Kostas Vlassopoulos, ‘A Gramscian approach to ancient slavery’, E. Zucchetti & A. M. Cimino (eds.), Antonio Gramsci and the Ancient World, Routledge (2021), 101-23.
The concept of hegemony was one of Gramsci's most seminal contributions, not only to Marxist theory, but also to history and the social sciences. It raised the issue of how the ruling class asserts its dominant position, but at the same time how the subordinate classes contest the authority of their rulers through a mixture of everyday experience, reinterpretation of elements of ruling class ideology, and the creation of alternative discourses. Hegemony requires a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. The study of slavery in antiquity has been long dominated by a unilateralist and top-down approach. Slavery is seen as a relationship that was unilaterally defined by the masters and imposed on the slaves, who are seen as passive objects of exploitation and domination. This chapter takes its cue from an alternative approach to modern slavery, created by the American Marxist historian Eugene Genovese on the basis of Gramsci's ideas. Genovese portrayed slavery as an asymmetrical negotiation of power between masters, slaves, and other groups, and thus for the first time made it possible to explore slave agency in the history of slavery. Based on the Gramscian concepts of hegemony and double consciousness, I explore the contradictions that were generated by the coexistence of various distinctive discourses on slavery in antiquity, and how slaves used elements of these various discourses in order to enhance their condition, limit their suffering, and create opportunities for themselves.