Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.11.05

Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 202. ISBN 0-521-37887-7 (pb).

Reviewed by William M. Owens, Ohio University (

Slavery and Society at Rome is Keith Bradley's third book on Roman slavery. These books and Bradley's numerous articles comprise a distinguished contribution to our understanding of ancient slavery. In the earlier books Bradley examined Roman slavery's system of rewards and punishments and Rome's three major slave revolts.1 Slavery and Society recapitulates some of these themes but also provides a more comprehensive treatment of Roman slavery, persuasive in its conclusions and laudable as a model of social-historical synthesis. For these reasons, as well Bradley's careful documentation and bibliography, Slavery and Society is an excellent place to begin the study of Roman slavery.

Bradley focuses mainly, but not exclusively on slavery in Italy between 200 BC and 200 AD. His themes are four-fold: (1) The macro-system aspects of slavery are analyzed in Chapter 2, on the notion of what constitutes a slave system, and in Chapter 3, on Rome's means of procuring and maintaining a slave population. (2) The material conditions of slavery are surveyed in Chapter 4, on the nature of the work slaves performed, and Chapter 5, on the living conditions of slaves. (3) The attitudes of slave owners to slaves is the general theme of Chapter 7, which is concerned with the effects of Stoicism and Christianity on the slave holders, and of Chapter 8, which looks for evidence of improved treatment of slaves under the law and through the practice of manumission. (4) The reaction of slaves to slavery is addressed at numerous points and specifically in Chapter 6, which deals with slave resistance, and in Chapter 9, which offers a reading of the philosophy of Epictetus that attempts to see if the philosopher's experience of bondage is reflected in his thought.

This outline of topics, with its emphasis on material conditions and personal attitudes reveals one of Bradley's main goals: To write social history that reconstructs the reality of slavery as it was experienced by the individual, or as Keith Hopkins put it, to evoke "what it was like to be there."2 The thought that we may be able to recover something as elusive as the slave's experience of slavery is intellectually exciting. For Bradley this act of recovery may be morally necessary as well; he seems intent to give the victims of Roman slavery their due in history. Such history is probative and subject to ideological distortion. Nonetheless, Bradley remains a careful and objective judge of the ancient evidence. His reconstruction takes us closer to knowing how it may have been.

In the introduction Bradley cites four documents to illustrate not only the diversity of the evidence but also the diverse character of slavery itself: a letter written by Quintus Cicero to his brother expressing delight at Marcus' manumission of his secretary Tiro; a papyrus fragment regarding the sale of a slave girl named Abaskantis in 142 AD; a sepulchral inscription for Musicus Scurranus, a slave in the imperial bureaucracy, dedicated by sixteen of his own slaves; and an opinion of the jurist Ulpian on the question of whether a slave who has had his tongue cut out may be considered "damaged." As did the free citizens of the empire, so did the slaves of Rome inhabit a steep hierarchy of statuses and privileges; at the top were elite slaves such as Musicus Scurranus, at the bottom the many who were subject to routine brutality and physical abuse. A particular excellence of this book is Bradley's ability to suggest a coherent and convincing general account of Roman slavery that does not oversimplify its diverse character. This was no mean task, for the evidence is difficult. As slaves in Rome lived on the margins of society, so does the evidence for slavery tend to appear incidentally, in the metaphorical margins of texts whose focus is something other than slavery. For example, a significant source of our knowledge about ancient slave auctions is Lucian's Vitarum Auctio, a text whose purpose was not the accurate depiction of social convention but the satire of philosophical schools.3 Bradley compensates for the unreliable character of individual texts by drawing on an impressively wide range of evidence. In addition to the four sources Bradley reviews in the introduction, he argues effectively from the evidence of poetry, history, the ancient novel, and material remains.

