Penn Senior Studies Ancient Inscriptions Documenting Greek God’s Slave ‘Purchases’

If the old adage holds true to “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” University of Pennsylvania senior Claudia Kassner will enjoy a long and happy career studying ancient languages and history. She spent last summer in Greece at the archaeological site of Delphi, a major religious destination in the ancient Greek world, examining the manumission epigraphy, inscriptions that document the act of slave owners freeing their slaves.

As a University Scholar, with research funded by Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Kassner is studying a collection of inscriptions in the sanctuary of the god Pythian Apollo that record his “purchases” of slaves. The site was a PanHellenic place of worship where the famous Delphic oracle was located.

“The slaves were able to buy their own freedom from their masters through the process,” she says. “There were, however, variations in these arrangements which shaped the life of the freedman or freedwoman.”

Some freed slaves were immediately granted full freedom, though with a variety of conditions under which the slave could live as a free person, while others were obliged to contracts of paramonḗ, which obligated the slave to extended time in service of the master.

Kassner’s research project capitalizes on the rich source of information that this epigraphic collection offers about the nature of enfranchisement in ancient Greece and how it functioned within Greek society.

These case studies, especially those that involve paramonḗ arrangements, raise a number of fascinating questions says Kassner. In instances where the freed slave was subject to restrictions on travel and even behavior, with the threat of punishment by the master, to what extent was the freedman or freedwoman really “free”? What constituted “freedom” and what constituted “slavery” to Greeks, and what existed between those two extremes?”

Kassner constructed a photographic corpus of the site at Delphi. Her research revolves around the polygonal wall that bears hundreds of the manumissions. Kassner is also examining the way the epigraphy interacts with the visitor and with the other edifices in the sanctuary, how the site’s design shaped the experience of the religious pilgrim moving through it and how ancient communities interacted with the sanctuary’s layout in their constructions along the Sacred Way, the main path through the sanctuary.

Kassner has interned in several departments of the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, including a semester in the part-exhibit, part-conservation laboratory “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies.” 

The summer before her junior year, she attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. She also studied abroad as part of the Penn-in-Athens program. Jeremy McInerney, a classical studies professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn, now her project advisor, led the students to Delphi and mentioned the manumission inscriptions, as they walked by the polygonal wall.

When she came back to Penn that fall, she discussed the epigraphy with McInerney who recommended some reading material.

“Once I began looking into it,” she says, “I was so fascinated by the topic that I couldn’t wait to continue with it.

“I think that time abroad was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had; even while I was there, I was constantly aware of how perfect my days were of visiting museums, exploring ancient sites and listening to scholars with people who share my interests and enthusiasm.”

She knew then that she would one day soon return to Delphi. And last summer she did to study the physical manumission inscriptions themselves.

“Delphi is unbelievably scenic,” says Kassner. “The site was built on a slope surrounded by green mountains and right next to the water. The history and the natural beauty together make ascending through the archaeological site a really powerful experience. I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend time there.”

She was struck by the beauty of Greek ancient art and architecture and fell in love with the country, its history and its gyros.

Kassner grew up in Villanova, Pa. With Penn close by, she enjoyed trips to campus -- an older sister graduated from Penn -- and exploring the Penn Museum. She has loved the ancient world since she was a small child when her mother read her bedtime stories from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

In high school, Kassner took Latin at Friends’ Central School and decided that she wanted to study Roman literature and history in college. That changed when she took a survey class on ancient Greece during her sophomore year. A few months before the start of fall semester she began learning how to read ancient Greek at the University of Chicago’s Summer Language Institute.

“Once I began reading the Delphic manumission inscriptions and going through the scholarly work on the subject, I found myself asking so many questions and feeling excited about getting answers for those questions and then feeling excited about coming up with more questions!”

She chose her research focus the same way she chose her major.

She says, “I went with what made me the happiest and the most excited.”

Outside the classroom, Kassner is an undergraduate fellow at the Wolf Humanities Center. As undergraduate chair for the 2017-2018 “Forum on Afterlives,” she is organizing events for the fellows and helping to produce the fellows’ annual research conference scheduled for March 16. She is also the editor-in-chief of Discentes, Penn’s undergraduate classical studies journal and is president of Seneca International on campus, an advocacy group that focuses on issues facing women around the world.


Claudia in front of the Temple of Athena Pronaia