Not available in 2017/18
Slavery from Ancient Greece to the Gulag

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Oliver Volckart


This course is available on the BSc in Economic History, BSc in Economic History with Economics and BSc in Economics and Economic History. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available to General Course students.



Course content

The course surveys slave labour-employing economies from a long-term and global perspective on the basis of the research literature and of primary source material. It covers the period from the fifth century BCE to the second half of the twentieth century and not only Ancient and Christian Europe but also the Islamic world and the Americas. Slavery in Classical Greece and in the Roman Empire will be discussed just as well as the employment of military slaves in the medieval and early modern Muslim empires. Further core topics are the early modern Atlantic slave trade, black slavery in the American South, the formal abolition of slavery and the use of slave or quasi slave labour in the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century.

The course raises fundamental questions first about the nature of work in different historical periods, societies and economic systems, and second about the criteria that allow distinguishing economic systems. What was a slave? How did the work of a slave differ from that of a free person? Was slavery always inefficient? To what extent was it compatible with ‘feudalism’, a free market economy, or capitalism, and did it hold back technological progress and economic growth? One of the core hypotheses is that a clear-cut distinction between slavery and freedom is historically and geographically an exception: In most periods and cultures, there was a fluid transition, with labour being not either enslaved or free, but rather more or less free. The course will address the question of what this implies for the analysis of historical labour markets and their outcomes as reflected, for example in factor prices.


2 hours of lectures and 18 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT.

Following an introductory lecture in week 1 of the Michaelmas Term, the course will be taught over 19 two-hour seminars

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 presentation in the MT.

Indicative reading

Engerman, S. L. (1973). Some Considerations Relating to Property Rights in Man. Journal of Economic History 33, 43-65.

Fynn-Paul, J. (2009). Empire, Monotheism and Slavery in the Greater Mediterranean Region from Antiquity to the Early Modern Era. Past & Present 205, 3-40.

Klein, H. S. (2010). The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press.

Pryor, F. L. (1977). A Comparative Study of Slave Societies. Journal of Comparative Economics 1, 25-49.


Essay (75%, 5000 words) and presentation (25%) in the LT.

At the end of week 6 of the Lent Term, students submit a summative 5000-word essay that concerns one of the seminar questions; their mark on this counts 75 per cent toward their final mark. Their Lent Term presentation will be assessed, too; it counts for altogether 25 per cent.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2016/17: Unavailable

Average class size 2016/17: Unavailable

Capped 2016/17: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills