About the Project Case Studies

Bound Labour Unbound

Slavery was endemic to the ancient Greek world and in popular discourse the enslaved were predominantly foreigners. This case study examines the integration and impact of formerly enslaved on the social, political and religious life of the Greek city-states.

Slavery was a staple of Ancient Greek societies and although Greeks did enslave other Greeks, they depended to a large extent on the regions bordering the Greek world for servile labour. Epigraphic evidence, in the form of inscribed manumissions, such as those found in Hellenistic Delphi, Boiotia, and Aitolia, confirms this picture of a society deeply dependent upon the importation of slaves from a variety of regions bordering the Greek world, such as Thrace, Anatolia, the Black Sea and beyond. The abundance of the evidence also reveals that manumission of slaves was nowhere a rare occurrence and frequent, widespread references to freed persons as a group in decrees and other official documents are indicative that most, if not all, Greek poleis were home to substantial populations of former slaves and their descendants. Freed persons of non-Greek origin, therefore, represented a numerically important subgroup of the immigrant community of any Greek polis, but differed from other foreigners in having crossed also the status boundary between slavery and freedom as ‘double immigrants’. 

Inscribed manumission documents in Delphi

The aim of this case study is to investigate the integration of freed foreign persons into Hellenistic cities within three primary spheres and points of interaction with membership regimes: the economic, the social, political and religious spheres: 

(1) Freed persons in trade and manufacture. Ancient Greek literature provides some famous, but also extraordinary, examples of freed persons taking up their former masters’ professions upon manumission.But while potentially instructive, such evidence must be supplemented with more representative cases. Such cases can be sought in the large, but still under-exploited epigraphic evidence. 

(2) Social integration. What was the extent and mode of interaction between freed persons and other inhabitants of the Greek cities? Funerary epigraphy allows insight into individual family histories, marriage patterns within and across status divides and changes in status over generations, allowing an assessment of the legal and social aspects of membership regimes. 

(3) Political and religious integration. While freed persons as non-citizens were barred from direct participation in the political institutions of the polis they were often recognized as belonging to the community either as part of the larger group of the non-citizen residents or as a distinct group of their own,suggesting that freed persons had come to be accepted as in some way belonging to the community. 

Christian Thomsen
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