In his influential article “Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World” (1965), historian Moses I. Finley asserted that societies in which slavery is deeply pervasive and entrenched become technologically stagnant. Finley held up ancient Greece and Rome as examples, arguing that slavery provided cheap labor and disincentivized automation, especially since, he argued, those in charge of large economic decisions were motivated by social control more than by profit. Greeks and Romans preferred, Finley insisted, to assign tasks to slaves rather than to machines and thus no industrial revolution happened in antiquity. This theory was so dominant in the latter half of the twentieth century that it produced stagnation in the research on the relationship between slavery and technology itself, as well as in the field of ancient technology studies more broadly.
In the early twenty-first century, Finley’s theory began to be heavily and persuasively critiqued (e.g., by Kevin Greene  in a point-by-point refutation). It is now broadly recognized that robust slave systems and technological advancement are not mutually exclusive and that the slave-reliant societies of ancient Greece and Rome were technologically much richer than previously acknowledged. Yet, while Finley’s theory and its assumptions have now been pulled apart, a new dominant framework has not yet emerged to replace it. This conference seeks to fill this gap by working towards a new model to understand the complex interactions of enslavement, forced labor, and technology in antiquity, especially Greek and Roman contexts.
In the past two decades, several significant, but isolated, articles and book chapters have critically examined an assumption that underlies not only Finley’s theory but also many definitions of slavery articulated in Greek and Roman sources: namely, that enslaved persons are more or less interchangeable with mechanical instruments. Scholars like Page DuBois (2003), Sarah Blake (2012), Sonia Sabnis (2012), Noel Lenski (2013), Joseph Howley (2020), and Candida Moss (2021 and forthcoming) have challenged this reductive, dehumanizing characterization by illuminating some of the complexities of the dynamics between enslavers, slaves, and mechanical tools and by applying new theoretical lenses (e.g., Actor-Network Theory) to better represent how agency can be distributed and exercised within that network of relations. Moreover, enslaved peoples are starting to be understood not as actors simply experiencing a total “social death,” as Orlando Patterson (1982) has explored, but as individuals whose cultural and individual identities were bound up in complex ethnic, social, and occupational networks. Enslaved peoples must have related to the tools they used in multiple ways, since these technologies could operate as the objects of oppression, power, pride, expertise, and resistance. Roman enslavement also moved people around the Mediterranean basin and beyond, and these enslaved people brought their technologies and techniques with them. In some instances, such as medicine, enslaved peoples could leverage their technical knowledge to gain social standing or preserve and express their ethnic identities through culturally marked tools. Technologies were thus sites of both exploitation, resistance, harm, and refuge.
The questions explored in this conference, about the relationships between slave systems and technology, have significant implications for how we think not only about Greek and Greco-Roman antiquities but also about pressing issues in contemporary societies. This conference will help us to reevaluate modern assumptions about forced labor and technological development, and whether compulsive, exploitative systems prevent technological development or result from it. The conference will help us wrestle with the social and psychological effects of automation. These are burning questions in our present moment when, for example, the pandemic has dramatically restructured relationships between many employers, employees, and the technologies that join them. This is imperative when companies like Amazon seek to use invisible human labor to produce a seemingly automated user experience and all but instantaneous delivery, and when the increased use of Artificial Intelligence systems is forcing us to reckon with the ways that algorithms can encode, propagate, and deepen systemic biases (as Ruha Benjamin  has demonstrated). How can we evaluate the blurry line between machines and humans, as well as who blurs these lines and why?
This conference will provide an opportunity for scholars working on these issues to come together and collaboratively synthesize and build upon these groundbreaking contributions with the aim of developing a new overarching theoretical framework for understanding the interactions and amalgamations of slavery and technology. It will ask the following questions:
- how ancient slave systems compare to one another, and to other elements of society, in terms of their engagement with technologies
- how people can use technologies to help establish, enforce, resist, or even dismantle systems of power and oppression
- the relationships between different kinds of labor systems and the use and development of specific technologies
- how the various agencies involved in the production of goods, services, and ideas interact with one another
- how ontological categories like "technology" or "instrument" interact with categories like "free," "slave," "property," "ownership." "work," etc.
- the extent to which models of the relationships between slavery and technology beyond the ancient Mediterreanean (e.g., in the antebellum south) can be usefully applied to ancient contexts
- how the relationships between enslavers, enslaved, and the technologies they use are affected by the intersectional identities of enslavers and enslaved—e.g., by their genders, sexualities, ethnicities, ages, abilities, socio-economic statuses, religions, etc.
- how we should understand the complex dynamics—not only in Greco-Roman antiquity but also in other cultures and time periods—between enslaver, enslaved, and technological development.
Confirmed Participants Include:
Joseph A Howley
Sarah H Blake
Dan-El Padilla Peralta
The conference will take place on January 26–27, 2024 at UC Davis.
A conference funded by the UC Davis DHI, Dean's Office, Classics Program, UCD DHI Early Science Research Cluster, and the UC HRI