Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.14

Youval Rotman, Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. (Originally published in French 2004; translated by Jane Marie Todd).   Cambridge, MA/London:  Harvard University Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 307.  ISBN 9780674036116.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Noel Lenski, University of Colorado, Boulder (

[For a response to this review by Youval Rotman, please see BMCR 2010.07.02]

This book is an English translation of Youval Rotman's previously published Paris dissertation, (2004). It offers the first dedicated study of the subject of Byzantine slavery since A. Hadjinicolaou-Marava's 1950 monograph, which amounted to little more than a sketch.1 R. thus set out on poorly charted waters to map the outlines of a vast problem of crucial importance to the study of premodern slavery. He has covered a remarkable expanse of source material in brief but comprehensive compass and for this he is to be commended, but fundamental problems remain.

The book is broken into four chapters. In the first, "Theoretical Approaches," R. attempts to offer a bold new approach to slavery. Wielding a broad sword he dispatches the theories of previous savants -- Marx, Finley, Vidal-Naquet, Patterson -- in order to clear the way not for a new definition of what slavery is but for two points that are fundamentally about what it is not. R. contends: 1) the dichotomy between slave and free so crucial to earlier definitions only makes sense in a republican democracy and thus cannot be applied to an autocratic society like Byzantium; 2) slavery is fundamentally a social and not an economic institution and is thus only one category of "unfreedom" among many in the Byzantine world. As to the first point it could be responded, among other things, that the definition of slavery offered by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. in whose reign R.'s study opens, is based entirely on the free / slave dichotomy (Institutes 1.3). R.'s second point is more defensible as indeed is his elaboration that too much emphasis has been placed on the study of the slave qua property and producer of agricultural surplus. The chapter becomes more confused, however, as it attempts to tease out the implications of "unfreedom" and thus to lay the groundwork for later arguments that the notion of "servitude" expanded out from slavery to any number of "unfree" statuses as Byzantine history progressed. While R. certainly will show that the language of "slave and master" comes to be used to describe a much broader set of social and political relationships than that between actual slaves and masters,2 he will not prove that this expanded usage of slave words entailed a form of "servitude" that was anything but metaphorical.

The second and longest chapter, "Medieval Slavery in a New Geopolitical Space," examines the sources for slaves. After briefly mentioning birth into slavery, self-sale, and the sale of one's children, he turns to an extended discussion of captivity and of the long-distance trade in slaves. Using the abundant evidence of treaties between Arabs and Byzantines, R. posits a new interest on the part of Byzantium in the fate of its citizens captured in war. He emphasizes the importance of the new Arab states in the greater scheme of Mediterranean slave-holding, which arose both because these regularly succeeded in capturing Byzantines in battle (and vice versa), and because they became major traders and raiders for slaves even in peacetime. The geopolitical changes ushered in by the Muslim conquests of the seventh century thus changed the zones of activity for Byzantine slavers and merchants by circumscribing the areas of Byzantine control of the Mediterranean litoral and thus limiting trade, but also by opening new slaving zones in former Byzantine territories now held by enemy Arabs. A useful map (56-57), new to the English version of the book, depicts documented trade routes, and a section on the Jewish Radhaniyya shows how subsidiary religious groups profitted from the rise of new spheres of power by trading slaves between empires. Nevertheless, despite his best efforts R. turns up only scanty evidence for the active involvement of Byzantines in the slave trade (69-70), and much of what he does bring forth indicates that the primary role of Constantinople was to limit rather than encourage such trade. To be sure, there are many attestations of Slavic slaves in Byzantium, but almost no evidence they were brought there by Byzantine merchants. Indeed, if one follows R.'s evidence rather than his argument, one must admit that the major slave routes in the medieval Mediterranean aimed to supply the Arabs of the Levant, Africa, and Spain, and that they steered a wide berth around Constantinople.

Chapter three, "Slavery, a Component of a Medieval Society," opens with a very interesting discussion of the lexicon of Byzantine slavery. R. is able to show that the Byzantines modulated their words for "slave" according to the time, place, and genre in which they wrote. More interesting still is his discussion of the evidence for slaves in the tenth-century Book of the Eparch, which shows slaves active in a range of industries. A discussion of imperially owned slaves is marred by R.'s failure to distinguish between servi Caesaris and those enslaved for crimes, who were considered servi poenae and not strictly speaking slaves of the emperor. Thus R. is right to draw attention to the importance of Justinian's elimination of penal servitude (Novel 22.8), but he offers no useful discussion of what became of the imperial slave so common in the early Roman Empire. Three wills he adduces provide some numbers for the size of familiae "in the upper echelons" and indicate, to this reader, that these were relatively small, further evidence of the reduced importance of slavery in the period. R.'s helpful table of "Social Positions in the Byzantine Countryside" (110-12) summarizes evidence for agricultural labor, but likewise pulls the reader in the opposite direction of R.'s own conclusions: the table catalogs only ten instances of agricultural slaves from the sixth through eleventh centuries, and four of these derive from the earliest centuries (sixth and seventh) of his study. Furthermore, one eleventh-century source he cites reports that all the slaves on an imperial estate on Patmos were dead. We are thus left with but five instances of agricultural slaves for the four centuries of Middle Byzantine history. This is slender evidence on which to base a claim that slaves continued to play an important role in the rural economy. R. closes the chapter with a discussion of manumission which points out the interesting fact that, from the seventh century onward, the Greek word for freedman (apeleutheros) disappears from the sources.