Bradley's goal of describing the effects of the system on its victims is particularly ambitious, given that Roman slaves have left no record commenting on the effects of their bondage. A lesser scholar might have been tempted to infer conclusions about the slaves' reactions to slavery from broad assumptions about human nature. Bradley, on the other hand, attempts to ground his conclusions about the emotional and psychic life of slaves and masters as far as possible on ancient evidence. To do this he has turned to some forms of unconventional testimony. Following the example of Fergus Millar and Keith Hopkins he shows that the ancient novel, though fiction, may serve as a valuable source for the ancient social reality.4 Earlier Bradley himself has shown how new evidence may be found in familiar texts. In Slaves and Masters his reading of the fables of Phaedrus suggests how slaves themselves may have felt about their bondage. This search for new forms of evidence continues in Slavery and Society, where Artemidorus' Dream Book is read as a possible source for the attitudes of free persons outside the elite towards slaves, and allusions to slavery in the former slave and philosopher Epictetus are analyzed as a possible evidence for the feelings of an individual slave.

Bradley's most controversial evidence may be that from other slave societies, especially those of the New World. We possess no ancient equivalent of The Life of Frederick Douglass to reveal the emotions of a Roman slave, to tell us how he or she felt about the material and spiritual aspects of bondage. However, Bradley's use of comparative evidence is justified by his approach, which has been influenced by Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, Mass, 1982), a book emphasizing the sociological aspects of slavery, in particular, the consequences of the power relationship between master and slave, especially the prestige and honor accorded the former and the social marginalization and degradation of the latter.5 It must be conceded that slavery in the New World functioned under very different economic and historical conditions from those of Roman slavery; Roman slavery was not directed to the production of a cash crop, such as cotton or sugar, in the context of colonialism and a mercantile economy. However, in respect to the social consequences of slavery there are significant parallels between the two slave societies. These social parallels make the comparative material a relevant supplement to the ancient evidence, particularly as it relates to our attempt to understand the feelings of the slave, a topic on which the ancient evidence is particularly reticent.

Bradley assembles this impressive range of evidence in a manner similar to what Keith Hopkins has called the "wig-wam" method of proof.6 While the data provided by a single text or source are too flimsy to support the weight of a general conclusion, they may point in a general direction. When a sufficient number of sources point in the same direction, they lean on one another like the sticks of a wig-wam and the edifice stands. This method is frequently employed in the social-historical reconstruction of the ancient world, though not always persuasively.7 Bradley, however, has used the method to good advantage. Consider, for example, his reconstruction of the process of enslavement and the effects of this process on its victims. Bradley depicts a process that was, with few exceptions, devastating for its victims. This general conclusion rests on a number of particular observations culled from a variety of texts. Bradley notes that the consequences of enslavement were so feared that many, such as the Cantabri in 22 B. C. (Cassius Dio 54.5.2-3) preferred to commit mass suicide even before they became slaves. For many enslavement was followed by separation from kith and kin, whose trauma is illustrated in the relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius showing a German captive being separated from her son by Roman soldiers. The harsh conditions under which slaves were transported is suggested by the stele of A. Kapreilius Timotheus, which shows a slaves chained together in a coffle, conditions which offered no privacy for eating, sleeping and personal hygeine. The physical hardship of transportation is further evinced by the Digest (, that contained provisions for slaves who, when travelling by sea, became sick or killed themselves by jumping overboard. But the hardships of transport were not only physical. Slaves suffered the loss of their homeland and culture and had to adapt to a new one. Aulus Gellius (4.1.4-6) indicates that slaves were expected to acquire the rudiments of Latin. Bradley illustrates the possible extent of dislocation with reference to a papyrus documenting the transport of Balsamea, who was born in Mesopotamia, sold as a slave in Phoenicia, and at seventeen found herself in Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. 3053).

