Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.19

Leonhard Schumacher, Sklaverei in der Antike: Alltag und Schicksal der Unfreien.   München:  Verlag C.H. Beck, 2001.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 3-406-46574-9.  EUR 34.90.  

Reviewed by Noel Lenski, University of Colorado and Ludwig-Maximlians-Universität München (
Word count: 2205 words

A well-known inscription of Pozzuoli prescribes: "Whosoever wishes to extract punishment privately from his male or female slave may do so as he sees fit. If the client contracts to have the slave tortured on a pillory, he must provide the beams, the chains, the ropes and whips to the whippers and whoever thus extracts the punishment must give four sesterces to the whippers as well as the executioner for each individual service that they perform" (AE 1971, 88). For the Puteolani, as indeed for all ancients, slaves were in the crudest sense physical bodies over whom, or rather over which, a master could exercise, or even pay others to exercise force even unto painful death. It is thus more than appropriate that Leonhard Schumacher presents us with a detailed investigation of the physical evidence for slavery in Greco-Roman antiquity. If slaves were, in the most basic sense, physical, commodifiable objects, we must ask ourselves: How did these objects look? How were they transported? Where were they sold? What did they wear? Where did they work? Where were they buried? S. offers answers to all of these questions in what constitutes the first general compendium of material evidence for slavery. In the process, he uses this material evidence as the backbone on which to structure an introductory survey of slavery in both the Greek and Roman worlds. Few researchers would be better qualified to undertake such a study and even fewer could have carried it off with such skill.1

S. begins with an introductory chapter surveying slavery and forms of personal dependence from antiquity to the present. Here he distinguishes carefully between ancient slavery and other forms of forced labor in both the ancient and modern world. As a follower of the so-called "Mainz School", S. deliberately avoids the cross-application modern theories and models to the ancient evidence and is thus cautious about defining slavery in any but legalistic -- essentially Roman -- terms. For S. the slave is "a person who is directly subject to the total, i.e. unlimited and lasting, force of a master" (p. 13). Such a definition seems designed to distance S. from contemporary English speaking scholars who describe slavery instead according to sociological criteria as a condition of natal alienation and general dishonor equivalent with social death. Indeed, S. goes on to catalog the various differences between ancient slavery and new world slavery that Keith Bradley in particular has used to elucidate his own studies of antiquity.2 Though all will not agree with S.'s perspective, his case at least offers the benefit of simplifying our approach to slavery by circumscribing the number of questions we can attempt to answer using available sources.

The body of the book is built around three long chapters on I. The Sources of Slaves and their Distribution, II. The Employment of Slaves, and III. Slaves in Society.

The first chapter begins with an examination of endogenous sources for slaves: debt-bondage, child-sale and enslavement as a punishment. S. argues that debt-bondage never created the conditions for true slavery and that it was never a particularly common form of forced labor in either Greece or Rome. So too, child sale was not common before late antiquity and enslavement for the punishment of crimes only became common in the high empire. Much more important, according to S., were exogenous sources and especially warfare and piracy, areas well represented in the archaeological record. Using the important article of William Harris on natural replacement and the slave supply, S. argues that, following the end of Rome's wars of conquest, the number of available slaves in the empire declined, which in turn led to the replacement of slaves by other forms of dependent labor.3 S. next examines the evidence for slave markets and the sale of slaves. This section is particularly rich in archaeological material: the hermokopidai inscriptions (IG I3 421-30) with their details on slave origins and prices; the numerous images of slave dealers on Roman funerary reliefs; the archaeological remains of the massive slave market on Delos.

S. closes the first chapter with a typology of "Unfreiheit" which is designed to clarify the means by which we can identify slaves in pictorial representations. Here he emphasizes the difference between capture in war (captivitas) and slavery (servitus), an oft-ignored but crucial distinction. Among the countless images of battle captives from antiquity, we must exercise greater caution than have previous scholars before summarily identifying all as slaves. While many certainly were sold into slavery, others awaited ransom or summary execution. To help clarify the issue, S. establishes five criteria for the identification of slaves in pictorial representations: direct epigraphic attestation of slave status, smaller proportions of figures not otherwise identified as children, placement of figures lower than the primary subject or removed from the center of activity, servile activity of the subject, and caricatured representations. Though S. himself acknowledges that his criteria are of descending probative value, he supports the case for their validity well with abundant examples.

