Sunday 2 June 2019

Slavery in Ancient Greek Ukraine and Today

This week I read a depressing report on trafficking of individuals from Vietnam into slavery in Britain (the kind of really significant news nobody’s been interested in for the last three years). But I’ve also been indexing a book about the culture of ancient Black Sea communities. It reminded me that slavery is the topic of one of the most electrifying of ancient Black Sea documents.

Berezan in Dnieper/Bug Estuary 
Actually, it’s one of the most electrifying of all ancient documents from anywhere. It is the oldest one in Greek prose. It’s by an ‘ordinary person’. It is a letter written around 510 BCE on a lead plate found in around 1970 on the island of Berezan near the Ukrainian coast.

A desperate father named Achillodorus begs his son, Protagoras, to help. Achillodorus is about to be enslaved because there is confusion between two merchants about the ownership of property and his status as freeman. Achillodorus asks his son to intervene, and above all to get his mother and brothers out to safety in an unnamed city, probably Olbia on the mainland, founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists from what is now Turkey.
Ruins of Olbia, a Major 7th-century Greek city

I first read this letter as an undergraduate doing a course on Greek prose style delivered by the legendary Sir Kenneth Dover. It interested me more than the endless obscene ancient Greek graffiti he liked to introduce us to. It is important because it shows that ‘ordinary’ Greeks were literate, and that they wrote the way that they spoke, not in long, elaborate periods like some literary authors. It is important because it helps me argue what I have long felt passionately—that scholars need to talk about ‘The Mediterranean and Black Sea worlds’ when defining the scope of Classics.

But most of all it’s important because it reminds us that the terror of being enslaved and losing your liberty was an everyday reality for people in antiquity, just as it is today for many more people in the world than the 45 million+ already enduring conditions of unfreedom. We will never know what happened to Achillodorus, his wife and his children. But we could start to do something about slavery today.
Slave Market: the Fate Achillodorus Dreaded for his Family

So now you know that the earliest example of Greek prose in the world comes from Ukraine, not Athens or Anatolia, which may or may not excite you. It does me. As we face two months of UK news entirely dominated by the tournament deciding which buffoon will get to lead all those of us who never voted Tory, I’m retiring into libraries to get inspired.

But I’m also going to step up the blog’s frequency in order to take my mind off the whole nauseating media exhibition of hypocrisy and lies we’re about to be served with night and day. See you again, I hope, with more news from the archives next week.

My co-editors of Ancient Theatre and Performance Culture Around the Black Sea (C.U.P. 2019) are David Braund and Rosie Wyles.


  1. Amen. I will join you as the same charade heats up again in the US.

  2. Some of the Cretan law codes are older. And prose. And there are signatures which are even older.