Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
Greece became a slave society in the sixth century BCE. Starting c. 594 BCE, Athens, Chios, and several other seafaring cities stopped enslaving their own citizens for debt and began to look elsewhere for labor to power their growing agricultural and mining interests. The majority of enslaved people in ancient Greece came from the Aegean’s immediate hinterlands, particularly Caria and Phrygia in Anatolia and Thrace in the southeast Balkans. But increasingly towards the end of the century, the northern coast of the Black Sea became an important slaving region. Remarkably, archaeological sites in Russia and Ukraine have preserved nearly 20 letters written by slave traders, inscribed on lead tablets, that date to this period.
This talk explores how we can use archaeological evidence—including the lead letters, coin hoards, ceramics, and settlement destruction layers around Greece’s slaving frontier—to reconstruct the human topographies of the slave trade. The arrival of Greek merchants on the coast set in motion deep changes in the indigenous cultures of the Pontic steppe, transforming slavery from a traditional institution to a market-based one. I show how the letters of slave traders offer crucial insight into the lives of the people they entrapped, and shed light on the role of enslaved migrants in the making of the classical world.