The final chapter treats the "Evolution of the Concept of Unfreedom." The force of the argument is twofold: first that the Byzantines developed a new and heightened concern for the person of the slave, and second that middle Byzantine hagiography developed a new interest in slaves and captives as literary focalizers and agents. The hagiographical evidence R. presents is fascinating: the Life of Andrew the Holy Fool, whose main character is a slave, does indeed represent a heightened sense of the slave qua subject. Nevertheless, it must be said that the slave as agent was not absent from earlier literature (as R. 157 admits). More importantly, the narrative of the captive qua subject was not an invention of the tenth century but was already well rooted in Late Antiquity in texts like Jerome's Life of Malchus, Ps.-Nilus Narrationes, and the Syriac tale of Euphemia and the Goth. Indeed, the same could be said of the expanded sense of the slave's personhood, which is very much present already in the fourth-century Cappadocian father Gregory of Nyssa. Pace R. (131), who contends that Christian commentators like the Cappadocians "took little interest in the institution of slavery," Gregory's Homily on Ecclesiastes Four is surely one of the most forcible defenses of the personhood of the slave to have survived from the pre-modern world.3 R. cannot, then, be right that the Muslim invasions elevated the suffering captive to a new role as protagonist and the Christian commentator to a new awareness of the humanity of the slave.

It will be clear that R.'s book must be read with caution. Moreover, this is true not only because of what R. says but also what he omits. Three examples: 1) R.'s discussion of the slave supply only mentions en passant natural reproduction as a source of slaves (25), yet contemporary historians have generally accepted that reproduction was the single largest contributor to the ancient slave supply.4 The reader is thus left with the mistaken impression that, absent capture in battle and foreign trade, Byzantine slavery might have ceased. 2) R.'s refusal to offer a definition of the slave leads him to lump together a variety of status categories that entailed compromised freedom without distinguishing firmly between them. Traditionally historians have sought to explain the apparent decline of slavery in the medieval world with the rise to prominence of some of these new semi-servile groups: enapographoi, paroikoi, fabricarii, etc.5 R. is right to argue that these new relationships of dependency approximated slavery in many ways, but his failure to distinguish them carefully from slavery, which in fact remained a distinct institution, reflects an inattention to precision that is characteristic of the book. 3) While R.'s account covers the span from Justinian through the eleventh century and relies heavily on laws, he chooses to avoid entirely the laws of the Codex Justinianus (CJ). This is clear from his appendix of laws at Table B.1 which lists 19 entries from Justinian's Novels but none from the Codex.6 The absence of the latter is all but inexcusable, for Justinian undertook a complete overhaul of the Classical Roman law of slavery in the first eight years of his reign, before the publication of the Novels. Thus the vast majority of Justinianic constitutions on slavery (71 by my count) are found only in the Codex. By omitting this evidence, R. has obscured the degree to which Justinianian initiated an entirely new era of slaveholding.7

The failure to use the Codex leads to further problems with some of R.'s arguments about the difference between ancient and Byzantine slavery. To take just one example, R. (33-47) builds a case that the notion of prisoner exchanges was all but unknown in the Imperial and Late Antique world but became common after the seventh century because of fundamental changes in the law of captivity. Prior to the Muslim invasions, he argues, prisoner exchanges were not of interest because Roman citizens who were taken into captivity lost all citizenship rights (29): "As a captive, hence a slave in another state, that person no longer had the right to own property and thus lost his usucapio." Nearly everything about this is fallacious, even the use of the word usucapio.8 In fact, in this section R. makes a variety of assertions that are demonstrably false: the captive's property could not be claimed by an heir (disproven at CJ 8.50.9, 14-15); the captive lost his freeborn status as a citizen (disproven at CJ 7.14.4; 8.50.5-6, 11-12, 16); he lost his property rights (disproven at CJ 7.35.6; 8.50.18-19); formerly free Romans could be legally traded back into the Empire as slaves (disproven at CJ 7.14.9; 8.50.12); the captive's marriage was dissolved (disproven at CJ 8.50.1; cf. Nov. Just. 22.7, whose five-year waiting period is rightly emphasized as innovative at R. 32). R. asserts (33-36; cf. 56) that the situation for captives was improved in the eighth century by Ecloga 8 which, he says: 1) first granted citizenship to the escaped captive provided he "behaves well toward the state" (p. 192, but the Greek says "inflicts some damage on the (enemy) on behalf of the state"); and 2) ameliorated the situation for the ransomed captive by setting a five-year limit to his period of security-bondage (but this limit had been introduced by a law of the early fifth century (CJ 8.50.20; cf. Codex Theodosianus 5.7.2). Read carefully, then, the evidence proves precisely the opposite of R.'s argument: the Byzantines were in fact somewhat less liberal about the restoration of citizenship rights to the returned captive.9 Built as it is on faulty premises, R.'s larger argument that the Muslim invasions introduced a new sensitivity to the plight of the captive thus crumbles.

