Posted by: constantinakatsari | October 29, 2012

The new face of slavery

When browsing the internet for ideas as to what to write this blog post on, one thing I found interesting was that every culture and civilisation on Earth that has ever existed, almost without exception, appears to have practised slavery in some form or another. Its difficult not to wonder then why it took over 3000 years from the first documented cases of slavery in China for enough people to view slavery as wrong to allow world wide abolition. It is somewhat remarkable then that despite slavery being no longer allowed by all international laws how little slavery has changed from ancient times. Despite this international outlawing of the slave trade it still persists in all corners of the world (though some notably more than others) and in many different forms, but all unmistakably slavery. It doesn’t go by that name in many cases due to its current illegality, but the tactics used have remained unchanged. One of the most widely used forms of enslavement is that of debt bondage, where a person is forcibly made to work off a debt, sometimes with their children and grandchildren inheriting the debt and thus insuring you get generation after generation of workers. Whilst some may indeed be legitimate there are many cases of the debt being little more than an excuse, such as one story of a man whose Grandfather borrowed 62 cents, and he was still paying it off under threats of violence. This method has existed throughout history, as far back as Ancient Rome, as a method of enslavement. Other methods too haven’t varied much over the centuries, with forced marriages, forced labour, being born a slave and trafficking all being tried and true ways of enslavement, the only major difference being the number of slaves involved.

Somewhat ironically, the estimated number of slaves in the world currently is the highest in recorded history according to the International Labour Organisation, approximated to be roughly 21 million. Admittedly that number is in light of the skyrocketing population present in the recent centuries, and when you view it as about 0.3% of the worlds population it seems less dramatic. Treatment of slaves is as bad as ever, perhaps in many cases even worse due to being out of the public eye out of necessity. Child slavery statistically hasn’t changed much either, with there still being roughly the same proportions of child slaves, but if you include all of the child labourers in the world who technically get paid and thus work for a living rather than being indentured  that number climbs sharply.

I believe that it is perhaps because of the illegal nature of the business that makes slavery today so much more terrifying. When slavery was not only legal but a part of life there were many kinds of people involved in the process, both who can be considered good and bad, and yet today due to the illegal and morally dubious nature that slavery is now associated with the only people who are likely to be involved in any stage of slavery are those who care little for human lives or livelihoods, and only see people as a commodity. At least as a slave in the America’s or Ancient Rome you had a chance for freedom; today you should be free regardless of circumstance and if that’s taken away from you it is a much heavier sentence than in “less civilised times”.

Harry Owen

Posted by: constantinakatsari | October 6, 2012

A new Roman and American Slavery module in Leicester

After two years of tortuous absence from the University I am back with a vengeance. I am renewing the Roman and American Slavery third year module taking into consideration the latest developments in Ancient and Modern Slave Studies. My students are ready to undertake rigorous comparisons between the Roman and American Slave Systems, hoping that they will excel. As in previous years, this blog and a twitter account will serve as assessment tools. So, watch this space and/or follow us at the hashtag romamslaves on twitter. I am sure you will soon be part of very exciting news.

Constantina Katsari

Posted by: constantinakatsari | May 13, 2010

Wikiality and History

For this week’s task we were asked to look at one scholarly website and say what the pros and cons of it are and how it helps our research. I don’t really think I am fully answering the question but I decided to look at Wikipedia, the website where the ‘average Joe’ could get any amount of information about anything, be it right or wrong for free. Slavery is a very sensitive subject and Wikipedia has the power to seriously change people’s minds and feelings towards subjects, so I have decided to look at the pro’s and cons of Wikipedia as a scholarly website (I know it’s not exactly scholarly but I’m sure we’ve all used it at one point within our research!)


Free education, the fact that anyone can go on and read something which they can learn from. It offers information easily and quickly to anyone who wants it.


Anyone can change it. I remember an American Satirist saying we should all go and change Wikipedia to say that the number of elephants in Africa is doubling every year, because if we all say it it will come true. Although it was said in jest he is right, especially when it comes to history, where there is no “proof” as such. Not just Wikipedia, but all technology must be seen as a threat to the core understanding of history. For if everyone reads Wikipedia and it says the British sent the slaves over to Africa on cruise ships including the Titanic, how many people, and how long it will take until this becomes the popular historical view. I know this is a bit radical but it must be seen as a serious threat.