Bradley uses the more controversial forms of evidence, especially the comparative material, in the context of a framework established by more traditional forms of evidence and then only for the purpose of probing a question about which the ancient evidence is silent. To suggest the psychic despair brought about by the cultural dislocation of enslavement he notes the example of Callirhoe, the heroine of Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, who was able to bear her fate so long as she could hear Greek spoken and see the sea. But when her journey took her across the Euphrates to Persia, "then longing for her country and family welled up in her, and she despaired of ever returning (5.1)." In the context of the experience of this ancient fictional character, Bradley introduces evidence absent from the ancient sources -- the testimony of a real slave, Olaudah Equiano, who was a slave in the British West Indies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Equiano's autobiography served as a model for many slave autobiographies that followed, including that of Frederick Douglass. A West African, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped as children by neighboring villagers and sold successively further and further from home. Eventually, the two were separated and Equiano sold to Europeans, who transported him to the West Indies. His account of his kidnapping, transportation, and sale agrees at many points with the experiences of Roman slaves drawn by Bradley from ancient sources. Absent from the ancient evidence but present in Equiano's narrative is the emotional response of the victim of these experiences: the pain attendant on his separation from his sister; the increasing despair as he was sold further and further from home; the cultural shock of seeing for the first time the ocean, sailing ships, and white men. The objective parallels between Equiano's experience of enslavement and that of Roman slaves make a persuasive case for the relevance of such comparative material. To argue that Equiano's responses offer no insight into the feelings of ancient slaves who experienced similar hardships is to deny the existence of any human quality that transcends the particulars of time and culture -- and to carry cultural relativism to a perverse degree.

The evidence of New World slavery is not limited to supplementing the ancient record. Bradley shows how this evidence can deepen our appreciation of the ancient material itself. Most of the ancient evidence for Roman slavery was produced by those who owned slaves and reflects interests and biases of this elite. The slave narratives of the nineteenth century treat similar situations, but from the point of view of the slave, and suggest a new model of how we may read the ancient evidence. Consider the stereotype of the servile character. Christian writer, the slaveowner denigrated the slave as truant, lazy, dilatory, and dishonest. Bradley shows how the documents illustrating New World slavery may help us see these perceived defects of servile character from the slave's point of view: as expressions of resistance to slavery rather than deficiencies of servile character. The frequency with which Roman masters complain about the character and performance of their slaves may then suggest that such resistence was common -- not that the stereotype was true.

A number of Bradley's arguments merit special note. He offers a persuasive alternative to the schematic orthodox view that Rome's chief method of procuring slaves was through warfare during the Republic and slave breeding under the Principate.8 In addition to warfare and breeding, the exposure of infants, trade, and kidnapping or piracy were all significant sources of slaves for the Romans. Of course, different degrees of reliance were placed on different sources depending on immediate conditions. But warfare continued to be a significant source in the Principate; and there is evidence that breeding was well-established under the Republic. Bradley also has some interesting things to say about the nature of slave labor. Noting evidence that slaves were employed in a broad range of specialized occupations under the empire, from field hands to imperial bureaucrats, Bradley suggests that this trend may have gotten under way as early as the second century BC: Cato assumes slave labor is normative for the rural context and Plautus satirizes a variety of domestic slaves. Bradley associates this specialization with an effort to improve the efficiency of slave labor; specialization improved accountability and may have encouraged slaves to take pride in work for which they had little motivation otherwise. Furthermore, he contends that the distinction among various forms of slave labor led to fine distinctions in status among the slaves themselves. Thus, the population of slaves internally was subject to the same hierarchical impulse as the rest of Roman society. Such variation and sense of hierarchy, Bradley suggests, may explain why slaves as a class never developed a sense of common identity or class consciousness. I should also mention Bradley's masterly synthesis of ancient texts and archaeological evidence to illustrate the material conditions under which slaves lived, the nature of their food, clothing, and shelter (Chapter 5, "Quality of Life"). Evidence suggests that Roman slaves were likely provided with what was adequate, and sometimes not even that. Bradley argues that the slaves' substandard diet, their rough clothing and shelter may have served as a constant reminder of their inferior status; he draws on the testimony of African-American slaves to suggest the daily effect that such conditions may have had on Roman slaves. This section indeed comes very close to giving us a sense of what it may have felt like to have been a Roman slave.

