Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.08

Heinz Heinen (ed.), Kindersklaven - Sklavenkinder: Schicksale zwischen Zuneigung und Ausbeutung in der Antike und im interkulturellen Vergleich. Beiträge zur Tagung des Akademievorhabens Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei (Mainz, 14. Oktober 2008) (Redaktion: Johannes Deißler). Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, Bd 39.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.  Pp. xii, 326; 30 p. plates.  ISBN 9783515094146.  €52.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Ilse Mueller, Nipissing University (ilsem@nipissingu.ca)

Table of Contents

The volume under review is the most recent publication of the Mainzer Akademieprojekt Forschungen zur antiken Sklavery, and consists in part of the proceedings of the 2008 conference of the same title. The collection of essays in this volume will be of great interest to scholars working on slavery, childhood, the family and related topics in the Greek and Roman world. The volume also includes detailed indices and plates in the appendix.

The brief introduction by the editor Heinz Heinen emphasizes the continued relevance of the topic of child slavery in view of recent abductions and sexual exploitation of young girls and the ongoing worldwide problem of exploitation of child labor.

Heinz Heinen is also the author of the first contribution to the volume. The first part of his four-part essay outlines the history of the Mainzer Sklavereiprojekt from its founding in 1950 by Joseph Vogt and its evolution in focus and methodologies under his successors. This is followed in the second part by a bibliographic essay on previous scholarship on child slavery in antiquity. The third section introduces the present volume’s contributions and their authors, and in the final section of the essay Heinen turns to an examination of the terms for slaves in the Greek, Latin and German translations of the Hebrew bible. Both the Greek pais and the Latin puer translations of the Hebrew term for slave, ebed, reflect the position of the slave in Graeco Roman culture as a perpetual child. Particularly interesting is the observation that in the German Lutheran translation the terms Knecht and Diener are used which designate servants and not slaves. This, as Heinen points out, leaves readers of the Lutheran translation unaware of the importance of the Hebrew bible as a source for the study of ancient Near Eastern slavery. The essay also includes a discussion of the use of slave terminology as powerful religious metaphor in Christianity.

Erdmute Alber cautions against too rashly comparing certain modern customs in Africa with historical forms of slavery. She discusses a custom in the Republic of Benin where many teenage girls leave their homes to work as domestics. The girls are all over the age of fourteen, leave their homes voluntarily in order to save money for their dowries or even a small business and are able to change employers when unhappy with a particular one. However, since agents are involved, Human Rights organizations interpret this practice as examples of child trafficking. Although the author does not deny that exploitation and abuse exists, she argues that such interpretation is based on Western norms and assumptions and suggests that studies into the underlying social and economic structures would be more appropriate than the discourse of slavery and human trafficking. Although this paper deviates to some extent from the overall focus and theme of the volume, it emphasizes the importance of contextualization when approaching other cultures’ customs and practices.

Winfried Schmitz pursues the questions whether Greek slave-owners allowed their slaves quasi-marriages and families. He observes that although some slaves were allowed to form such unions, they were not the rule but the exception and were granted as a reward to particularly loyal slaves. He concludes that owners normally denied their slaves close relationships in order to prevent solidarity against the master-class. This is a meticulous examination of archaic and classical Greek literary and epigraphic sources, which are supplemented with material from American slavery to overcome some of the limitations of the ancient sources. While similar studies on Roman slave families exist, this is the first one on Greek slave families. The paper also includes an up-to-date discussion of the debate surrounding the nature of the Athenian phialai-inscriptions as well as an extensive appendix listing primary sources on Greek slave ‘marriages ‘and slave families.

Josef Fischer looks at childhood and child labor in classical Athens. After a discussion of the various stages of childhood and youth of both freeborn and slaves, he examines the attitudes of adults towards children. He then provides a survey of the various areas of work where children and youths were engaged in by examining both literary sources and vase paintings. Slave children as well as free children of the poor were put to work at an early age, both inside and outside their households. In the countryside children took care of farm animals and participated in harvests. It seems to have been common that children of artisans were trained in their fathers’ craft. Children were also employed in manufacturing and in mines. Slave children and slave youths were used in the context of the symposia as musicians, dancers, and for sexual services. Fischer rightly concludes that the evidence only provides small glimpses into the world of children and youth of Classical Athens and that much work still needs to be done on the topic.