Throughout my degree I have been told to ignore Wikipedia. Professors are like ducks if I close my eyes and can’t see it, it’s not there. Maybe the scholarly world and the popular history should look to work together on Wikipedia to make sure history isn’t changed and manipulated.

Just to prove a point I have now become a part of the Slave abolitionist movement in America, So along with people like William Lloyd Garrison there is “Alex Everden – who started the hug a slave system”, I wonder how many essays I will end up in? (  1323-  10/05/2010

Alex Everden

Posted by: constantinakatsari | March 14, 2010

Roman Slavery Essays

The time is neigh for the submission of the first Roman Slavery Essays in our module. The students have been working diligently around three major topics that count for 40 % of their grade:

1)      The exploitation of female slaves in the Roman world

2)      What were the sources of slaves during the Roman Republic and during the Empire?

3)      What was the role of the Familia Caesaris in the Imperial administration?

You probably noticed that all of the above topics are not suitable for comparisons with the Antebellum American South. First of all, we have a massive amount of information from the South on female slaves that cannot be matched with the information from the Roman world. With regard to the second topic, the sources of slaves in the Mediterranean are not only different from Atlantic slavery but they also change from the Republic to the Empire. This way, any attempt to comparison can be too complicated at an undergraduate level. As for the study of the role of Familia Caesaris, it is self evident that nothing of the sort existed in the Antebellum South.

So, why have I asked my students to deal with the above topics? The main idea behind it is to make them familiar with several aspects of Roman slavery that are not directly covered during our seminars. In addition, once they study the above topics in depth, they will be able to better evaluate and appreciate, not only the similarities that have been noted repeatedly during the course, but also the differences between the Roman and the nineteenth century American world.

I do not discourage them, of course, from attempting to bring forward comparative points. At this point, though, these should be restricted to a few lines and they should not be expanded into a full comparative study. After all, the purpose of the second essay, which counts for 60 % of the final grade, is to compare and contrast directly the two slave systems.

Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 26, 2010

Slavery and Religion lecture

The MARCH Accordia Lecture 

is on
TUESDAY March 2nd

Slaves & Religion in the Roman World
Professor John North, University College London
Joint Lecture with the Institute of Classical Studies
Room G22/26, 
Senate House, London WC1
Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 23, 2010

Comparative History and Science

Firstly, I would like to point out that I do enjoy the module, and although I question the actual subject matter I do believe that it is beneficial to my degree, and I do enjoy it.

Obviously we do make comparisons every day, but all your examples, I would argue, can be tested and can be shown to have strong connections and similar foundations. Asda sell Heinz Baked beans for 60p, Sainsbury’s may be 80p, we have a set similarity then we can see the variable. But how can we compare emotions, or feelings or individual ideas? Fair enough if we can get one Roman slave’s account and one American slave’s account we can give a comparison, but this would be down to their individual ideas and nature. Even to do such a comparison still there are so many variables.

The main problem i find with comparing any such ages is that there are major historical differences, the only consistencies are that they both involve humans, and because we only ever look through someone else’s eyes we may even be missing the blindingly obvious things about their society that they took for granted. This makes history hard enough as it is, but then to try and contrast I think you will lose the very minute parts which are based in reality and lose all sense of the history.

I feel that history is a subject that wants, but never can be, a science. Even in your reply you used such words like; historical methodology, material, valid hypothesis (i know i mentioned this word too) and analysis (especially the latter because this shows that we have possibly done a test and now are looking at the results, which obviously is impossible in history). These would all be used in a scientific situation. History is the perception of the past from another era. I question whether we can really call any book written by a historian as ‘research’, I don’t know what it is, and I’m not trying to weaken it by taking this word away from it, but I’m trying to point it towards the idea of being purely perception and heavy opinion, this leads it away from scientific words and matters.

When looking at history (through my definition) it will always be compared to our own era, we look at the Romans and see how they were compared to us, like Constantina mentions we do naturally compare everything. With his in mind all history is a comparison, but then to compare two comparisons I feel you lose touch about what it was really like, and you are too far away from ‘now’ to make it seem valid. It sits in limbo.