The second chapter focuses on slave labor and is divided into three subsections which concentrate respectively on the primary, secondary and tertiary economic sectors. S. devotes relatively little attention to agriculture and animal husbandry, for although slaves were employed across the ancient Mediterranean in these areas and although we find ample pictorial representations, we cannot confirm that the figures they portray were slaves. Here one might have hoped for some engagement with the growing body of survey archaeology, a field which S. entirely avoids. The reader must instead remain content with textual sources and Carandini's hypotheses stemming from excavations at Settefinestre in the 1970s and 1980s. With his section on mines and quarries, S. paints with a much more colorful archaeological palette, especially in his use of material from the Laureion silver mines. S. sub-divides the secondary economic sector into four categories: ceramic and tile manufacturing, building construction, textiles, and leather and metal work. The first is well attested archaeologically in the abundant and detailed evidence from terra sigillata factories, which show a marked decline in the exploitation of slave labor when production centers moved northward during the first century AD. With tile / brick production S. offers a detailed and clear summary of the outstanding research on the exploitation of slave labor here as well. In the building trades, S. uses the Erechtheion ration lists (IG I3 474-79) to demonstrate how free builders regularly maximized their productivity using slave co-workers trained in their own metier. These, S. estimates, could have produced a 17.5% return for their owners above their maintenance costs -- without amortizing their purchase price. The section on textile production presents a general introduction, with archaeological material drawn mostly from the subfield of fulling. Leather and metalwork are also presented primarily in light of literary sources, though the epigraphic evidence for Roman minting is usefully explained.

The fullest section of the third chapter treats the tertiary economic sector where, as the author argues, slaves were used most abundantly and are best attested in both written and material sources. S. divides this section under five subheadings: money and trade; administration and military; household and childcare, education and health; and entertainment. The first division is somewhat lopsided given the general paucity of pictorial representations of money handling and the overabundance of material representing trade. Regarding military uses of slaves, S. is reluctant to believe that they were used regularly in battle, though he himself presents reliable attestations that they were (IG I3 1032; BCH 37 [1913] 221-22 nr. 30). In this instance S. seems unaware of the recent, and to my mind, convincing work of Peter Hunt demonstrating that, at least in classical Greece, slaves often fought and rowed alongside their masters.4 Less equivocal is the evidence for personal attendants to Roman officers, who are regularly attested in inscriptions and on funerary reliefs. So too, household servants, attendants and nurses are presented in several excellent examples culled by S. from sculpture and painting. In the realms of education and health S. must rely more heavily on literary sources, though a couple of reliefs are used to illustrate midwifery. Finally, representations of entertainers -- including performers, athletes, courtesans and prostitutes -- are readily found and can be trusted, in most instances, to depict slaves. S.'s description of the main lupanar in Pompeii shows well how architecture can elucidate the life of slave prostitutes.

The final chapter, on slaves in ancient society, is prefaced with a warning that the dynamics of social relations are not easily represented in static images. This becomes evident as S. is forced to turn primarily to epigraphic evidence to illustrate his arguments. He begins by treating the question of slave dwellings and family relations. The absence of clear archaeological evidence for separate slave dwellings -- such as existed in the American south -- is itself illustrative of the degree to which ancient slaves were integrated into the ancient family structure. Equally revealing, slaves regularly referred to themselves in funerary inscriptions with the language of kinship and family (pater / mater, filius / filia, maritus / uxor / coniunx, frater / soror), language technically inapplicable to them from a legal and societal perspective. A second section, on burial, cult and religion, again falls back on epigraphic evidence in the absence of confirmed images representing slaves engaged in religious activity. The third and final subsection, on slave law and the power of the master, is itself divided under three headings. In "social stratification and wealth relations", S. emphasizes the use of houseborn (oikogenes / vernae) status, sale to a city (servi publici), and membership in the familia caesaris as status markers. In a section on punishment, torture and execution, he adduces several excellent archaeological examples -- including the inscription cited at the head of this review. Finally, for manumission S. offers a tiny sample of the abundant material evidence for this extremely common phenomenon in ancient Rome.

