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Thinking Classics, Talking Slavery

Sophie Mills

University of North Carolina - Asheville

Like vampires hunting fresh blood, professional Classicists constantly look to fill our classrooms, to reassure ourselves and administrators of our discipline’s continuing viability. Few of us can wait for students to appear. We must promote and entice, promise and lure. But lure to, or with, what? A few decades ago, the answer (for some) was simpler: golden ages, Greek glories, Western civilization, Classics as synecdoche for education. Now that the gold appears tarnished by cruelty, coercion and dehumanization, and by our own discipline’s role in upholding white supremacy, these lures are unusable, but if the old justifications are discredited, then what is Classics for, exactly? And when one adds a well-meaning liberal viewpoint which rejects racism (at least in its obvious forms) and worries about being perceived as racist, conversations about the value of Greco-Roman studies certainly become difficult, especially around slavery. This institution was fundamental to Greco-Roman society and there is a relationship, albeit a contested and complicated one, between ancient and later forms, whose legacy continues to shape societal structures.

As Robinson (2017) argues, all human history has connections with problematic inheritances. Classics is not unique. Acknowledging this renews the discipline. Athenian tragedians explored difficult contemporary topics via the distanced world of myth. By analogy, we may explore the Greco-Roman world in its own right, through rigorous exploration of its fascinations, but also as a place offering a necessary element of distance for considering our world’s uncomfortable legacies. Ancient slavery was distinct (detached from race and highly varied) from its more recent forms, but similar in systematically dehumanizing others. In exploring it, we can both detach and “zoom”, using Sourvinou-Inwood’s formulation, through a different lens, into commonalities between the two worlds, and the dangerous seduction of imagining golden ages. Distance does not exclude emotional and intellectual discomfort: looking squarely at the treatment of enslaved people is uncomfortable, nor are most of us trained in sociology. Equally, most of us investigate multiple topics in our careers, and exploring unfamiliar disciplines promotes intellectual vitality.

Besides reflection on Classics in the 21st century, this paper will present specific suggestions for exploring slavery in the classroom. Robinson (2017) and Dugan (2019) discuss ways in which textbooks inadvertently normalize ancient slavery, while Bostick (2018) and (2020a) and Piercy (2017) offer useful practical suggestions for handling the subject with students. Vitally important is to attempt to find the individual human dimension of enslavement beyond systems and institutions. While we have no narratives of enslaved people such as originate from the American South, and few ancient literary texts exist by people who had once been enslaved, we do have (e.g.) Epictetus’ writings which might be mined to shed some light on its author’s experience as a slave. But ample epigraphic and other evidence exists about enslaved people’s lives (Mohler (1940), Wiedemann (1989), Wrenhaven (2012), Nielsen et al. (1989)). These may be integrated into various types of classes, to remind students and scholars of our mutual humanity with those for whom golden ages were not golden.

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