Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.38

Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 611.  ISBN 9780521198615.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Juan P. Lewis, The University of Edinburgh (


This study of Roman slavery spans the period roughly from Diocletian until the end of the reign of Honorius. Nonetheless, it would be of great interest to both the specialist on Roman slavery in the classical period and the early medievalist. The central thesis of the book is that during the long fourth century, the Roman Empire was still a slave society. The last three decades of research have undermined the theory that slavery decayed and was replaced by other forms of unfree labour after the third-century crisis. However, no alternative explanatory model has been proposed. Harper aims to construct that model “from the ground up” (p. 21). His main argument is that slavery was an integral component of the Roman imperial system, an exceptionally complex and integrated world-economy not seen anywhere else in pre-modern times.1 Harper rejects the idea of transition to serfdom and feudalism. Instead, he replaces it with a simpler model in which the key variables are supply and (most importantly) demand. Accordingly, when the empire collapsed in the west, both demand for slaves and the supply chain that provided them were disrupted. Slavery then gradually vanished and “became less prominent in precisely the two sectors that made Roman slavery exceptional” (p. 66), namely the lower echelons of the elite and agriculture. Between the fifth and seventh century, the slave society of the late unified empire was replaced by more primitive and less integrated independent kingdoms where slavery persisted, but in which slavery no longer held the central position in the economy, culture, and law that it had in the past.

The book is divided into three parts of four chapters each. Part I deals with the economic organization of slavery. Its aim is to challenge the prevailing narrative of conquest and transition that has cemented the idea that late Antiquity was a time of crisis plagued by the contradictions of a declining slave mode of production. Drawing upon Scheidel’s “bottom-up” approach, Harper identifies the social groups that owned slaves and calculates a “plausible range of slaves an owner could have owned” (p. 39). He subsequently discusses the mechanisms that kept the slave supply constant during the whole period, such as breeding, self-sale, child exposure, abduction, and slave imports. He digs up the literary record to show how important slave labour still was in the household, the basic economic unit in ancient society. The discussion centres on not only menial domestic tasks performed by unskilled slaves, but also administrative jobs and business activities in which literate slaves played a major part and textile production in which female slave labour was pervasive. Finally, he closes with a long discussion of the conditions for and advantages of using slave labour in agriculture in both the eastern and the western part of the empire. He rejects the idea of a dominant mode of production and instead focuses on the interaction of a series of variables such as the differentiated costs of free and slave labour, the role of legal institutions, the variegated nature of ancient agriculture, and the dynamics of estate management.

Part II is directed towards the social facets of slavery. The target narrative is the amelioration thesis, which claims that Christianity improved master-slave relations. Instead, Harper shows that the Church accommodated to the slave system and "Christian and Roman ideologies became enmeshed" (p. 212). First discussed are masters’ strategies to secure their slaves’ submission by the combination of the permanent threat of violence and incentives such as promotion, the granting of a peculium (a fund slaves controlled independently), and manumission. Then, the focus turns towards the active role played by slaves in their everyday experience of exploitation. Individual reactions such as shirking and disruption of work, theft, physical violence against masters, and flight are profusely attested in late antique sources of all types. More difficult to unearth is the family life of slaves, which is seen by Harper as "a way to repudiate the dehumanizing force of slavery" (p. 265). Slave unions, however, were fragile and at the total mercy of masters during the whole period. Harper successfully dispels the view that Christianity promoted a more stable family life among slaves, and instead shows how little the Church innovated in that respect. The discussion of slave responses to exploitation closes with a survey of the power dynamics created by the existence of both horizontal and vertical loyalties within the slave community and how the segmentation of slave labour prevented the consolidation of class solidarity between slaves. Another central theme of Part II is the sexual exploitation of dishonoured women, i.e. slaves and prostitutes, which was intrinsic to the organization of Roman slavery. The sexual freedom enjoyed by young men shaped Roman gender relationships and secured the preservation of free women’s purity and honour. Traditional Roman sexual mores were still prevalent in the fourth century, but they gradually started to collude with Christian insistence on sexual exclusivity and monogamy. The last chapter of Part II is dedicated to the experience of mastery, both for the pater and the mater familias.

Part III focuses on the legal fabric of status and slavery. Its aim is to undermine the “merger” of the lower classes narrative, which insinuates that slaves and the free poor became almost undistinguishable after the third century AD. Harper also disputes that the late antique emperors’ feverish legislative work on status reflects the impending collapse of the slave system. Apart from a series of inscriptions from Leukopetra, which attest the new geographical reach Roman private law acquired after AD 212, the bulk of the discussion deals with imperial rescripts on status, adultery laws and manumission. Diocletian’s numerous legal pronouncements on slave status are reinterpreted as “the apogee of legal classicism” (p. 389) and as part of a process of consolidation of the Roman state and slave system. Constantine’s laws sanctioning the enslavement of free-born foundlings are regarded as a pragmatic innovation, an attempt to solve the contradictions created by the expansion of Roman citizenship and the slave system’s need to maintain the slave supply with internal sources. Study of imperial constitutions on marriage, adultery and inheritance shows how late Roman laws “reflect old rather than new sexual values” (p. 430). The analysis of the laws of manumission and the new powers granted to the Church to free slaves close the discussion and show that Christianity failed to serve as an effective liberating force.

