Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.39

Heinz Bellen, Heinz Heinen, Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, Beiheft 4. Two vols.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003.  Pp. xiv, viii, 805.  ISBN 3-515-08206-9.  €100.00.  

Reviewed by Walter Scheidel, Stanford University (
Word count: 1494 words

This is the fourth generation of bibliographical aids prepared by the research center on ancient slavery of the Academy at Mainz in Germany. After more modest beginnings in 1965 and 1971, the 1983 version already boasted 5,162 titles on ancient slavery, including the ancient Near East.1 The latest version, which clocks in at 10,415 entries, offers twice as much information. Thanks to the labors of two assistants, Dorothea Schaefer (who was in charge of maintaining the bibliographical database from 1993 to 2002) and Johannes Deissler (who took over near the end),2 this updated bibliography includes all items that had become known by the beginning of 2003. It aims for complete coverage of pertinent books, chapters and articles, supplemented by a smattering of reviews and didactic material. The majority of the listed titles were personally inspected by the bibliographers.

The 624 pages of bibliography in the first fascicle are grouped in ten major categories: history of scholarship (1,564 entries), ancient sources on slavery (1,247), (chronological-regional) history of ancient slavery (1,833), slave revolts and brigandage (542), slavery in its social context (1,711), slavery in the public sphere (198), slavery in the ancient economy (749), legal aspects of ancient slavery (1,490), manumission and freedpersons (617), and ancient theories of slavery (404). These rubrics are differentiated into up to three additional levels of resolution, providing a total of 113 sub-categories that help navigate the listings. All items are consecutively numbered. At the end of each sub-section, the bibliographers list the reference numbers of titles that are cited in full in a different section but are also germane to others, an inevitable compromise between selective omissions and the prohibitively space-consuming repetition of full references. These bibliographical riches are made accessible by no fewer than 137 pages of indices in the second fascicle: indices for ancient sources, Greek and Latin terms, proper names, place names, keywords, and modern authors.

Any such collection will be judged by two criteria: coverage and user-friendliness. While there is no reliable way of ascertaining the quality of coverage, the sheer bulk of this work inspires great confidence. The most comprehensive bibliography of scholarship on all of world slavery, Joe Miller's two installments of Slavery and slaving in world history, lists 14,241 titles published from 1900 to 1996, including 2,107 on the ancient world.3 A collection that manages to track down five times as many titles on the ancient world leaves no room for doubt about the editorial staff's tireless commitment to exhaustiveness. The obligatory vanity spot-check (i.e., looking up my own work) yields a highly respectable 90% score, including some obscure or only tangentially relevant items.4

Accessibility is a more serious issue. Miller's slavery bibliographies provide obvious comparanda. They cover the entire globe and all periods, but classification is kept to a minimum: an opening section for 'General and Comparative', nine geographical or chronological sections (for North America, Brazil, Ancient, and so on), each divided into between five and thirteen geographical sub-sections (for ancient slavery, these comprise General and Comparative; Ancient Near East; Greece and Dependencies; Rome and Provinces; Egypt; and Other), and a final section on the slave trade. Two indices, for modern authors and subjects/keywords, are the principal means of navigation. In my experience, this format works fairly well. It grants reliable access to particular authors and subjects and, as a bonus, enables the user to survey the full breadth of scholarship on a particular society without having to jump from section to section. The main problem, however, is that someone looking for all entries on, say, ancient manumission is compelled to either skim all the sections on ancient slavery (which add up 100 pages) or locate large numbers of references with the help of the index, where 'Manumission (ancient)' offers a whopping 144 entries in the first volume alone, which makes for an inordinate amount of page-turning between index and the specified entries that are randomly spread out across 78 pages.

The Mainz bibliography adopts the opposite approach. While the indices are more detailed but essentially similar, the listings themselves are presented in a far more articulated manner. The benefit is clear: anyone interested in ancient manumission will find the most relevant material on 17 consecutive pages, together with dozens of cross-references to less germane material in other sections. At the same time, this arrangement can make it rather difficult to obtain an overview of broader topics. Slavery in Roman Egypt is a suitable example. Jean A. Straus is listed 20 times in sub-section II D 2 c, which covers papyrological evidence for slaves and freedpersons in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. However, these rich listings exclude an article on manumission in Roman Egypt by the same author, which is cited in full in sub-section IX A 2 b (concerned with Roman forms of manumission), 416 pages later. Moreover, the lengthy list in II D 2 c includes Straus' survey on slave prices in Roman Egypt in ZPE 1973, which is consequently absent from sections V F 3 (which deals with the number, ages, prices and wages of slaves), VII (slavery in the ancient economy), and VIII E (slave sales). As bibliographic information is broken down into ever smaller units, a growing number of titles will not appear where one might reasonably expect to find them, because they have been listed in an equally plausible context instead. As a result, users either need to know in advance exactly what (and whom) they are looking for (and look up all of Straus' work in the index, a course of action that may occur only to seasoned specialists), or must follow up on dozens of cross-references in the hope that they lead to relevant material. This means that the precision insinuated by the presence of 113 sub-sections is more apparent than real: while this arrangement, at first sight, conveys the impression that it caters to users who wish to know everything about a relatively small topic without having to leaf through much longer undifferentiated sections, it does not actually live up to that promise. Diligent users will end up hunting down scattered cross-references, or decide to abandon the sub-sections and identify relevant entries one by one via the overall subject-index.

