Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.27

Keith Bradley, Paul Cartledge (ed.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1: the Ancient Mediterranean World.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xi, 620.  ISBN 9780521840668.  $180.00.  

Reviewed by Fábio Duarte Joly, Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto (


This book is part of a series, in four volumes, that aims to draw a broad picture of the development of slavery from Antiquity to AD 2000. Comprising 22 chapters, written by leading scholars in their field, it is devoted to the societies of the ancient Near East, classical Greece, the Hellenistic world and Rome. Not only literary texts but also epigraphic and archaeological records are taken into account, and each chapter is followed by a bibliographic essay.

Society, culture, and, to a lesser degree, economy are the main areas that frame the content of the various chapters. This fact reveals recent trends of the study of ancient slavery, nowadays more inclined to consider it as a social and ideological institution, rather than an exclusively economic one, qualifying Finley’s definition of a slave society.1 This new emphasis leads to a stress on continuity rather than rupture throughout the history of slavery in the Mediterranean. Slave resistance, the material culture of slavery, and the supply of slaves are among the topics considered, as well as the Roman law on slavery, the presence of slaves in Greco-Roman families, and the attitudes of Jews and Christians towards slaveholding.

The first chapter treats slavery in the ancient Near East and reads like a prelude to the history of Greco-Roman slavery, since it also includes societies outside the Mediterranean area where the evidence of chattel slavery is verifiable. Daniel Snell discusses the slave supply and evidence of slavery in the Old and Middle Babylonian periods, and, more briefly, in Egypt, Israel, among the Hittites, in the Aegean world, and in ancient Africa. The chapter on slavery in the Hellenistic world, written by Dorothy Thompson, delineates the spread of chattel slavery in the Mediterranean region after the conquests of Alexander. As in the chapter written by Snell, Thompson points out forms of compulsory labour (as the laoi of Seleucid and Attalid Asia) that coexisted with chattel slavery. Spartan society seems to have been an exception in this context. The helots, analysed in detail by Paul Cartledge, were public slaves, largely serving as the primary producers of food for the Spartans. Helotage thus prevailed over chattel slavery and other forms of unfree labour, at least before Roman times.

Four chapters provide an overview of the economic, political and social location of slaves in Greece and Rome. Tracy Rihll examines the slave society of classical Athens, noting that it is important to take into account the fact that “not all Athenians lived parasitically off slaves, nor did slaves alone produce the material base of Athenian culture” (p. 61). She thus puts forward an argument that prevails in the book as a whole, that slavery had a greater role in the ideological domain than in the economic sphere. Keith Bradley discusses slavery in the Roman Republic, developing the thesis that, from the beginning, Roman slavery was a product of Roman imperialism. Throughout this period, slavery was never, to masters and slaves alike, an intellectual problem or a moral evil. Neville Morley deals with slavery during the Principate and he discusses successively the extent to which slavery was spread through the provinces of the empire, whether or not changes occurred in the employment of slaves over the history of the empire, and whether it is really possible to speak of a “crisis” of the imperial slave system. In his view, the Principate saw the consolidation of this system rather than its development, much less its decline. The controversial issue of slavery in the Late Roman Empire is the object of a chapter by Cam Grey. Like Morley, he emphasizes the continuity rather than ruptures with the previous periods: continuity in the economic structures, despite changes in the tax system, in the confusion between the legal status and social position of individuals, in the treatment of slaves, as well as in the legal boundaries between freedom and slavery.

This emphasis on continuity is also apparent in the chapter on the Roman law of slavery, by Jane Gardner. The author examines the law of slavery between 200 BC and AD 200 pointing out the articulation between the conception of slaves as things and as persons. The large number of slaves and their ubiquity in Roman society is a fact taken into account to explain the series of laws concerning slaves and freedmen, which kept the rights of masters over their dependents untouched.

Slavery as an integral part of Greco-Roman culture is an issue dealt with by Peter Hunt and Sandra Joshel. Hunt examines the representation of slaves in Greek literary culture, from Homer, the Greek historians, and comedy and tragedy, to Aristotle and Hellenistic philosophers. The metaphor of slavery as well as the themes of violence and dishonour in depicting slaves are recurrent features in Greek literature, which otherwise did not foster a critique of slavery as a social institution. Joshel analyses the literary presence of slaves in ancient Rome arguing that “the images and stories of slaves in Roman literature tell us a great deal about their owners” (p. 215), since slaves are just stock figures that do not reveal the actual slave experience. Her study focuses primarily on literature from the imperial period and it analyses how the metaphor of slavery was used to represent power relations between those who were not slaves.

Slave resistance is studied by Niall McKeown and Keith Bradley. McKeown chooses the alternative of showing the difficulties posed by the sources for a study of slave resistance in the classical Greek world. He argues that there are relatively few references to individual or collective acts of resistance in the literary sources, so that it would be more relevant to prioritize the issue of how the ancient Greeks perceived these phenomena, instead of seeking to describe them. Bradley argues that slave resistance in the Roman world was intended to mitigate the hardships of slavery rather than transform the whole social structure, and he makes comparisons with New World slavery to illuminate aspects of the ancient reality. Such comparisons are considered positive, since “a reductionist essentialism can be avoided even as the universal features of chattel slavery are recognised” (p. 372).

