Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.21

Leonhard Schumacher (ed.), Stellung des Sklaven im Sakralrecht. Corpus der römischen Rechtsquellen zur antiken Sklaverei, Teil VI. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, Beiheft 3.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.  Pp. xxiv, 124.  ISBN 978-3-515-08977-7.  €36.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Peachin, New York University (
Word count: 1366 words

In a recent book about the Romans' worship of their emperors, Ittai Gradel was confronted by the need to delineate Roman 'religion,' so as to investigate the imperial cult in its broader sacral context. Having initially remarked that "[n]either Greek nor Latin had any pre-Christian term for 'religion,'" he ultimately settled on the following: "The most useful definition, in my view, interprets the concept of 'religion' as defined by action of dialogue--sacrifice, prayer, or other forms of establishing and constructing dialogue--between humans and what they perceive as 'another world,' opposed to and different from the everyday sphere in which men function."1 Now, if we follow this definition of Roman 'religion'--which, in my opinion, would be a wise choice--we must suppose that regulations falling under the category of ius sacrum will have sought to manage the various manifestations of this dialogue (or of these dialogues). As it turns out, the bit of still-discernable Roman legal writing on 'religious' topics seems indeed to have concerned itself precisely with the type of thing that would constitute, on Gradel's model, 'religion'; for that literature dealt with ius pontificium, ius augurium, indigitamenta, and the like. However, this class of writing, apparently in tandem with any significant concern for 'religious law' altogether, faded away in the closing years of the Republic.2 As a result, both extant Roman law and legal literature now have a thoroughly secular complexion.3 And herein resides the essence of the conundrum faced by Leonhard Schumacher when he set out to examine the place of slaves in Rome's 'religious law.'

Schumacher puts the central problem squarely up front: Classical Roman law had nothing like a widely-cast notion of a 'Sakralrecht.' As just mentioned, such interest as there had been faded with the Republic, and it was only in late antiquity, under the influence of Christianity, that a true 'religious law' once again surfaced. What is more, since slaves were not citizens, neither the ius civile nor the ius publicum (nor even the ius gentium, for that matter) was much concerned with them directly, that is, apart from the fact that they constituted property belonging to persons whose dealings might be governed by the law. Given such difficulties, Schumacher was, as he forthrightly says, skeptical as to the feasibility of the project, which was originally put to him by Heinz Bellen (ix). In the end, however, Schumacher decided to take it on, in part because the decision was made to include some of the relevant epigraphic and papyrological evidence--i.e., not entirely to limit the evidential corpus of this volume to legal texts. In any case, it can be said that Schumacher made a good choice--for the result is now an interesting and useful book.

Crucial, though, was the matter of how to identify, and thereupon to present, the appropriate subject matter. Schumacher plumped for the following. Texts from the juristic corpora, with the addition of a few select inscriptions (and ultimately one papyrus document, BGU 1137, which records discussion from an Alexandrian σύνοδος dedicated to the worship of Augustus about a loan to one of its members), were selected so as to illustrate the following topics (in so far as slaves were involved): vota; curses, magic, and prophecy; the functions of slaves in cultic practice; the taking of oaths; slaves in the context of collegia; asylum; and burial. These are offered as the chief areas where, in one way or another, slaves and some form of religious law (or regulation) came into contact. Still, and as Schumacher repeats throughout this book, what one ultimately has from an investigation of the material gathered for this volume is something more akin to social (as opposed to legal) history. Moreover, Schumacher is acutely sensitive to all the problems underlying this project, and he tells his reader plainly that what he can offer is representative, rather than comprehensive. All of this is simply a limitation of the series, as it was conceived, and will certainly discourage some potential users.4

That having been said, let us return to Schumacher's contribution. The core of this book is a catalogue of evidence, consisting principally of relevant passages from the various extant legal literature, but with a number of inscriptions included (and, as mentioned, the one papyrus--unless one prefers to categorize the tablets of the Sulpicius archive, likewise used for this volume, also as papyri). Commentary on individual texts is mainly accomplished in a narrative that precedes this corpus of documentation, and reference is then made, back and forth, between the earlier narrative and the subsequent catalogue entries. Thus, what emerges is not a simple collection of evidence, with discrete exegesis of each text, but rather, a narrative treatment of various domains (those listed just above) where slaves were affected in some kind of 'religious' matter by the legal (or quasi-legal) regulations generated by the Roman elites. Let me, then, highlight just a couple of the ways in which this book contributes to the numerous fields of research upon which it touches.