Finally, Bradley takes up the question of whether there was any amelioration in the treatment of slaves over time. In Chapter 7 he discusses the possible influence of Stoicism and Christianity on the institution of slavery. Both Stoics and Christians recognized the humanity that the slave shared with his master; however, Bradley argues that there is no evidence that this philosophic or spiritual insight led to a questioning of the institution itself. Moreover, Bradley is in agreement with Ste Croix that if Christianity made a difference, it was in providing a new justification for slavery, preaching that slaves were to obey their masters as they would their God, but not in ameliorating the conditions of bondage.9 In Chapter 8 Bradley argues that neither in the practice of manumission nor in the judicial treatment of slaves is there evidence that slaves were being treated with increasing mildness. In fact, the judicial treatment of slaves may have gotten worse; an inscription recovered from Puteoli (AE 1971.88) indicates the existence of a public torture service run by local undertakers. Bradley acknowledges there was a current of legislation that represented significant gains of principle for slaves: the banning of castration and ergastula, the recognition of the rights of asylum, the prosecution of masters for homicide. Still, he argues that the power of masters to abuse their slaves went unchecked in practice.

As far as his analysis of Christianity and slavery is concerned, Bradley appears to be arguing against a thesis, originated by F. Wallon in Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquité (Paris, 1847) and endorsed more recently by Joseph Vogt in Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man (Oxford, 1974), that Christianity contributed to the mitigation of slavery through the moral improvement of the masters. Bradley is probably right that Christianity had little effect on slavery as an institution; however, in his implicit attack on the views of Wallon and Vogt he may underestimate the Christianity's contribution to improving the conditions under which slaves lived, albeit on an individual level. For example, Bradley dismisses a ruling of Constantine's permitting Christian slaveowners to free their slaves because of their religious convictions (religiosa mente) as a mere convenience for those who wished to free slaves in the context of their religious beliefs, "an adaptation bred of expedience, not a mark of progress, giving slaveowners another of the choices they had always given themselves in the past (p. 158)." The numbers of these Christian slaveowners cannot be known. However, they were enough to occasion an imperial directive; Bradley may be too ready to discount the significance of their numbers and their religious motivation.

This book is charged with a sense of the author's commitment not to mitigate the nature of Roman slavery. While the intensity of this commitment may have led Bradley to allow Christianity less than its due, he is elsewhere a scrupulous weigher of the evidence. Indeed, Bradley shows that careful scholarship does not preclude conviction, feeling, and the ability to judge. The author reminds us that behind the dry data is a story of great human suffering and it is in this regard he is his most evocative and eloquent: "What did it feel like to grow up as a slave, perhaps to live well in a rich household, but gradually to come to realise that you were the symbol of everything that the powerful in society thought despicable, rotten and corrupt? What was it like to feel a sense of inferiority hammered into you every day by the food you were given to eat, the clothes you had to wear, the space you were supposed to sleep in? And what was it like to anticipate the lick of the lash, the clasp of the slave collar, the touch of the branding iron? To feel so desperate that you would run away and abandon all family ties and all the security of the household in an attempt to create a better life somewhere else, knowing that you would be hounded, perhaps recaptured and returned to a life more miserable than the one you had left?" (pp. 179-80) This eloquence is all the more moving because it comes at the end of an account that is carefully argued and meticulously documented.


  • [1] Rewards and punishments: Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); major revolts: Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
  • [2] Death and Renewal (Cambridge, 1983) 203.
  • [3] See Bradley's useful discussion of the Vitarum Auctio as evidence for slave auctions in CJ 87 (1992) 125-138.
  • [4] Fergus Millar, "The World of the Golden Ass," JRS 71 (1981) 63-75. Keith Hopkins, "Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery," P & P 138 (1993) 3-27.
  • [5] In contrast, the works of M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York, 1980), Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge, 1978), and G. E. M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London and Ithaca, 1981), have emphasized the economic role of slavery, especially the proportion of labor and product produced by the labor of slaves or forced labor.
  • [6] Keith Hopkins (1978)19-20.
  • [7] See, for example, the critique by P. Garnsey and R. Saller, The Roman Empire (Berkeley, 1987) 46-7 of some economic arguments of A. H. M. Jones in The Later Roman Empire.
  • [8] Cf. Ste Croix (1981) 228; 234-6 and Hopkins (1978) 102.
  • [9] Ste Croix (1981) 420.