The economics of Greek slavery is treated by Dimitris Kyrtatas. The author highlights the impact of international trade routes and the existence of slave markets on the diffusion of chattel slavery in the Mediterranean. Slavery was then considered as essentially a form of domination, since the ancient Greeks concerned themselves more with the maximization of honour than profit, and thus they did not go into detail about the productivity of slave labour. John Bodel, in his chapter on slave labour in Roman society, follows a similar primitivist approach to the ancient economy: “Because slavery in antiquity was grounded in ideological rather than economic considerations, slave labour was endemic in Roman culture – and was bound to be so, regardless of its profitability”(p. 313-4). He then examines the ideology of work among the Roman elite and its image of the slave as a tool, as well as the variety of tasks performed by slaves in ancient Rome.

David Braund and Walter Scheidel offer a synthesis of the issues involved in the theme of slave supply in ancient Greece, Italy, and the Roman Empire. Braund gives a qualitative analysis of literary and epigraphic sources to address the processes of enslavement in Greece. His conclusion is that such supply was basically derived from the relations between Greeks and non-Greeks on the periphery. Scheidel prefers to “advance broad probabilistic estimates of the demand for slaves and the likely weight of different sources of supply” (p. 287). The author presents statistics on the slave population for Italy, Roman Egypt and the Roman Empire, and then discusses warfare and other forms of enslavement.

Regarding the impact of slavery in the Greco-Roman family, Mark Golden discusses the Greek case, examining the presence of slaves in the families of citizens and free individuals, the slave family and the creation of new families through the intercourse of slave and free. The author draws comparisons with the Roman family and even with slavery in the U.S. South to point out the various degrees of intimacy between slaves and masters in the Athenian oikoi, which included both violence and ties of affection. Jonathan Edmondson deals with slavery and the Roman family, describing the position of slaves in the familia urbana and rustica, and the creation of slave communities in spite of the social control of the masters. Like Golden, Edmondson focuses on the tension inherent in slave-master relationships, which could extend to relations between the masters and their own family members.

The archaeology and material culture of slavery are discussed by Ian Morris (Greece) and Michele George (Rome). Both authors examine the challenges of detecting archaeological traces of slavery, since the mere association between material culture and social status is not always straightforward. Morris illustrates this issue mainly with the example of burial remains in Athenian cemeteries whereas George examines archaeological evidence of slave housing and labour, as preserved in villa sites in Italy, and also discusses the images of slaves in Roman art.

Finally, Catherine Hezser and Jennifer Glancy deal, respectively, with slavery among Jews and Christians. Hezser seeks to examine whether there was a specifically Jewish perspective regarding slavery. Her discussion points to a predominance of similarities with Greco-Roman slavery since the Judean elites lived under a socioeconomic structure shared with broader Greco-Roman society. Glancy considers Christian attitudes towards slavery and deals with the issue of the possible impact of Christianity on improving master-slave relationships in the Empire. The author concludes that Christianity’s ties to Greco-Roman culture prevented the development of a Christian critique of the institution of slavery.

In general, this book offers the reader a selection of consistent approaches that are current with the latest work on Greco-Roman slavery, and also opens paths for future research. Although many chapters show a commitment to the idea of slavery as social death, as formulated by Orlando Patterson, a more detailed treatment of freedmen in the Greek and Roman world is lacking. As Patterson pointed out, “enslavement, slavery, and manumission are one and the same process in different phases”.2 The first two phases are well treated in the book, but a chapter on manumission in Greece and Rome and its economic, political and cultural consequences would also be welcome.3 On the other hand, the importance of domination in slavery (or, as the editors put it, of slavery as “a cultural manifestation of the ubiquitous violence in society that incessant warfare typified” [p. 2]), should not lead us to disregard economics as a defining element of Greco-Roman slavery over time.4

Overall, as it covers and also propounds a wide range of issues, the book will certainly be an important contribution to the study of ancient slavery. And it will be interesting to compare its approach with that of the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Slaveries, edited by Stephen Hodkinson, Marc Kleijwegt, and Kostas Vlassopoulos.


1.   See M. Finley, Ancient slavery and modern ideology (London, 1980). A defense of such a historiographic turn in the study of ancient slavery is made by K. Bradley, “Roman slavery: retrospect and prospect”, Canadian Journal of History 43, 2008, p. 484.
2.   O. Patterson, Slavery and social death: a comparative study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), p. 296.
3.   In his chapter on slave resistance Bradley even assumes that “the full social and cultural significance of the extent to which ex-slaves at Rome became slave-owners seems … not yet to have been fully explored” (p. 384). See, more recently, R. Zelnick-Abramovitz, Not wholly free: the concept of manumission and the status of manumitted slaves in the ancient Greek world (Leiden, 2005), reviewed in BMCR 2005.11.21, and H. Mouritsen, The freedman in the Roman world (Cambridge, 2011).
4.   As remarked by W. Scheidel, “The comparative economics of slavery in the Greco-Roman world”, in C. Katsari, E. dal Lago (ed.), Slave systems, ancient and modern (Cambridge, 2008), p. 126.

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