There is a brief pause as a group of graduate students in the Master of Arts in Classics program consider an underlining question to an upcoming international conference on the history of slavery.
They are asked if they can envision a world that is free of slavery.
Their answer is unanimous – unfortunately not.
“I don’t see a world without slavery in our lifetime,” says one student, as others nod in agreement. “I think we can hope to lessen the frequency and make things better by purposely looking back over history.”
The discussion takes off as the group offers reasons why individuals are living in conditions of forced bondage around the world.
“Sadly, slavery is a very lucrative business and that hasn’t changed,” says one student.
“It’s not something that we talk about in Western society as a contemporary problem,” adds another student. “Slavery is universally condemned but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. In some ways it’s cultural to have rights over people. Prostitution and sex slavery is the big form that it takes in today’s world.”
The students were inspired to organize the event through a recent course they took on slavery taught by Associate Professor Allison Glazebrook. They say the conference is a means of bringing researchers together to create a greater understanding of what slavery has meant for society throughout history and what it means for us today.
The students involved in organizing the conference are: Itay Avitzur, David Farag, Emma Fotino, Andrew Fulham, Jesse Johnston, Tessa Little, Molly McMeekin, Sarah Robinson, Jon Snyder and Ana Wagner.
Farag and Robinson are among nine Canadian and American graduate students who will give presentations Feb. 8.
Farag will talk about his study of female slaves and free characters found in the writings of a Greek playwright. Robinson’s presentation will focus on her research into the occupations held by freed women in classical Athens.
“We know more about modern slavery than ancient slavery because we have personal accounts, we watch movies about slavery like 12 Years a Slave and just last year many events were held to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman,” Farag says. “It’s important to understand how modern slavery developed out of precedents found in the Roman and Greek world. The conference presentations will provide evidence and explain concepts and methods of slavery that connect from ancient to modern times.”
The conference runs from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., in Sankey Chamber. Michele George of the Department of Classics at McMaster University will give a keynote address to close the conference. George has completed extensive research on Roman slavery and the archaeology of slavery.