Anne Vater


Leibniz University of Hannover

© Anne Vater

Academic Profile

Anne Vater is lecturer and PhD candidate in Ancient History at the Leibniz University of Hannover. She received her bachelor’s degree in Ancient History and History and her master’s degree in Classics from the University of Rostock. She was temporary lecturer at the Universities of Rostock and Greifswald. Her research focuses on the Greek Archaic period. For this period and the transition to Greek Classicism, she traces the development of different status groups as well as the relationship between social and legal status on the basis of a variety of source genres. She uses Cretan legal inscriptions and early Greek poetry as well as archaeological findings, which always have relevance for ancient historical research. Another focus of her work is the study of various legal systems from early Greek societies to Athenian Classicism and the Roman Imperial period with its differentiated legal corpora. She is particularly interested in non-literary source genres such as the petitions of Roman Egypt preserved on papyri and various epigraphic testimonies.

“The Gortynian Debt Bondage. A study on the inconsistency of social and legal status”

This project contributes to dependency research through an analysis of sources on ancient Gortynian debt bondage. It is based on Cretan inscriptions mainly from the 5th century BC. Because they only contain normative regulations; scholars have not yet gone beyond this framework to explore the realities of life and options for action of Gortynian debt bondsmen. Contrary to the postulate that no social practices can be derived from legal sources, comparative material – in my experience – does help to draw a much more precise picture of dependency. The most suitable cultures for comparison are Solonian Athens, the Orient (especially the Neo-Assyrian legal documents), Israel, Roman nexum and modern India.

By looking at these cultures in a comparative, methodologically controlled manner, possible real-life experiences of bondsmen can be addressed and examined more closely, which are not directly addressed in the Cretan debt bondage regulations, such as the duration of dependency, activities while held in dependency, change of residence to that of the creditor and the resulting changes in social and legal status, as well as general restrictions on the options for action and political participation. In order not to draw false conclusions from the comparative cultures, all results must be checked thereafter with the circumstances reflected in Cretan laws. Thanks to this method, many of the posed questions can be answered. However, the aim cannot be to produce reliable statistics, but rather tendencies of the respective areas. These tendencies are sufficient to improve the comprehension of social and legal structures of Cretan society, such as changes in social status and possible consequences for the individuals concerned.

An important category in this study is the distinction between social and legal status, which can be explained with the case of the debt bondsman particularly well. Because sometimes both statuses drift far apart, I speak here of ‘status inconsistency’.[1] The basic idea of my work is a development from social to legal status, which also leads to tensions between both status variants: The highly fluid social status has to be constantly renegotiated at high resource cost. An individual can rise very high but his position tends to remain extremely precarious and there is the constant threat of an equally deep descent. In order to counteract these possibilities and achieve greater security of their own position within the community, a group of individuals decided to cooperate. In the course of the process, various individual measures directed at securing power for this group led to the emergence of legal status. This hinders advancement and relegation to other status groups and thus creates homogeneous legal groups through simplification – a large number of different social statuses are combined into a single legal status. The tension between the two statuses arises from the fact that social status does not simply disappear, but continues to play an essential role in the inner differentiation of legal status groups and, if the difference is too great, can result a status inconsistency that jeopardises the stability of the legal (status) system.

The position of the debt bondsman is so difficult to define because he stands between legal status groups since he combines aspects of free persons and slaves. In ancient Crete there were three legal status groups: slaves, free non-citizens (personally free but less privileged) and citizens (the highest legal status group that also made decisions on political and legal issues). Debt bondsmen were citizens who could not pay their debts after a legal proceeding and were therefore forced to work by the creditor. In doing so, however, the debt bondsman remained in principle legally liable and free (unlike a debt slave), since the creditor could not access his person, but only his labour. After working off his debts, the debt bondsman’s legal status was completely restored. During the time of dependency his legal restrictions mainly concerned his ability to litigate and thereby created the status ambivalence described above. Actually, active and passive legal capacity (i.e. to accuse and be accused/defend oneself) were always conferred together and were available to anyone who was not a slave. The debt bondsman, however, could not initiate a lawsuit during the time of his dependency, which made him equal to a slave in this respect. On the other hand, he was still personally responsible for his actions and could be accused.

This constellation had considerable consequences that also influences social status. In ancient societies, individuals needed assistance networks, since crop failures, fires or other misfortunes could only be compensated by the help of community members. In principle, this help was available to every accepted member of the community as long as he was perceived as an equal, since assistance was based on reciprocity and trust. The debt bondsman’s dependency challenged this equality and thus undermined his social protection. The regulations on debt bondage also reflect processes that take place outside the legal framework. This raises further questions about the relationship between social norms and legal regulations and their interconnectedness.

The project pursues several goals: Firstly, it examines in detail various aspects of Gortynian debt bondage, legal and social, and thus offer a new point of comparison for the much more frequently discussed scenario of debt bondage reflected in Solon. Secondly, it proposes a model for the study of social and legal status that can help to better understand the formation of legal groups and also the purpose of early laws. The question is, why authoritative decision-makers agreed that inflexible legal rules served their goals better than fluid and adaptable social norms and oral rules. In this way, my work connects in several respects beyond the concrete Gortynian material and this could offer new perspectives in various research fields, such as status research, the formation of early civil law, the emergence of written laws and the relationship between social norms and legal practices.

[1]    Davies, P.A.: Articulating Status in Ancient Greece: Status (In)consistency as a new Approach, CCJ 63 (2017), 1–24.

Vater, A.: Tagungsbericht: Luxus – nur Protz und Prunk? Zur Globalgeschichte des Luxus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, 13.02.2020 – 15.02.2020 Hannover. In H-Soz-Kult, 18.04.2020,

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