Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.13

Stefan Knoch, Sklavenfürsorge im Römischen Reich.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2005.  Pp. vii, 338.  ISBN 3-487-13023-8.  €39.80 (pb).  



Reviewed by Marcus Sigismund, Bergische Universität Wuppertal (sigismun@uni-wuppertal.de)
Word count: 1405 words

The subject of slavery by now belongs to the classical themes of ancient history, and research on the topic has produced many fine books. The volume under review, which deals with the complex issue of slavery and welfare, surely is one of them. Stefan Knoch is a fellow in the research project Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei of the Akademie der Wissenschaft und der Literatur in Mainz, Germany and member of the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 846 "Sklaverei -- Knechtschaft und Frondienst -- Zwangsarbeit". The book is a result of his doctoral thesis written under the direction of Prof. Dr. Herrmann-Otto at the University of Trier, Germany.

At the outset of the volume Knoch emphasizes that the term Fürsorge in the context of his research refers to neither a kind of modern social welfare, which would be anachronistic, nor the ancient Christian caritas. He rather understands Fürsorge in a more comprehensive way as "taking care of someone", corresponding with the ancient terms of cura and ἐπιμέλεια. The scale of subjects that need to be considered in the book is accordingly large. It is therefore most understandable that Knoch limits his focus to private slaves and does not include other groups of slaves, such as, e.g., the servi publici, in his research. The topic of manumission is also excluded, as is the care for freed slaves. Another limitation is the exclusion of Christian source material, which Knoch convincingly justifies by the distinctive differences between Christian and pagan welfare. The author is also right in pointing out that this field of research is already well explored and therefore dispensable in his own volume.

Knoch's exploration starts with a terse but sound summary of current scholarly work, followed by remarks about his own methods and objects of research (c. I). After that (c. II) Knoch moves on to a consideration of the ancient terminology on welfare.

In chapter III the author analyzes the ancient arguments about the classification of slaves as humans or objects, with the aim to illustrate the motives behind and backgrounds to welfare measures. Knoch shows that the general classification of a slave as an object was softened in the course of the high Roman Empire. He also demonstrates that this softening did not derive from an ethical idea, but from the pragmatism of the Roman jurists, who had the common weal of the Roman society and its economy in mind.

Chapter IV refers to the treatment of slaves. The hermeneutical reflections at the beginning of the chapter recapitulate the problem of theory and practice regarding the treatment of slaves. Knoch then refers to the duties of the pater familias, illustrating the diligence that was expected of a father and his patria potestas. Already in the 3rd c. BCE, the latter, as Knoch demonstrates, was restricted by magistrates (censors and tribunes of the plebs) and simultaneously by the ordinary control exerted by relatives and fellow citizens, so that the abuse of slaves could be restricted. The author also points out the importance of the mores maiorum as an ethical landmark for the pater familias. After that Knoch moves on to thoughts and ideas about ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. He refers to relevant elements of Greek philosophical views about the treatment of slaves, and then demonstrates how Cicero and Seneca developed a mélange of Greek philosophy and the old Roman ideals of the pater familias. A survey of ancient juridical sources regarding the research subject and a reference to the first Sicilian slave-war follow. The author then adds several subchapters in which he explores the question of how far the philosophical, juridical and historical guidelines were accepted and employed by Roman high society. The chapter closes with remarks regarding asylum, flight of slaves and public possibilities for interfering if a slave were abused.

Concerning the pension of slaves (c. V) Knoch takes the juridical doctrine of impensae as a basis, which determines that the value of a thing shared by several persons is to be preserved or increased by each owner. Knoch deduces that slave-owners had a high interest in taking good care of their slaves, caused by the very desire to conserve their value, which includes providing food, clothing and lodging. After a short description of these aspects, a more extensive view on medical supply follows. The author then turns to the issue of slave-families before exploring the working conditions of slaves, which were very diverse. The topics of spare time and participation in religious festivals, both scarcely mentioned in ancient sources, are also discussed. In all these aspects Knoch emphasizes the pragmatic interests of the slave owners as their dominating motivation, but he also stresses the fact that the utilitas publica was an important motive for good treatment of slaves.

In chapter VI Knoch leaves the topic of welfare in the narrow sense and explores measures that can be seen as a way of privileging slaves. He first takes a look at the upbringing and education of slaves. Knoch considers the increase of the value of slaves -- connected with this education -- and their work as quite profitable for the owner. But he also shows that in some cases the slave-owners became dependent on their specialized slaves, who ran the business for their masters. Besides, the different levels of education caused a slave-hierarchy, which often was interwoven with the hierarchies of the free laborers, with the result that sometimes a slave could hold a higher social position than a free man. Knoch then describes the institution of the peculium and discusses the juridical questions involved. After that Knoch takes a close look at the role of a slave as an intimate of the owner. Though the owners' motives for all those measures can be estimated as self-interested, the measures themselves nevertheless improved the slaves' quality of life

The topic of slaves in court is dealt with in chapter VII against the background that the Roman law contains some regulations to soften the poor position of a slave in comparison with that of a free man in court. The chapter deals with the position of slaves in litigation and trials in general, penalties for slaves (esp. the penalty imposed when an owner was murdered), and torture of slaves as well as with slaves as plaintiffs.

Chapter VIII compiles the results of the exploration. To sum up, Knoch highlights the fact that most of the issues this volume deals with were more and more dominated by laws and regulations. From the Augustan Age onward, the Roman idea of humanitas became very important. This humanitas, Knoch points out, was not an ethical-philosophical norm but a practical one with a strong reference to everyday life.

The book closes with an excursus (chapter IX) regarding the term utilitas publica resp. German Gemeinwohl (public welfare) in contrast to the modern term of Staatsräson (reason of state). In this chapter Knoch rejects the older opinion, that utilitas publica corresponds with Staatsräson. Although Staatsräson includes some aspects of ancient welfare, many other aspects of utilitas publica are not part of the Staaträson. Therefore, an equation of both terms is an unacceptable backwards projection of modern concepts.

At the end the volume contains an appendix of 77 pages with an index of editions and translations, an up-to-date bibliography (the heading "Literatur- und Abkürzungsverzeichnis" is misleading, since one will find only a reference to the lists of abbreviation of APH and DNP) and a source index. The appendix is completed by an index of names and subjects. All parts of this appendix are carefully elaborated.

Because of Knoch's membership in two well-known European research groups, a sound work was to be expected, and the author does not fall short of those expectations. The volume surely belongs to the standard works regarding the issue of slave welfare in Roman antiquity. Sure enough: many facts and sources presented in this book are well known to a researcher in the field of ancient slavery and can be found in other books on slavery as well (that was to be expected on a subject such as this). But the presentation is very concise and most readable. The careful analysis of ancient source material with clear references to the points under investigation as well as the fair integration of the older research make this book a very useful compendium on slave welfare. Its focus on the real life in correlation with the theoretical framework of the Roman society is also most inspiring.

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