Slave naming provides unique insight into the competing priorities of dominant and suppressed cultures within a community. By investigating naming practices of the ancient slave societies of the classical world and the pre-modern slave societies of the Americas, this paper seeks to explore the anxieties of the dominant culture expressed in the cycle of slave naming, mapping the evolving relationship between slave and master.
The cycle of slave naming consists of three key elements: newly integrated slaves, established or generational slaves, and freed slaves. In ancient slave societies, where no characteristic immediately distinguished slaves from citizens, incoming slaves were subjected to names that created arbitrary distance between themselves and their masters. As slaves slowly regained agency over generations, however, they challenged exclusive naming practices, culminating in the freed slave’s acceptance of the unrestrained inclusivity of the tria nomina.
Though similar in many structures, ancient and pre-modern slave societies are distinctive in the presence or absence of race; the racially determined visibility of slave populations in turn heavily influenced the priorities both of masters and slaves. New World slavers felt no imperative to separate themselves from slaves that could be distinguished physically; their concerns were focused on breaking down more refined external connections within slave communities. Over time, slaves challenged the inclusive names that were designed to undermine external bonds; they chose traditional names for themselves even as their original contexts faded from living memory. Slave naming cycles are thus driven in inverse parallels of exclusivity and inclusivity.
Jennifer Knox, ’14
Majors: International Relations, Classical Studies
Sponsor: John Gruber-Miller