First, Schumacher is able to make some quite interesting remarks on various individual areas where 'religious' legislation and slavery came together with significant results. For example, he shows clearly how the late-antique attempts to regulate the possession of Christian slaves by Jews served to put significant political and economic pressure on the Jewish community (see esp. pp. 44-45). It is also worth noting the spread of Roman interest in 'religious' regulation of slavery as this is represented by the documents Schumacher has collected. If one considers the texts where slaves are mentioned explicitly, then it would seem that the areas of most concern to the Romans were asylum and ownership of Christian slaves by Jews. As Schumacher says, these results may have to do with the chronological skew of his evidence; still, such apparent preferences are worth remarking.

There are also some potentially broader results of this undertaking. Thus, Schumacher points clearly to the fact that, in the Roman way of doing things, boundaries between the 'religious' and the 'social' or 'political' are quite hard to distinguish. This is illustrated, for example, by the difficulty Schumacher finds himself confronted with in deciding which collegia to investigate. He conceivably should decide which of these organizations are 'religious' in their natures, and which not, and he points to the fact that making such a distinction is not at all straightforward and, indeed, is perhaps wrongheaded altogether (26). Or, Schumacher demonstrates clearly how the political and religious are significantly intertwined, in that a burial site, which was a locus religiosus, was also protected by the political community; and then, in death, the slave, via the fact that he was now interred, would achieve a position in some ways almost equivalent to that of a free person (50). In another vein, it can be argued that because the pax deorum had to be maintained, there were various areas where a slave had to be recognized as a human actor, rather than merely conceived as a thing (e.g., Varro's instrumentum vocale). Thus, vota are quasi-legal religious obligations, even when they are taken by slaves (5 ff.). Masters, though, were not responsible for the vota taken by their slaves (6). Then there is the matter of oaths. Since swearing was protected by the gods, operae, which about-to-be-freed slaves swore to carry out, were guaranteed by divine oversight, and the law took cognizance of that (25). In short, the material here collected by Schumacher indicates how 'religious law' (or, for that matter, the civil law when it ran up against religious matters) often was forced to consider slaves not as things, but (really) as persons.

In sum, this series, and thus the book here under review, is liable to remain controversial. That said, Schumacher's particular contribution is quite interesting. It is especially notable precisely because Schumacher sees and points out so clearly the limitations of identifying something like a Roman 'Sakralrecht,' and, thus, the concurrent trouble of seeing how and where any such law might have applied to slaves. The result is that we have here quite a useful vista of the 'religious' lives of Roman slaves, and how the elite sought, now and again, to circumscribe that aspect of these individuals' lives.


1.   I. Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford 2002) 4-5, reviewed in this journal (BMCR 2003.09.26, by Margaret Laird). On this problem of circumscribing 'religion' in a Roman context, one might also consult (e.g.) J. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Oxford 2007) 13-42, likewise reviewed in this journal (BMCR 2007.09.42, by Benedetta Bessi).
2.   On all this, see F. Wieacker, Römische Rechtsgeschichte. Erster Abschnitt. Einleitung, Quellenkunde. Frühzeit und Republik (Munich 1988) 568-569, though his explanation of the waning is perhaps not altogether satisfactory; the topic potentially deserves some further thought. On 'Sakralrecht' in the Republic, cf. (e.g.) J. Rüpke, Fasti sacerdotum (Stuttgart 2005) 1569-1586.
3.   Thus, Clifford Ando comes to talk of the "massive secularity of the civil law": The Matter of the Gods. Religion and the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2008) 61. Nor will one find much of anything on 'religious law' in a standard handbook, e.g., F. Schulz, Classical Roman Law (Oxford 1951). Nor does 'religious law' as a category of investigation surface in the treatment of the law of slavery. See, e.g., A. Watson, Roman Slave Law (Baltimore 1987).
4.   Bruce Frier, for example, on precisely these counts, found the whole project "deeply disappointing" (BMCR 2000.09.04). The larger project is viewed with similar skepticism by Christoph Paulus, ZRG 122 (2005) 405 (which is referred to by Schumacher in his concluding remarks, 51).

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