - yet this watershed marks the start of a major uptick in the volume of epigraphical and papyrological evidence. The new sourcebooks Greek and Roman Slaveries (Eftychia Bathrellou and Kostas Vlassopoulos) and Slavery and Dependence in Ancient Egypt (by Jane Rowlandson, Roger Bagnall, and Dorothy Thompson) overcome these traditional chronological and geographical blinkers; let us hope that the next introduction written on Greek slavery does so too. Thirdly, even if more regional studies distributed beyond Athens and beyond the Classical era are investigated, there is much scope for integrating these into a broader longue durée picture that links up with e.g., the picture of late antique and Byzantine slavery in the Greek-speaking East produced by Kyle Harper and Youval Rotman respectively, looking at how these regional systems fit into long-term processes of divergence and convergence affected by e.g., growing market integration, the effect of Roman rule of the Mediterranean, and its disintegration, the spread of Christianity, etc. Finally, in the early 2000s, comparative approaches to Greek slavery (by e.g., Walter Scheidel, Stephen Hodkinson, and Nino Luraghi) began to explore a richer repertoire of comparanda than the US South and Caribbean, looking to e.g., Medieval Korea and the Sokoto Caliphate - but apart from a couple of exceptions (namely the work of Paulin Ismard and Kostas Vlassopoulos), nearly all recent comparative work has focused on the antebellum US South. We may hope, with Kamen, that the manifold possibilities for comparison afforded by an ever-growing, ever more accessible, and ever better integrated literature on global slavery are properly explored by ancient historians. In the meantime, Kamen should be congratulated for writing a book that will be truly useful to anyone looking to enter this dynamic field.


[1] R. Descat: Argyrōnetos: Les transformations de l'échange dans la Grèce archaïque', in: P. van Alfen (ed.): Agoranomia: Studies in Money and Exchange. New York 2006, 21-36; M. Ndoye: Groupes sociaux et idéologie du travail dans les mondes homérique et hésiodique, Clermont Ferrand 2010; A. Bresson: 'Capitalism and the ancient Greek economy', in: L. Neal / J.G. Williamson (eds.): The Cambridge History of Capitalism, Vol. 1, Cambridge 2014, 43-74; idem 'Slaves, fairs and fears. Western Greek sanctuaries as hubs of social interaction', in: K. Freitag / M. Haake (eds.): Griechische Heiligtümer als Handlungsorte, Stuttgart 2019, 251-277.

Rezension über:

Deborah Kamen: Greek Slavery (= Trends in Classics - Key Perspectives on Classical Research; Vol. 4), Berlin: De Gruyter 2023, XII + 147 S., ISBN 978-3-11-063759-5, EUR 29,95

Rezension von:
David Lewis
University of Edinburgh
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