Conference Overview

The institution of slavery is found in multiple forms around the globe in a variety of cultural contexts and in all historical periods up to the present. From the Babylonian Code of Hamurabi to the sex parlors of contemporary Bangkok, humans have held other humans as property and exploited their labor using direct and indirect means of coercion throughout recorded history. While few would deny this sad reality, Western historians and some anthropologists have long been convinced that there are certain societies that stand out as distinctive in the scale and degree of their slaveholding practices. These perceive a line of demarcation between "slave societies," which are only very few in number and all western, and "slaveholding societies," which have been much more common across the history and geography of the planet.

This schema, first developed by the ancient historian Moses Finley, has been tremendously influential in shaping debates about the nature of slavery in world history and particularly the practice of slavery among western cultures. It is perhaps no great surprise that it has particular appeal to historians of western civilizations, for it privileges the West as somehow distinct from and - implicitly - superior to non-western cultures. Nevertheless, not all historians and anthropologists have accepted the notion that there is any easy distinction to be made between 'slave societies' and 'slaveholding societies.'

Some question the notion that slavery need always take forms familiar to westerners and look to alternate definitions and paradigms in order to integrate the bewildering variety of world cultures into debates on the global practice of slavery. Approaching the question from a different angle, many scholars of non-western cultures have also sought a place at the table by contending that the societies they study fit Finley's definition of "the slave society" perfectly well, even if Finley (and subsequent scholars) were unaware of this fact.

This conference proposes to confront the question, What is a Slave Society?, by creating a space for scholars of western and non-western cultures to debate its implications from a global, cross-cultural perspective. Questions we hope to address include: What is a slave? Can we arrive at a cross-cultural definition or must we always attend to cultural difference? To what degree are slaveholding practices universal and to what degree are they culturally contingent? Is it useful to categorize certain societies as uniquely intensive in their slaveholding practices? If so, what societies can be said to fit into the category of 'slave society'?

Conference Sponsors

Sponsored by the University of Colorado Departments of Anthropology, Classics, and History, As well as the Center for Western Civilization, IMPART, GCAH, the Vice Chancellor’s Research Council, the Dean’s Fund for Excellence, the President’s Fund for the Humanities, the Kayden Award Committee, and the Mediterranean Studies Group.