National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Christopher Stedman Parmenter

Affiliation: University of Pennsylvania

Christopher Stedman Parmenter is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Wolf Humanities Center, University of Pennsylvania, and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Classics.  He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Classics at the New York University and the University of Oregon respectively, and his A.B. in Classical Studies and English from Hamilton College. His areas of specialization include Archaic Greece, cross-cultural trade, slavery, maritime history, history of race, and classical reception. His recent publications include “‘A happy coincidence’: Race, the Cold War, and Frank M. Snowden, Jr.’s Blacks in Antiquity” (Classical Receptions Journal, 2021), and “Egyptianizing faience from the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates, Kourion, Cyprus” (Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 29, forthcoming).


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.

Few concepts loom as large in contemporary American life as race. Emphatically called “neither a stable nor consistent” construct by the sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the last few years have nonetheless seen race reimagined as an explanatory and even autonomous fixture of public-facing historiography, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning (2016) or Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project (2019). Race is an essential part of our national narrative, and from this angle it is not surprising that scholars have turned to ancient Greece in search of its prehistory. The greatest monuments of this approach are a series of monographs published by the great African American classicist Frank M. Snowden, Jr. in the 1970-80s, who argued that ancient Greeks had very similar ideas of race as contemporary Americans—but crucially lacked any feelings of racism.

This talk explores how scholars have located the origin of America’s racial consciousness in antiquity over the past century. I focus particularly on Snowden, who over his very long career bridged the gap between the white supremacist scholarship of the early twentieth century and the emergence of Afrocentrism in the 1970-80s. Along the way, we will approach several fundamental questions: did the Greeks have anything like a concept of ‘race’ on their own? Is it possible to understand Greek ideas of race outside the lens of American racial history? And to what extent are our own narratives of race in antiquity shaped by contemporary experiences of racism, capitalism, and empire?

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