Conference looks at slaves and slavery in ancient Greece

York’s Program in Classical Studies and the University of Toronto’s Department of Classics are hosting a conference on Friday and Saturday to explore the role of slaves in ancient Greek comedies.

Representations of Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama will start at 2pm on Dec. 5 at the University of Toronto Department of Classics, Room 220, Lillian Massey Building, 125 Queens Park (southeast corner of Bloor Street West and Avenue Road) and continue on Dec. 6.

Left: David Konstan

“The aim of our conference is to work towards a fuller understanding of the ways in which slaves and slavery are represented in Attic comedy of the fifth and fourth centuries BC – principally Aristophanes and Menander – and the roles played by humour, laughter and the comic in helping to negotiate the societal and ideological tensions generated by the practice of slavery," says York classical studies Professor Robert Tordoff.

Studying the slaves of classical Athens is important in refining the current understanding of what continues to constitute a paradigmatic case of slavery in western culture, says Tordoff.

“No such study at present exists; but since the fact of slavery in classical Athens has been deployed in times much closer to our own in defence of what is surely the most degrading and exploitative institution of human invention, we are pursuing a fuller understanding of one particular means by which classical Athenian literary texts expressed and managed the daily social contradictions inherent in living with slaves.”

A lineup of some well-known Classics professors from all over Canada and the US will be presenting at the conference. Brown University Professor David Konstan, the John Rowe Workman Distinguished Professor of Classics and the Humanistic Tradition, will give the keynote address “Menander’s Slaves” on Friday at 2:15pm. Menander was a Greek dramatist who wrote over 100 plays during his life, most of them detailing what life was like during that period of time. He saw his first play produced when he was about 20.

Konstan, who earned a BA in mathematics and a PhD in classics at Columbia University and has taught at Brown since 1987, is also a professor of comparative literature and a member of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. He has written many books on Greek and Roman literature as well as philosophy, including The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks (University of Toronto Press, 2006); Pity Transformed (Gerald Duckworth & Co., 2001); Friendship in the Classical World (Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton University Press, 1994).

In addition, Konstan has held visiting appointments at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the University of La Plata in Argentina, the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, the University of Sydney and Monash University in Australia and the American University in Cairo, Eygpt.

Some of the other presenters at the conference include S. Douglas Olson, distinguished McKnight University professor at the University of Minnesota, discussing "Slaves and Politics in Early Aristophanes"; classics Professor Susan Lape of the University of Southern California who will present “Slavery in Old Comedy"; and classical, Near Eastern & religious studies Professor Toph Marshall of the University of British Columbia, who will talk about “Female Sex Slaves".

In addition, classical studies Professor Christina Vester of the University of Waterloo will present “Menander, Slavery, Prostitution”; classics Professor Ben Akrigg of the University of Toronto will look at “Aristophanes, Slaves and History"; and York alumna Cheryl Cox (BA ’76), a classics professor at the University of Memphis, will discuss "Slavery in Menander".

For more information, visit York’s Program in Classical  Studies Web site.