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Research Project 2022

Research Project 2022

Slavery, ethnicity and race in the Mediterranean. Ideas and attitudes from Homer to Columbus

Research Project 20222024-07-01T10:30:16+02:00

Slavery, ethnicity and race in the Mediterranean. Ideas and attitudes from Homer to Columbus.

As Claude Meillassoux pointed out most forcefully, slavery, quite apart from being a crime, is an untenable and contradictory fiction. The assimilation, in legal terms, of a human being to an object or an animal that can be subject to ownership contrasts with the way enslaved people are used in practice:

‘all their tasks call for the use of reason, and their utility and productivity grow in proportion to the use of their intelligence’ (Meillassoux 1986: 9-10). Long before, Plato voiced similar thoughts, if in a less direct way (Garnsey 1996: 23-4).

In other words, enslavement at the same time negates the humanity of certain human beings and exploits it for the advantage of other human beings. In order for this social fiction to function, it needs ideological underpinnings that make it possible to perceive it as natural and/or justified. In every society that admits it, in any form and to any extent, a certain amount of cultural work is necessary in order to blunt the edges of this paradox, to domesticate and naturalize this most radical form of commodification of human beings, and to work around the contradictions inherent in it. Scholarship on New World systems of enslavement has been alert to this complex of problems for a very long time. In the age of Enlightenment, the enslavement of Africans and their forced relocation to the sugar cane, cotton, rice and tobacco plantations of the New World was tied insolubly to debates on the genetic classification of human beings, their origins and early development, and towards the end of the eighteenth century the debates on race fed directly into the formulation of the notion of rights of man (Ferrone 2019).

The intellectual and cultural paradox of enslavement has taken different configurations across history (Patterson 1982). In the cases that have been studied most in depth, strategies of justification tend to cluster around various notions of categorical difference/inferiority of the enslaved with respect to the enslaver. Religion, especially in the era of monotheisms, has quite often provided a way of articulating the boundary between those who could and those who could not be enslaved – the fact that in practice the boundary could be overstepped by the enslavers does not undermine the general cultural plausibility of the principle in a given historical context. At least as often, if not more, the plausibility of enslavement has been supported by notions of inherent difference, rooted in blood and/or ancestry, articulated or not into more specific concepts of genetic heritage. The deep relation between notions of otherness and the deprivation of freedom can be observed in the very root of the Indo-European word for ‘free’, which refers to membership of an extended kinship group with a metaphor taken from the growth of plants: ‘free’ are those who ‘grew together’ (Benveniste 1969: 1, 324). By the same token, it is often the case that words used to indicate the enslaved, starting with the very word ‘slave’, are actually derived from ethnic terms. The nexus of slavery and racism in the New World is too obvious to require comment, except to point out that this is far from an isolated case (Fredrickson 2002).

In the pre-modern Mediterranean world, the relation between enslavement and categorical discrimination based on blood and descent has not been explored to the same extent, and the very existence of notions comparable to the modern (pseudo)concept of race has been disputed. Over the last decades, however, renewed investigations, prompted also by developments in other fields of study such as sociology and anthropology, have brought race and ethnicity on the radar of ancient and medieval historians. For the early Middle Ages, ethnicity has offered a new way of approaching the transition from the Western Roman Empire to the new power structures that took its place (Geary 2002, Pohl 2013). The new methodologies developed alongside the very concept of ethnicity have had an impact on the study of Greek history as well, partly in the footsteps of medieval historians, suggesting new research questions and observations (Luraghi 2014 for an overview). At the same time, the existence, both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, of notions akin to modern ideas of race is increasingly recognized by scholars (antiquity: Isaac 2004; Middle Ages: Akbari 2009, Whitaker 2019). So far, only the cultural shape of these notions has been investigated, but not their logic and practical consequences for the making and enforcing of social hierarchies. In other words, given that the intellectual and cultural instruments needed in order to turn ethnic and racial distinctions into mechanisms of social discrimination were available in the pre-modern Mediterranean world, it remains to understand whether such notions were actually activated in the cultural construction of the social practice of enslavement.