Agnes Thomas pursues the questions of age, social, and legal status of hetaerae. She begins with a detailed discussion of the iconography of a rare type of terra cotta statuette depicting a naked hetaera with a still child-like body. This is followed by an examination of the literary and visual sources on hetaerae. Although the evidence points to a low social status and a young age of hetaerae, it does not reveal the proportion of slaves among them or the extent of child prostitution. Freeborn and sophisticated hetaerae, who enjoyed status and wealth, do not appear in the sources before the 4th century BC. Thomas argues that Roman Imperial authors, who have romanticized the hetaera as educated and independent, have influenced modern scholarship and cautions against projecting this image to the late archaic and classical period where the evidence points to the slave status of hetaera. Ingomar Weiler pursues the methodologically difficult question whether slave-mothers developed affectionate bonds with their children. While the sources reveal that slave children were commonly separated from their slave mothers for primarily legal and economic reasons, they do not reveal what mothers might have felt at that separation. In order to overcome this limitation, Weiler turns to Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe which explores the emotional turmoil the novel’s heroine Callirhoe experiences when she debates whether to abort her unborn child or condemn it to the miseries of a life as a slave. He argues that Chariton’s sensitive exploration of his character’s emotions may reflect the possible emotions experienced by pregnant slave mothers. In another approach to this difficult issue, he explores the mother-child bond from the perspective of the culture versus nature debate. Although the ancient literature predominantly reflects the notion of a natural mother-child bond, Weiler suggests that individual difficult circumstances, especially among slave mothers, may have forced some to choose abortion or exposure, and in order to protect themselves from psychological damage, did not develop a strong mother-child bond.

Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto asks what it was like to be a child in the Roman empire. She looks at the structure of the Roman family to determine the place of both free and slave children in it. In the social networks of the Roman household, the lives of freeborn and slave children were closely intertwined. They grew up together, were often conlactanei, were cared for by nurses and educated by paedagogi, who were primarily slaves. Close relationships between free and slave members of a household are often reflected in Roman funerary epitaphs. Yet the common social networks did not always protect infants, since the boundaries between free and unfree could be quite fluid. Free children could become enslaved through exposure, could be sold by their parents in economic difficulties in late antiquity, and slave children could move into freedom. At the same time, however, the author argues, this tension was absorbed by the generous Roman manumission practices which fully integrated freed slaves into Roman society.

Andrea Binsfeld and Stephan Busch examine funerary inscriptions commemorating slave children in order to determine their place in the Roman household. Their starting point is a detailed examination of a grave stela from Spain with both an inscription and a relief set up for the fourteen-year old slave girl Iucunda, who seems to have been trained as a musician. The authors suggest that Iucunda’s inscription and that of slave children in general display their place and importance in the household. The context for the inscriptions is provided by the affection of parents and owners, the parents’ hope for their children’s future, and the owners’ investment in the education and training of their slave children.

Richard Gamauf surveys Roman legal sources for what they reveal about the socio-economic context and circumstances of slave children. Legal sources reflect a considerable economic interest in young slaves, primarily in connection with training and work. Slaves were put to work as soon as they were able to, from age five on. In the artisan milieu, the training of young slaves seems to have been the rule. Apprenticeship of a slave increased or even doubled his/her value. Although violence was a basic experience for slaves, legal sources only discuss this in the context of the economic damage to a slave’s value when seriously injured. Sexual exploitation also seems to have been a common experience for slaves from which the law did not protect them, nor did the law provide any protection in respect of a slave child’s young age. Gamauf also points out that although slaves who were filii naturales and pueri delicatae were often treated with affection, they were first of all slaves and legally property, not children.

Anja Wieber explores the difficult topic of the psychology of slavery and nicely complements Weiler’s article. Since the ancient sources do not provide any psychological insights into the experience of growing up as a slave, she begins with an examination of the autobiographies of American slaves Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince in order to compare these accounts to ancient conditions of slave children. The modern slave accounts reveal that in the early years of childhood slave children could enjoy life in an intact family and affectionate close relationships with the free members of the household. Yet, this was temporary, and the paths of slave children separated from those of the free as they grew up. Like their ancient counterparts, slave children were put to work around the age of six, were separated from their mothers and the households of their early childhood. The modern autobiographies provide graphic images of the pain that both mothers and children suffered when they were separated from each other. At puberty, sexual abuse, rape and violence could follow for both slave boys and girls. The experiences of 19th century African children dragged to Europe to be Christianized in monasteries, where most died of illness or cultural misunderstandings, provide insight into what ancient children captured in war may have experienced. The author rightly concludes that the experiences of slave children in antiquity and modern periods were traumatic and cut their childhood short.

To sum up, this volume represents a valuable contribution to the study of slavery and childhood in antiquity. It is also surprisingly coherent for a collection of essays; most of the contributions complement each other very well. Without exception, the papers are very well researched, reflect a variety of methodologies and approaches, and are meticulously edited. In short, this is an excellent and important collection of studies that greatly advances our understanding of childhood in antiquity.

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