In a concluding chapter, S. himself pinpoints his major theoretical contribution: by comparing classical Greek and Roman slave systems, he has drawn attention to a number of key differences between these two cultures. The classical Greeks, for example, refused to use slaves as architects, actors or athletes where the Romans often used slave architects and almost exclusively slave or freedman actors and athletes. By contrast, Greek banqueters dined exclusively with slave courtesans and Greek citizens regularly borrowed money from slave entrepreneurs, while Romans tended to dine with their wives and left money lending to freeborn equites. S.'s emphasis on the value of comparatist analysis raises the question why he avoided certain pools of ancient evidence in his work. On the penultimate page (p. 309), he confesses that he largely bypassed Hellenistic sources and only occasionally alluded to Late Antiquity. The neglect of Late Antique material is particularly regrettable, for many of the gaps in his evidence from the classical world could have been filled with Late Antique material -- evidence for cloth dyeing (p. 148), weapons manufacturing (p. 157), eunuchs (p. 284), and instruments of torture (p. 280) -- to take just a few examples. Then too, the focus on Classical Greece and early Imperial Rome tends to compel S. to offer two static snapshots -- the first considerably smaller than the second -- of slave life rather than a dynamic panorama of a system in flux. This is particularly noticeable with regard to the sale of children (p. 31), the late antique changes to the SC Claudianum (p. 275), Constantine's alterations to the Roman laws of torture and punishment (p. 291), the vexed question of the "colonate" (p. 13 and 304) and especially the role of Christianity in the lives of slaves and masters alike (p. 252). To be sure, S. has grappled with an enormous body of evidence and would have been hard pressed to forge new roads into Late Antiquity, but a closer look at the abundant recent secondary material in this field might have allowed him to develop to a more nuanced picture of change over time.5

Finally it must be said that S.'s competing aims in this book -- to survey the material evidence and to provide a comprehensive introduction to slavery -- sometimes collide in infelicitous ways. At times major topics are briefly glossed over because of a lack of supporting material evidence, as for example slave rebellions (pp. 282) or agricultural production (p. 92-94). At others, rich funds of material evidence are pared down to a few examples in order to maintain the brisk pace necessary in an introduction, as in the case of Totenmahlreliefs, funerary monuments for freedmen, and pictorial representations of service workers, entertainers and athletes. Overall, however, the book is both useful and enjoyable. It is well written and largely error free.6 With an eye to the non-expert audience, S. has interwoven references to newspapers (p. 14) television (p. 100), comics (p. 194), and popular films (pp. 230, 234, 287, 339). Though clearly aimed at a German reading public -- hence the choice to include only German entries in the bibliography (p. 354) -- the book will be useful as an introduction for broader audiences as well. For its sheer wealth of pictorial material and breadth of coverage alone the book repays careful examination.


1.   S. has already written extensively on slavery, see Servus Index: Sklavenverhör und Sklavenanzeige im republikanischen und kaiserzeitlichen Rom, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1982, and numerous articles, most cited in the notes.
2.   For sociological definitions, see esp. O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1982. Compare K. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 and Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C. - 70 B.C, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
3.   W.V. Harris, "Towards a Study of the Roman Slave-Trade," in J.H. D'Arms and E.C. Kopff, eds. The Seaborne Commerce of Ancient Rome: Studies in Archaeology and History, Rome: American Academy, 1980, pp. 117-40. At several points S. takes issue with W. Scheidel's critique of Harris, "Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire," JRS 87 (1997) 156-69, apparently unaware of Harris' own response, "Demography, Geography and the Sources of Roman Slaves," JRS 89 (1999) 62-75.
4.   P. Hunt, Slaves, Warfare and Ideology in the Greek Historians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Schumacher is aware of the thesis of B. Jordan, The Athenian Navy in the Classical Period, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, pp. 240-70 that the Athenians regularly used slave rowers but stops short of engaging it critically (p. 185: braucht hier nicht referiert zu werden).
5.   See esp. H. Grieser, Sklaverei im spätantiken und frühmittelalterlichen Gallien (5.-7. Jh.), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997; R. Klein, Die Haltung der Kappadokischen Bischöfe Basilius Von Caesarea, Gregor von Nazianz und Gregor von Nyssa zur Sklaverei, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000; idem, Die Sklaverei in der Sicht der Bischöfe Ambrosius und Augustinus, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1988; M. Melluso, La schiavitù nell'età giustinianea: Disciplina giuridica e rilvanza sociale, Paris: Presse Universitaire Franc-Comtoises, 2000; G. Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity: The Rise of Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition, London: Routledge, 2000.
6.   Though note the incorrect numberings on p. 295: read Abb. 14 for 13 and 131 for 130.

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