I’m not trying to say that all comparative history is a waste of time, but I would say that trying to compare societies is incredibly different due to the massive amount of variables, not only between the two ages, but also by the variables we place on it too.

Something I feel which is more valid as a subject is looking at the historiography of two eras and comparing it, seeing how historians perceived each time in a certain era. Obviously there will be variables in such a subject, but they are more obvious. Looking at what the historian wrote, instead of what actually happened means any variable connected to the time as a society is not important because we would be looking at what he/she wrote, not what actually happened. This allows for a much easier comparison.

Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 21, 2010

British and American Racism

This slavery module has got me thinking about how we in Britain see the Americans and their society. Almost ever week without fail someone will blithely assert that there is still racism evident in American society, however I would like to point out that they are the ones who elected a black man to be their President, and over here we elected two members of the BNP to represent us in the European Parliament.

Politics aside, I think that socially, the British are far more racist on the whole than Americans. America is the great melting pot of the Western world. In its short life it has welcomed without much fuss people from every national, racial and social background with open arms. This is a country which proudly claimed “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” American society is defined by immigrant groups from Italy, Germany, Ireland and Britain. African-American culture has influenced many of the greatest musical genres of the last century: from blues to rock and roll, and from soul to rnb and rap.

In Britain the reality is that, despite our long and illustriously mongrel history, we are deep down unwilling to accept those that are different to us. Although none of us are ‘racially pure’ in any sense – being made up as we are of a rich blend of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, ‘Celtic,’ Norse, French and others – we continue to construct prejudices around the (in my opinion) fictional notions of Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Britishness or whatever label people put on it. What’s even worse is the awful spread of xenophobia that is far more prevalent in this country than people are willing to admit. The BNP, EDL and others are ugly manifestations of opinions shared by a fairly large chunk of the British population, from working class people resentful of immigrant workers to middle class Daily Mail readers who don’t want coloured people ruining their imagined notion of the pristine suburbia they think they inhabit.

OK, so yeah, there are plenty of people in Britain who are as reviled by the BNP, EDL etc as I am, and I’m sure there are still a good number of nutters in Alabama who think that the KKK were doing a good job. My point is that, in the words of a certain J. Christ, we should take care of the plank in our own eye before criticising the speck in someone else’s (Matt. 7: 1-5 if you were wondering :P)

Stuart McKie

Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 19, 2010

Comparative History: A Reassessment

Today I feel compelled to answer to Alex’s insinuation that there is no point in studying Comparative History. Obviously, since most of my research has turned towards that direction, I need to assert myself that there is a point of some kind. I also think it is necessary for the students to understand why they are submitted to the weekly torture of my seminar. So, I will explain my views in the simplest way possible.

First of all, comparisons are a major part of daily life. When we go to the supermarket, we soon realise that Asda is cheaper than Sainsburys. When we visit our grandmother, we know that she is older than our mother. When we arrive at the University, we notice that the parking space is fuller during Open Days. Similarly, historical evidence ‘tell’ us that during the nineteenth century emotions played a more important role in Victorian England and the USA than in the eighteenth century. In the same way, ancient sources reveal that the scale of the Roman economy was greater than the scale of the Athenian economy.

Once we establish the fact that comparisons are unavoidable, it is necessary to come up with the proper historical methodology. So far, sociologists and historians came up with a multitude of studies that attempted to map the right way of conducting comparative history. Among them, the sociologists Theda Scocpol and M. Sommers or the historians Peter Kolchin and Orlando Patterson are probably the most prominent (or rather the ones I follow). I am in favour of the ‘compare and contrast’ method, according to which we must highlight both similarities and differences of the societies under scrutiny. Whether the comparison is synchronic or diachronic, whether the societies are separated by insurmountable geographical boundaries or not, detailed comparative studies usually offer an entirely new and exciting perspective to the diligent student.

In all cases, the consensus is that, whichever study you undertake, you should be very careful about the choice of your material. Lamenting the fact that the amount of evidence (especially for the ancient world) is inadequate is a nihilistic approach that leads nowhere. Instead, you should ‘hunt’ for sources across a multitude of disciplines: archaeology, philology, written material, linguistics etc. Even if the evidence on one side does not match the evidence of the other period, you will still be able to come up with a valid hypothesis that is the result of logical analysis and common sense. And under no circumstances should you ‘make up’ anything!

Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 16, 2010

What is the point of Comparative History?

I can’t stop thinking about how comparative history works and what it really tells us. In my mind history is not a science, there is no way to make a test, and we only have hypotheses.  When I asked how can we do comparative history on something which had so many variations, the reply was that in ancient history ‘we make it up’ so it’s fine. The importance of history in my mind is not what has happened but how it affects us. It doesn’t matter when Lycurgus wrote the Spartan rules (even if it was him doesn’t really matter) because it’s what people thought and because people thought this becomes almost an ‘abstract truth’. So to learn about Sparta, Rome or Athens is to learn the story, and the effect of the story.

So History is what people thought happened, and this affects now. I don’t believe it defines the future, but it does affect the present. This gives it some importance as a social tool, but what about as a tool to see the future? Because it doesn’t have any set criteria it cannot be compared, meaning we cannot define the future. Water boils at 100 degrees, but slaves don’t all act the same, neither do their owners. I remember Constantina saying this is the only comparative history module in the country, at first I saw this as strange, but now it sort of makes sense. How can we really compare two things which have so many variables? Humans (unlike scientific things) are unique and all act differently, there is no one answer to American slavery. We can only look for the general, and even within this there are many many variables. So how can we compare something which has such fuzzy boundaries with something else which is also fuzzy. So I think a good comparative history is almost impossible, but then I also don’t really see much importance in it.

So how important do people think Comparative history is?

Alex Everden

Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 12, 2010

Slave Hospitals and Medical Negligence

Last week my students and I explored the management of Roman latifundia and American plantations. We noticed the shift from patriarchalism (sense of duty) to paternalism (sense of love and care) from the 18th to the 19th century, while we agreed that in the Roman empire both types of ideology had an impact on slave management. One of the highlights of the discussion was the existence of slave hospitals in both periods. Masters were always interested in the welfare of their slaves, either for economic or moral reasons. In any case, the presence of a doctor in the farm at all times was always advisable. In some cases, the concerned master may have spent several sleepless nights, tossing in his bed, until his investment, the valued slave, recovered fully. The hospital equipment may not have been as advanced as it is today but the people in charge seemed to care for the ill.

Let us compare now the above situation with modern day hospitals in Greece. In order to make the comparison more effective, I will give you a direct and very personal example. While I was blissfully teaching in Leicester last week, my father entered the hospital Aghios Savvas in Athens for some minor prostate surgery. We were all unconcerned about the outcome, since the procedure was straightforward and uncomplicated. A day after the operation, he started complaining about dizziness. He experienced pain in the stomach and the back. Eventually, he stopped eating and drinking altogether. He, my mother and my brothers complained to the doctors repeatedly. Doctors and nurses came into the room, took a quick look, gave him some medication for the stomach pain and left. The situation went on for 3 solid days, until my mother went hysterical. She managed to persuade one of the doctors to do some x-rays. Hours later, the doctor looked at the results and called upstairs an entire team of more than 10 people to visit my father. They graced him with half an hour discussion, more than they have ever talked to him. And they ordered him to move to another hospital. They explained to us that the antibiotic they gave him caused acute kidney failure. Three days later, they were too late. He is now at the Erythros Stavros hospital and he is doing dialysis. He may be there for months, as they explained. So far, none of them assumed responsibility for what happened. None of them said ‘I am sorry’. None of them followed up, after he was removed to the other hospital. His surgeon, the renowned urologist Dr. Pappas, was nothing like the slave doctors. No remorse, no sadness. There is no doubt that doctors and nurses were all embarrassed about their negligence, as they refused to look into the eyes of my brothers and feel the desperation. But is it enough? If they could not be paternalistic about it, couldn’t they at least show some patriarchalism? A sense of duty may have saved my father from kidney failure and the threat of death.

And the comparative point comes now. In the case of slaves, the masters have a substantial stake at the health of their ‘family white and black’. Their health guarantees future profits. In the case of my father, a poor pensioner who could not afford to pay the ‘fakelaki’ (the traditional bribe to his doctor), was of no economic consequence. Therefore, both paternalism and patriarchalism can exist only in societies where profit is directly involved. Therefore, should we threaten the hospital with a law suit even before we enter? Or should we take everyone to court after the deed, as I intend to do now?

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