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Debating Ancient Slavery


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Although it is very hard to assess how many slaves there were in the ancient world, and the numbers will surely have varied from place to place and period to period, it is incontestable that enslaved people made up a large part of the population of ancient Greece and Rome. Both are often described as the world’s first ‘genuine slave societies’, of which – according to Moses Finley who was the first to make the distinction between ‘societies with slaves’ and ‘slave societies’ – there were only five in human history (ancient Greece and Rome, the West Indies, Brazil and North America). In the last few years, however, the simple binary categorization of societies into those that could be described as ‘societies with slaves’ and those that Finley described as ‘genuine slave societies’ (that is those in which slaves constituted the dominant labour force and underpinned the wealth of elites) has been subjected to criticism, scrutiny and debate. Also, other aspects of ancient slavery – the use of slaves in farming in Attica, the similarities and differences between Greek, Roman and Near Eastern slave systems, the local conditions of human bondage or the impact of slave labour on the ancient economy, to name just a few – have become the subject of renewed interest and intense scholarly discussion in recent years.

In this course, we will read and discuss some of the most influential works on ancient slavery. We will get to know the current research questions and controversies related to the nature and role of slavery in ancient societies, and in so doing we will get acquainted with the current state of affairs in one of the currently most debated research areas.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. the ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  2. the ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  3. the ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  4. the ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  5. (ResMA only:) the ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtracks as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following; in the specialisation Ancient History: unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history.

  2. (ResMA only): thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

The student:

  1. has knowledge of the important works in the study of ancient slavery;

    1. is able to contextualize these works in current debates in the field of ancient history;

    2. is able to assess ancient and modern debates critically;

    3. is able to analyze and evaluate scholarly literature and primary sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument;

    4. (ResMA only) can evaluate the influence of broader societal change on the sorts of questions asked by ancient historians and social scientists more generally and develop new questions;

    5. (ResMA only): can relate developments in debates about ancient slavery to broader academic developments outside the discipline of Ancient History.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

  • ! Already note that the session of 29 February will be moved to 28 February. However, also keep 29 February free for an obligatory lecture and masterclass by Prof. Greg Woolf (UCLA).’

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Weekly literature reflection
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Final essay (4000 words, ResMA: 5000 words, see below)
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Participation (ResMA: includes leading a discussion)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4. ResMA also 12


  • Weekly literature reflection: 30%

  • Final research paper: 50%

  • Participation/discussion: 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

The reading for the course will be announced on Brightspace. It will consist of the most recent books (and some articles) in the field of ancient slavery. Important: there will be preparation for our first class. This will be announced on Brightspace.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.

General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.


Not applicable