The present project intends to explore ways of bridging the gap between the study of race and ethnicity in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean on the one side, and on the other the study of the cultural justifications of systems of enslavement in the same areas and periods. More specifically, it plans to investigate the reciprocal influences between practices of enslavement and concepts of otherness, ethnic boundaries, and racial differences. In his path-breaking study of African slavery in the South of the United Stated, Eric Williams famously argued that racism had been a product of slavery, rather than being its foundation as often thought (Williams 1944). While later scholars questioned this line of argument, and more recent scholarship has shown that race-thinking was culturally present well before the transatlantic slave trade began, Williams’ insight remains fundamentally valid at a deeper level. If one compares justifications for the enslavement of Africans circulating in the early phases of the transatlantic trade with the developed ideology of the slave-owning classes during the nineteenth century, it is obvious that the latter was incomparably more sophisticated and complex, and involved more precise and articulated notions of the (supposed) fundamental difference between enslaved and enslaver – all the way to the paradoxical idea that enslavement was to the benefit of the enslaved, who lacked the natural capacity of governing themselves as free human beings. In this sense, it was indeed the case that enslavement had produced a specific brand of racism – not ex nihilo, to be sure, but with incredibly enduring consequences. In this spirit, the present project intends to trace the mutual influence between the ideological construction of otherness and the practice of enslavement in the Mediterranean world, from the age of Homer to the age of Columbus. In terms of space, the purview of the project includes the Mediterranean world in its entirety, going beyond Greek and Roman cultures in antiquity and Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The Levant, Palestine, North Africa, Iberia and France will be part of the project as much as the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.

In this project, both ethnicity and race are necessary components of the research methodology. Race and ethnicity are different but overlapping strategies for human categorization that operate both within social practice and within scholarship. Disentangling them from one another is difficult but necessary, especially in order to translate into each other different idioms of scholarly discourse. Race and ethnicity are at one and the same time categories of social and political practice and categories of social and political analysis (Brubaker and Cooper 2000: 4). Both of them have been historically mobilized in order to provide foundations for discrimination, positive or more often negative, between human groups – race much more often than ethnicity (but see Mamdani 2001). In scholarly discourse after the Second World War, ethnicity has often been employed in place of race, in an understandable reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, ethnicity has found its own field of application, as an overarching concept that covers a particular class of cultural notions of difference between groups of people, in anthropological studies from the sixties of the 20th century onwards. Unlike race, ethnicity is typically used to refer to strategies of boundary-making between groups that consider themselves different from each other in terms of descent and ancestry, but in practice recognize each other thanks to distinctive cultural traits (Wimmer 2008 for a summary of problems and approaches). Also, ethnic boundaries tend to oppose group to group, and can vanish from perception in daily practice until specific historical processes confer saliency upon them. In recent years, scholars have increasingly devoted thought to defining and delimiting the respective areas of application of race and ethnicity in the study of antiquity (Mac Sweeney 2021) and the Middle Ages (Jordan and Reimitz 2021). The path is open for a mutually advantageous use of these two strategies of categorization and of their respective scholarly discourses to the study of the Mediterranean world in the pre-modern age.

Meanwhile, the study of systems of enslavement in the pre-modern Mediterranean world has itself progressed in very important ways. The notion of the fundamental difference, in this respect, between the Greeks and Romans on one side and the rest of ancient cultures on the other, central to the seminal work of M. I. Finley (Finely 1998 for a condensed version) has been questioned by D. M. Lewis, who has been able to show that slavery was in fact widespread all across the Eastern Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia during the same centuries in which the enslavement systems of the Greeks were taking their shapes (Lewis 2018). At the same time, Finley’s fundamental distinction between slave societies and societies with slaves, which again isolated Graeco-Roman antiquity in a category including the Antebellum South of the United States and Brazil, has been interrogated and replaced with a more analytic approach that recognizes the differences between the economic function and the cultural importance of slave systems in different historical contexts (Lenski and Cameron 2018, Vlassopoulos 2021). In a comparable change of perspective, the old notion of the transformation of ancient slavery into medieval serfdom has been completely discarded and scholars have been able on the one hand to offer a new and different explanation for the (numeric) decline of the Roman imperial system of enslavement (Harper 2011) and on the other to demonstrate the development and enduring significance of slavery in the western and eastern Mediterranean world (Rio 2017, Rotman 2009). It would be fair to say that we are now in a position to investigate the cultural underpinnings of unfree labor in the ancient and post-antique world on a new footing.