It brings no pleasure to offer this unenthusiastic review of a book whose scale and ambition offer such great promise. R. has done a tremendous amount of work; the very assemblage of data he produces will aid immensely in the ongoing work of sorting through this extremely complex question. The book would have profited, however, from a good deal more revision and correction and must therefore be read cautiously, more as a preliminary study than a definitive account.


1.   Recherches sur la vie des esclaves dans le Monde Byzantin (Athens, 1950). See also P.A. Yannopoulos, La société profane dans l'empire byzantin des VIe, VIIIe, et IXe siècles (Louvain, 1975) and the numerous articles by H. Köpstein, listed in R.'s bibliography, and by I.F. Fikhman, which are now conveniently collected in A. Jördens, ed. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im spätantiken Ägypten. Kleine Shriften Itzhak F. Fikhman (Stuttgart, 2006).
2.   Note that, had R. taken account of Nov. Just. 8 iusiur. and a number of inscriptions that confirm its implementation (IG IV 204-205; SEG XI 52a, CIG 8740), he would have antedated the rise of the expression "slave of the emperor" to the sixth century.
3.   Especially regrettable is R.'s apparent unawareness of the work of Richard Klein, both on the Cappadocian fathers (Die Haltung der Kappadokischen Bischöfe Basilius Von Caesarea, Gregor von Nazianz und Gregor von Nyssa zur Sklaverei [Stuttgart, 2000]) and on the question of the ordination of slaves ("Die Bestellung von Sklaven zu Priestern: Ein rechtliches und soziales Problem in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter," in Klassisches Altertum, Spätantike und frühes Christentum, Festschr. für A. Lippold [Würzburg, 1993] 473-93), on which R. adduces questionable arguments later in chapter 4.
4.   See especially W. Scheidel "Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire," JRS 87 (1997): 156-69 and idem, "Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Slave Population," JRS 95 (2005): 64-79.
5.   Citing two articles by J.-M. Carrié from the early 1980s, R. (p. 211 n. 57; 212 n. 72) is ready to jettison the whole notion of coloni, semi-servile agricultural laborers, as "null and void," yet Carrié's articles are almost thirty years old and are anything but universally accepted (see especially A.J.B. Sirks "The Colonate in Justinian's Reign," JRS 98 (2008): 120-43). For proof of the persistence of the notion of a colonate, one need look no further than R.'s own discussion which regularly treats semi-servile laborers alongside slaves (103, 109, 113, 118-9).
6.   He appears to have missed a further thirteen: Nov. Just. 37.7; 38.2; 65; 74; 89; 108.1; 115.3; 117.12; 120.9-10; 123.35; 153 and the two Bullae Aureae.
7.   To name only some highlights: Justinian eliminated the old Augustan Lex Aelia Sentia limiting the age of masters and slaves at manumission (CJ 7.15.2); he abrogated the Lex Fufia Caninia limiting the total number of slaves one could manumit in a will (CJ 7.3.1); he did away with the Senatus Consultum Claudianum punishing sexual relations between free women and slave men (CJ 7.24.1); he dissolved the freedman statuses of Junian Latin and dediticius (CJ 7.5.1; 7.6.1).
8.   Usucapio means prescriptive acquisition through adverse possession and has (almost) nothing to do with the law of captivity. The reader should be especially cautious when R. uses untranslated Latin legal terms, for they are repeatedly misapplied or used as cover for weak arguments: further examples at 99-100, where peculium, praepositio, and naturalis obligatio, while used correctly, head up a fractured discussion of the law of agency; 102, which implies that servi publici were imperial slaves when in fact they were owned by cities; 121, where eugenes is used correctly, but in support of an incorrect argument that female freedwomen could remarry after divorce under Justinian (cf. Nov. Just. 22.37); 173-75 where ius vitae necisque stands out in a discussion on the sale of oneself and one's children into slavery that fairly butchers the ancient law on these questions.
9.   Although R. is correct to assert that certain new privileges, like testation while in captivity, were granted.

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