The conclusion is in fact a postscript. It briefly summarises the changing socioeconomic conditions of the fifth and sixth centuries that precipitated the gradual retraction and eventual demise of the slave system, both in the west and the east. Two appendices follow. One discusses the word oiketes, which Harper argues meant "nothing other than slaves" (p. 516). The other gives a list of passages from the Codex Hermogenianus that mention slaves.

Nothing illustrates better how necessary this book was than the secondary literature on ancient slavery Harper mostly draws upon and debates with. For the most part, they are either specialists on the classical period of Roman slavery, like Roth or Scheidel, or mediaevalists, like Wickham. It is only when he discusses more specific issues such as the slave body or the technicalities of legal sources that the experts in late Antiquity come to the fore. It is as if fourth- century slavery had been of little interest to scholars. This is not for lack of material. Aided by computer databases, Harper has collected an impressive body of evidence, most of it unknown by the majority of slavery scholars. He makes extensive use of the writings of Church fathers, particularly John Chrysostom and Augustine, pagan authors like Libanius, Egyptian papyri, some key inscriptions, and late antique law compilations. Harper rightly warns the reader about the limits of the extant evidence. Nonetheless, careful examination shows that, despite being impressionistic and insufficient, late antique sources on slavery are as good as, and sometimes even better than, anything that has survived from the high empire, which nobody would hesitate to call a slave society.

When evidence is too fragmentary or lacking, Harper makes good use of models. One example is the parametric model that shows that the demographic structure of the slave population ensured that the system could reproduce itself through breeding (p. 69-74). Another one is when he discusses the dynamics of agricultural slavery and the variables that made the use of slave labour in agriculture desirable. Likewise, when he uses the concept of ‘community of honour’ to explain varied but interrelated phenomena such as the preservation of free women’s respectability through the sexual exploitation of slaves, the role of the pater and the mater familias in the household, and the evolution of adultery and status laws.

Harper moves with ease in the realm of traditional source-based historical research, but he is also a competent social and cultural historian who discusses Roman law with insight and expertise. He is an accomplished translator as well. He manages to render ancient texts into fluid contemporary English whilst capturing the nuances and style of the original (I particularly liked his rendering of adultera meretrix as "slutty prostitute" on p. 310).

I have some minor quibbles. In his zeal to be thorough, Harper sometimes tries to cover too much. I have found some paragraphs that interrupted the flow of the argument without adding much to the main thesis, as when he touches on the idea that the "race-based justification for slavery [of black people] existed already in the late Roman empire" (p. 91). The claim is unsatisfactorily supported and not explored any further, even though it contradicts everything known about the colour-blindness that characterised Roman slavery and Harper’s own attestation that the slave trade was supplied with people of every race and origin during the whole period his book covers. Occasionally, he can overdo a point and repeat phrases unnecessarily. There are also some debatable claims, as when he states that "in late Roman art [...] the simple tunic was a clear advertisement of slave status" (p. 334); or his suggestion that slaves were useful in harvest work because of the risk of hiring seasonal labour (p. 137), although Roman agricultural writers like Varro recommended the employment of free peasants during the harvest (RR 1.17). I do not understand how he justified the use of the Babylonian Talmud as a source for the history of Roman slavery either, unless he was doing it for comparative purposes (pp. 264, 266, 287 n. 36, 293, 335). Finally, the organization of the section on slaves’ individual responses to exploitation (pp. 252-261) owes much to Bradley’s discussion of slave resistance.2 I find it somewhat bizarre that Harper did not acknowledge it, as he clearly knows Bradley’s work well and quotes him profusely in the rest of the book.

Notwithstanding these minor flaws, Harper makes his case successfully. He has established solid grounds to open a whole new area of research into a subject, late antique slavery, that has been barely studied, if not neglected. He has also built new bridges for interdisciplinary collaboration between experts on two periods that do not usually converse with each other. From now on, there will be no excuse to keep treating fourth-century Roman society as substantially distinct from that of the previous centuries. Slavery in the Late Roman World is certainly poised to become not only the main scholarly introduction to a specific topic, but also a milestone in slavery studies and Roman history in general.


1.   Maybe with the exception of China, which was not strictly speaking a slave society.
2.   Bradley, K. (1994) Slavery and Society at Rome. Cambridge, chapter 6.

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