Research on ancient slavery has a long history encompassing various approaches, reflecting the influences of changing socio-political milieux upon scholarship. It should therefore come as no surprise that recent academic trends towards uncovering the subjective experience of enslaved individuals have necessitated the consideration of what is actually meant when we talk about slavery and its related terminology. Kostas Vlassopoulos’ recent addition to the ‘Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Slavery’ series tackles this question head-on. He comprehensively challenges the idea of viewing slavery in essentialist terms that allow for little-to-no variation in its definition, regardless of when or where that slavery took place.
The introduction and subsequent chapter, on historiographies, clearly set out the nature of the problem. Vlassopoulos gives an extensive overview of the history of slavery research and suggests that, ultimately, the typologies established by Moses Finley and Orlando Patterson have influenced scholarship for too long. This has limited the discipline to four fundamental areas: an essentialist trans-historical approach; a top-down approach that is unilaterally defined by the slaveowners; typological distinctions between ‘slave societies’ and ‘societies with slaves’; “deeply static” historical accounts of slavery.
Each of these elements are problematised before suggesting a new, alternative methodology that takes a “processual and historicist perspective” (p. 7). This approach incorporates three concepts: slavery as property, the status of the enslaved and the various modalities of slavery, whilst also emphasising the interrelated nature of slaving strategies, slaving contexts, and dialectical relationships of slavery. This is essentially an intersectional approach that treats slavery as a highly context-dependent phenomenon, rather than viewing it in monolithic terms. An insightful analysis of 20th century scholarship notes the influence that research on New World slavery has had on the discipline. Various models from the Atlantic world, Indian Ocean and Islamic societies demonstrate asymmetric negotiations between masters and slaves and the diversity of slaving strategies. Vlassopoulos argues that adopting these approaches for slavery in the ancient world is long overdue.
Chapter 3 questions current definitions of ‘slavery’ and aims to establish a new one that operates cross-culturally whilst reflecting the diverse models of enslavement. Early medieval slavery is posited as a comparative example that demonstrates the complexities that a trans-historical definition must account for. This comparison challenges some of the preconceptions surrounding the nature of enslavement that are present in current scholarship. However, the analysis occasionally lacks specificity. For example, there is no indication of which early medieval societies the evidence for slavery is taken from, or at least, if the conditions of slavery throughout early medieval Europe were uniform it would be helpful if that were stated in more definitive terms to the reader (a subsequent analysis of slavery in medieval Europe post 1000 CE is more precise). Nevertheless, the overarching point concerning the changing nature of slavery is clear. This leads to the conclusion that, instead of slavery as an essentialist phenomenon, we should conceptualise it as an historical category that accounts for the variable and interrelated systems of slavery found throughout history.
Chapter 4 details the various slaving strategies and contexts which the previously defined category ought to encompass. Slaving strategies are discussed in detail, focussing on the aims and benefits for the owner, rather than the specific conditions of enslavement. As with the preceding discussion, Vlassopoulos stresses the interrelation of these strategies; some societies employed all of them, others only some. This leads to a consideration of the geographical and socio-political contexts within which slaving strategies took place. These are broken down into various component concepts (household, political community, wider world and large-scale economies), discussing each in detail whilst once again challenging the idea of an essentialist definition of slavery existing throughout history.
Chapter 5 considers enslaved identity by, again, suggesting the deconstruction of the concept into three subcategories (objective categorisation, self-understanding and group identity) and chapter 6 continues this theme with a more focussed analysis of the dialectical relationships that slaves experienced. The master/slave relationship is discussed regarding various types of slave-owners and the impact those differences would have had upon the conditions of slavery. Free/enslaved relationships exemplify how the wider community defined prototypical concepts of what a slave was and raises the important observation that few studies have been conducted into historical definitions of freedom, rather than merely considering its absence. A final point on relationships between slaves considers the development of slave communities and the resulting implications for identity and autonomy. Chapter 7 then details the slave’s own view of slavery; a range of sources show slaves taking pride in their achievements, which develops the image of the slave as an individual who viewed themselves independently from their status.
These analyses are brought together in chapter 8 and the book’s conclusion, which deconstruct slavery as a single phenomenon that is observable cross-culturally and throughout history. The utility of the terms ‘Greek’, ‘Roman’ and ‘ancient’ slavery are challenged in light of the new methodological framework. Comparisons between Athens, Sparta and Crete are made to highlight their differences and thus the futility of labelling slavery from ancient Greece as ‘Greek’, given the variety of slaving strategies therein. Slaves’ agency in effecting historical change is promoted, alongside an urgent appeal to reframe the way that ancient slavery is conceptualised away from its current essentialist and atemporal depiction of slaves as passive agents throughout antiquity, to a more accurate definition that reflects the historically changing conglomerate of conceptual slaving systems.
The book undoubtedly succeeds in asserting the utility of its methodological approach. However, there are points where the argumentation runs contrary to itself. For example, the discussion consistently advocates treating the term ‘slavery’ as a category, encompassing all the slaving systems therein, yet when it comes to ‘Greek’, ’Roman’ or ‘ancient’ slavery (chapter 8), the utility of those terms as categories is rejected. Similarly, despite emphasising the changing nature of slaving systems throughout history, evidence for ancient Greek attitudes on marriage between an enslaved groom and free bride comes from Longus (p. 171), even though that source is actually Roman (p. 71).
Such criticisms should not detract from the overall argument; they merely demonstrate how the exposition occasionally stumbles over its own complexity. There is a considerable amount of theoretical and conceptual deconstruction throughout the work, which challenges the reader to maintain several fragmented ideas whilst reading. This might exemplify the complex nature of slavery being promoted, but it also means that the book is best suited to a more advanced academic audience. Further, if the overarching message were to be stripped back, it risks being viewed simply as a highly intellectualised way of reiterating that ‘context matters’.
However, overall, this is clearly the culmination of an impressive amount of research. References to slaveries of later periods are comprehensive and the extensive breadth of analysis demonstrates a clear aptitude with the subject matter. The discourse is an exemplary framework for comparative research; one that is long overdue. Hopefully, Vlassopoulos will be successful in engendering a new paradigm for slavery historiography through his approach, thus benefitting a wide range of historical disciplines in the process.