American Receptions of Thucydides in the Antebellum Slavery Debate Open Access

Mao, Steven (Spring 2022)

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The study of Roman and Greek antiquity, including the languages of Latin and ancient Greek, were heavily emphasized in American classrooms. Naturally, this pervasive study in the classics permeated other areas of discourse in society. The early nineteenth century brought about an increased admiration for Hellenic culture, coinciding with the height of the American abolitionist debate. Therefore, abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum period (roughly 1816-1861) often invoked ancient Greek authors to support their own beliefs and arguments. Appropriations of Aristotle are known for being used by advocates of slavery; however, receptions of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460- c. 400 BCE) and his work are less studied in this context. This thesis specifically focuses on how antebellum authors referenced Thucydides, to both justify and attack the modern institution of slavery.

Through the analysis of antebellum speeches, newspaper articles, and books regarding slavery, this thesis aims to examine not only the ways in which authors referred to Thucydides in the context of the slavery debate, but also how they referred to specific passages from his Peloponnesian War and then adapted and manipulated his writing for their own agendas. My first chapter juxtaposes how abolitionists and anti-abolitionists referenced Thucydides because of the rising appreciation for Greek culture. Both sides viewed Thucydides as a representative of Greek cultural achievement, yet abolitionists deployed a passage regarding piracy from the Peloponnesian War to demonstrate that not all ancient customs should be deemed moral. My second chapter focuses on antebellum references to Thucydides’ account of Spartan helotage, a particular form of ancient slavery. These references all came from abolitionists, who lamented at the barbaric nature of helotage and attributed to it the downfall of Greece. My final chapter analyzes how Thucydides was used in the philological component of theological arguments regarding whether the Greek terms δοῦλος and δουλεία were truly meant to denote ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ in the Bible. By means of in-depth analysis of primary sources, this study demonstrates the role of Thucydidean receptions in arguments of American abolitionists and proslavery advocates in the decades before the Civil War. 

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter I: Hellenism and Receptions of Thucydides in the Antebellum Slavery Debate 4

Chapter II: Critique of Slavery through References to Helotage 29

Chapter III: Thucydides Receptions in Support of Biblical Arguments 48

Conclusion 74

Bibliography 77 

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