In the Greek poleis of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, from the 5th century BCE to the 2nd CE, the majority of enslaved people came from regions of the Eastern Mediterranean and from the Black Sea. They would have been clearly set apart by their speech patterns, even if they had mastered the language of their masters. As many as 20-40% of the population of an average Greek polis would have been composed of enslaved non-Greeks and their descendants (Canevaro and Lewis 2022). While Greeks were by no means averse to enslaving fellow Greeks, signs of a cultural sanction against this practice appear to cluster around the 4th century BCE; given the widespread opposition to enslaving people from one’s own ethnic group or race that is met in many different cultures, this pattern might be just a function of the chronological distribution of our evidence – a question worth further exploration. Be that as it may, whenever our evidence for individual enslaved persons gets granular, with cases starting from the late 5th century BCE, their origin turns out to be from outside the world of the Greek poleis. While Greek literature does not show much in terms of racial stereotyping of enslaved persons, it is the case that Aristotle’s theory of the natural slave leans heavily on the opposition Greek-barbarian (or barbaros, the Greek word for whoever did not speak Greek), and on the supposed proclivity of the latter to give up claims to personal freedom (Garnsey 1996). Surprisingly, though, enslavement does not really feature in the abundant bibliography on the cultural construction of the opposition Greeks-barbarians, and Aristotle’s theory is never taken as a potential indicator of more wide-spread ideology of enslavement.

On the other hand, the diversity of systems of enslavement in the Greek world created space for the use of notions of otherness of a different sort. A number of poleis during the classical period exploited self-reproducing groups of enslaved people rather than depend on the continuous inflow from the outside. In Sparta, in the poleis of Thessaly, in Crete, these groups tended to be identified and categorized in ethnic terms. Even though their true origin was likely diverse and included enslaved outsiders akin to those encountered in other poleis, these groups of unfree were construed as members of previously free communities that had been enslaved in the very distant past. In the best documented case, that of Sparta, this projection of unfree ethnicity was supported by practices of ritualized contempt that were meant to instill in the enslaved the persuasion of their inferiority. The ethnic identity of the enslaved was a double-edged sword, however, and went on to form the foundation of their final emancipation (Luraghi 2008).

At the other end of the chronological spectrum, in the Islamic world from the 10th century onwards there emerged a genre of treatises dedicated to the purchase and trafficking of enslaved people. In these treatises, a taxonomy based on racial, ethnic and regional origins was developed, indicating which groups were best suited to which tasks. This ethnography of enslavement, with roots in medical literature going back all the way to antiquity, focused on the peoples of the Caucasus, the Turkish peoples of the Eurasian steppe and of inner Asia, and the black peoples of eastern as well as of sub-Saharan Africa (Müller 1980, Lewis 1992). In practice, ethnic definitions were omnipresent in the market for enslaved people in the Medieval Mediterranean (Barker 2019). Ethnonyms like ‘Turk’ or ‘Circassian’ were employed to refer to their putative origin, and ended up, as is so often the case, becoming synonym for ‘slave’. Again, rather than the categorical, latently genetic discourse of race, what appears to underpin the otherness of the enslaved in Medieval Islamic culture is a Mediterranean ethnography that was at the same time a kind of practical knowledge for enslavers.

In this general framework, candidates are invited to propose projects dealing with any aspect of the cultural implications and consequences of enslavement for ideas and concepts of otherness, seen in terms that may be more easily categorized as racial or as ethnic depending on the discursive context. The broader objective of the project is not so much to shed new light on enslavement as a social phenomenon, but rather on the entanglement of slavery with intellectual and cultural aspects of the historical configurations in which it appeared. Dealing with a sensitive subject with obvious and important resonances in the present, the project aims to provide a space for open-minded and respectful debate.

Director of Studies

2023-2025 Research Cycle

3rd Call for applications 2022

Placed On: November 29th, 2022
Closes: January 30th, 2023, 11:00 PM (CET)

2023-2025 Research Cycle

Call for applications to the postgraduate summer school

Placed On: May 3rd, 2024
Closes: June 30th, 2024, 10:00 PM (CET)

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