Slavery in the Greek and Roman worlds

Course Material 2023/24

Nothing signals the gap between the modern world and the world of ancient Greece and Rome more starkly than the more or less universal ancient acceptance of slavery. Slavery was not simply an institution which the ancient world had and the modern does not, it grounded Greek and Roman thought as well as Greek and Roman life in the systematic subjection of a substantial section of the human population. Understanding the effects of slavery is vital for our understanding of all aspects of the Greek and Roman world. 

But if slavery is something that unites Greece and Rome in opposition to us, slavery in the ancient world was not a single thing. Slavery profoundly affected social, political, economic and cultural relations, but it did not determine them. Indeed, slavery offers us one of the best lenses through which to do comparative history both within the Greek and Roman worlds and between them. The distinctive choices made in one Greek society or at one time emerge most clearly when compared with each other and with the choices made in one or other part of the Roman world at one or another time, and vice versa.

Slavery has attracted continuous scholarly attention for the past two generations, but discussion has been particularly lively in the past decade with the appearance of several works surveying the whole field (Bradley and Cartledge 2011, Hunt 2018, Vlassopoulos 2020, Hodkinson, Kleijwegt and Vlassopoulos (online and forthcoming)), and with a renewed interest in comparative history. This course builds on this new scholarly energy to look at the root-and-branch way in which slavery shaped the ancient Greek and Roman world. 

After an introductory lecture drawing attention to the peculiar historiography and particular politics of the study of ancient Greek and Roman slavery in modern times, the lectures will offer both a chronological history of Greek and Roman slavery and a close analysis of how slavery affected economic, political, social and cultural life across the Greek and Roman worlds. The course is as interested in the ways in which slavery affected the way in which people thought about the world as in the grim realities of the slave trade, as interested in the politics of modern representations of ancient slavery, whether in scholarship or on film, as in the impact of slavery on ancient political life. 


  1. To introduce students to ubiquitous importance of slaves in all aspects of life, political, social, economic and cultural, across Greek and Roman history. 

  1. To explore a wide range of literary, documentary and visual sources relevant to slaves in Greek and Roman society. 

  1. To encourage students to reflect on the particular methodological problems in accessing the culture or experience of those outside the elite. 

  1. To reflect more widely on the range of ways in which human beings were enslaved and the range of justifications given for slavery in antiquity. 


Preliminary reading: 

Hunt, P. (2018) Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery. Malden MA.  

Vlassopoulos, K. (2020) Historicising Ancient Slavery. Edinburgh. 

Wiedemann, T. E. J. (1981) Greek and Roman Slavery: A Sourcebook. London  


This is Part II Paper C3 of the Classics Tripos.