Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.45

Sandra R. Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 236.  ISBN 9780521535014.  $24.99.  

Reviewed by Jason P. Wickham, University of Liverpool (


Slavery in the Roman World is a useful and well written introduction to the subject of Roman slavery, an easy-reading volume with over seventy pertinent images that will prove ideal for undergraduate students new to the subject of Roman slavery. Throughout the book Joshel makes sensible use of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the slave experience. The majority of the book focuses on the slave experience, while Roman slavery as an institution is given a more cursory treatment. The reader is rarely made aware of the historiography or argument surrounding the topic and so ideally Slavery in the Roman World should be read alongside other books on Roman slavery to supplement these gaps.1 But this should not deter lecturers or teachers from adding this book to their list of required reading in Roman social history courses.

Slavery in the Roman world is the fourth book in the Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilisation2 series intended for introductory-level students. Many features of the book aid the beginner, such as a glossary, an annotated list of ancient sources, and a select bibliography of easily accessible material. The inclusion of specialist terms outside the Roman slavery vernacular, maps, tables, and images relating to free Romans serve to inform the reader about the Roman world outside of the institution of slavery and so this book may be used by students with little knowledge of Roman social history or with a limited foundation in ancient world studies.

The book is divided into five chapters concerning slavery primarily in central Italy and generally during the ‘central period’ of Roman history (200 BC– AD 200). Each chapter begins with one or two pieces of historical evidence such as excerpts from literary sources or inscriptions and then a general theme is spun out by elaborating on what seems to be a series of individual case studies. For example in chapter four, entitled “The Practice of Slaveholders and the Lives of Slaves”, we are introduced through an inscription (CIL 6.6308) to a slave named Iucundus who was a litter bearer (p. 112). Throughout the chapter Iucundus takes on the persona of any of the slaves whose lives we are trying to understand and he is continually woven in to embody this perspective. The use of specific cases, such as Iucundus, to demonstrate aspects of slavery makes real the social and biographical history and individualises such histories.

The five chapters can be grouped into two parts, essentially constituting two halves of the book. The first part is concerned with general aspects of Roman society and Roman slavery and serves as a general introduction to the subject. Chapter one explains some of the fundamental characteristics of Roman society and familiarises the reader with the types of sources used by ancient historians in researching slavery. Chapter two illustrates the hierarchy of Roman society and provides a brief narrative for the history of Roman slavery. The second part focuses on the lives of slaves. Chapter three pertains to the processes of becoming a slave and the trade in slaves. Chapters four and five look at the treatment of slaves, the domestic and occupational experience of slaves before and after manumission, and the perception of slaves by their Roman masters.

Joshel outlines three goals for the book (pp. 6-7): first, “To teach something about Roman slavery and the lives of Roman slaves to those unfamiliar with the topic”; second, “To understand Roman history and society, for slavery, its history, and its terms shaped every part of Roman culture”, and third, “Thinking about Roman slavery will help us to think about the meaning of freedom in our present”. The author delivers on the first goal, as any new reader will find within the pages a plethora of information based upon primary evidence. The second goal is limited by Joshel’s primary focus on the slave experience and a lack of focus on what she terms “slavery as a social institution” (p. 10). The third goal lies, of course, with the reader; and here Joshel deserves particular praise, for at the outset she relates the importance of understanding the past within our present by quoting a statement from the US State Department on the issue of human trafficking, according to which between 600,000 and 800,000 people are annually trafficked into the United States and are forced, defrauded or coerced into labour or sexual exploitation, equating to modern day slavery. Aside from this excerpt Joshel chooses not to draw comparisons between Roman and other slave systems, such as antebellum America, pre-Lei Áurea Brazil, or Athens in the fifth century BC. Inevitably a book such as this can only touch on some of the many varied areas of Roman slavery. However one should be aware that the life and experience of slaves and their owners is only a part of the greater study in slavery.3 Joshel’s focus is largely concerned with the perspective of the slave or with facets of slavery that had a direct bearing on the lives of slaves in the Roman world. Her main argument is that the slave and master relationship was always reaffirmed by the master’s psychological, social, and legal dominance over the slave. In doing so, Joshel presents slavery in much the same way as Patterson and Bradley4 have before, by focusing on topics that bring to light the experience of life as a slave. While Joshel ventures in detail on topics that affected the lives of slaves, such as their treatment by owners and occupations, Roman slavery as an institution and its implications within Roman society is more summarily dealt with. For example, debt-bondage (nexum) and the effect of slavery on Roman peasants in agriculture are only given single paragraphs each compared to the many pages devoted to slave family life and the sexual exploitation of slaves.

Frustratingly there is a lack of attention to modern debate regarding aspects of Roman slavery. For example, we are told that scholars have argued over the size of the slave population in Italy (p. 8), but are only given the figures put forth by Scheidel.5 Elsewhere Joshel mentions that the rate of manumission (p. 42) and the humanitarian treatment of slaves by Stoics and Christians (p. 86) are contentious issues but fails to explain these arguments fully. An exception to this is Joshel’s refutation of the conventional views that under the Republic war captives were predominantly male is more reflective of the sources than reality and that mass enslavements still occurred during the Principate (pp. 65-7).6 A further issue is the lack of discussion of the historiography concerning Roman slavery or a single reference to any work outside of anglophone scholarship. Joshel merely mentions at the head of the select bibliography (p. 223) the international nature of the subject.7 For the most part it would seem that the choice to omit alternative views and debate, particularly those of non-English scholarship, was made on the grounds of limited space, the introductory nature of the volume, and the targeted audience.

In conclusion Slavery in the Roman World adds little to scholarship in the field of Roman slavery, but it was probably never intended to do so. Instead it is a welcome addition to the core reading for beginners in Roman slavery.


1.   To keep in line with the readership intended, I recommend N. McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery? (London: Duckworth, 2007) and K. R. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Also note that there are many other valuable contributions to the study of Roman slavery that beginners may find useful, but their complexity and/or language may be a hindrance at first to such readers.
2.   V. M. Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), E. D’Ambra, Roman Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), and J. P. Roth, Roman Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
3.   A comprehensive treatment of slavery in the ancient world is currently underway: H. Heinen (ed.), Handwörterbuch der antiken Sklaverei (HAS). CD-ROM Lieferung 1. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, 5 vols. (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2006-). Note volumes I-III are available; IV-V are forthcoming. Another forthcoming volume should prove useful to the study of Roman slavery: K. R. Bradley and P. Cartledge (edd.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
4.   O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). For Bradley, see footnote 1.
5.   W. Scheidel, “Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire", Journal of Roman Studies 87 (1997): 156-169 and “Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Free Population,” Journal of Roman Studies 95 (2005): 64-79.
6.   Bradley also cites war captives as a continuingly important source for slaves during the Principate, K. R. Bradley, “On Captives under the Principate", Phoenix 58 (2004): 298-318.
7.   Joshel at least mentions the existence of two major research groups at Mainz (Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei) and Besançon (Groupe Internationale de Researche sur l’Esclavage dans l’Antiquité).

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