This problem cannot be solved in a printed bibliography. What is needed is a magic wand that causes the listings to re-arrange themselves in accordance with what we are looking for: everything on slavery in Roman Egypt; everything on Roman manumission or slave prices; everything on ancient slavery written by Jean Straus. Needless to say, this wand has now long been available. An electronic database, distributed on CD-ROM or hosted on the website of the Mainz Academy, or both, would meet all these challenges reliably and at low cost. The volume's introduction does not specify how these more than 10,000 titles were collected in the first place, yet it is hard to imagine that this task did not involve a computer. In that case, publication merely forced readily accessible, sortable and searchable information into the Procrustean format of the immutable printed page. User-friendliness is the main victim.

Money is not an issue here: if financial profits are desired, CD-ROMs can be priced accordingly, and an online database can be made available to subscribers for a fee. In the twenty-first century, there is no intellectual or financial justification for sharply reducing the value of an otherwise truly invaluable treasure trove of scholarly information by incarcerating it in hefty tomes. I have made this point before,5 and I will make it again. Everybody who works on ancient slavery is enormously indebted to the efforts of the Mainz Academy, and it goes without saying that even an unwieldy book is much better than no book at all, or one that is twenty years old. At the same time, an up-to-date electronic database would be so much better still.

Anyone who wants to search a comparable number of publications (in excess of 10,000) on ancient epigraphy is welcome to access the (free) website of the Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg and use the search function of their epigraphic bibliography. This format is an obvious model for the slavery bibliography and any other comparable project. Visitors to the web site of the ancient slavery group at the Mainz Academy currently encounter a brief reference to the printed bibliography, together with a link to a pdf file that lists corrections for 186 entries in that book.7 The same document mentions that 611 new entries have been processed between the publication of the bibliography and the end of 2004 but are not included in that file (no reason is given for that decision). It also refers to plans to make the entire database available online in the near future. This is a promising development. Our colleagues at the Mainz Academy have already performed a vital service by creating this lavish database of modern research on ancient slavery. They would render us an even greater service by taking it online as soon as possible.


1.   M. Haaga et al., Bibliographie zur Erforschung der antiken Sklaverei im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Mainz 1965; N. Brockmeyer, Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei (ed. J. Vogt), Bochum 1971; E. Herrmann-Otto (with N. Brockmeyer), Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei (ed. J. Vogt and H. Bellen), Bochum 1983.
2.   The extravagantly ponderous full title of the current version reflects the complexity of its genesis, with a veritable stratigraphy of historical layers: Bibliographie zur antiken Sklaverei. Im Auftrag der Kommission für Geschichte des Altertums der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur (Mainz) herausgegeben von Heinz Bellen und Heinz Heinen. Neu bearbeitet von Dorothea Schaefer und Johannes Deissler auf Grundlage der von Elisabeth Herrmann in Verbindung mit Norbert Brockmeyer erstellten Ausgabe (Bochum 1983). Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei. Begründet von Joseph Vogt im Auftrag der Kommission für Geschichte des Altertums der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur herausgegeben von Heinz Bellen und Heinz Heinen. Beiheft 4. Teil I: Bibliographie. Teil II: Abkürzungsverzeichnis und Register. (The bibliography consists of two consecutively paginated fascicles.)
3.   J. C. Miller, Slavery and slaving in world history: A bibliography, 1900-1991, Millwood 1993 (10,344 entries); Slavery and slavery in world history: A bibliography. Volume II, 1992-1996, Armonk and London 1999 (3,254 entries including addenda for previous years).
4.   This unscientific method revealed the absence of a very substantial encyclopedic reference work that contains various entries on ancient slavery (including three by this reviewer): J. P. Rodriguez (ed.), The historical encyclopedia of world slavery (2 vols.), Santa Barbara 1997. This omission is hard to explain given that two comparable works are included: P. Finkelman and J. C. Miller (eds.), Macmillan encyclopedia of world slavery (2 vols.), New York 1998, and S. Drescher and S. L. Engerman (eds.), A historical guide to world slavery, New York and Oxford 1998 (although the latter is erroneously credited to Drescher alone).
5.   In my review of J.-U. Krause et al., Schichten, Konflikte, religiöse Gruppen, materielle Kultur (Bibliographie zur römischen Sozialgeschichte 2), Stuttgart 1998, BMCR 1999.01.04.

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