BMCR 2016.01.07

The Material Life of Roman Slaves

, , The Material Life of Roman Slaves. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xv, 286; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780521191647. $99.00.


How you can make visible those who left no distinctive traces in the archaeological record? This is Sandra Joshel’s and Lauren Hackworth Petersen’s central question. In their book they develop strategies to reconstruct slaves’ lives and experiences in their living and working contexts. In four chapters they make slaves visible: in the house (chapter 2, p. 24–86), in the city streets (chapter 3, p. 87–117), in the workshops (chapter 4, p. 118–161), and in the villa (chapter 5, p. 162–213). Above all, the book examines small and large houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the streets of Pompeii, shops and workplaces of Pompeii and Ostia, and villae at the countryside and the seaside. Beside the archaeological record, the authors refer to works on Roman agriculture as well as satirical and legal texts. The focus on Pompeii and Herculaneum determines also the chronological scope of the study. The book, however, does not aim to search for the material traces slaves left, but rather seeks to establish a methodology to bring to life the houses and streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to give an impression of the living conditions, not only of the owners of those houses, but also of the entire household, to illuminate the choreography that determined the everyday life of slaves and masters inside and outside the household. Due to the lack of sources, this is a difficult task and requires a special methodological and theoretical approach. Consequently, Joshel and Hackworth Petersen refer to Michel de Certeau’s work The Practice of Everyday Life, in which he draws a distinction between the concepts of strategy and tactics. While strategies seek to control space and time, tactics describe the means to escape control. The authors describe masters’ strategies—e.g. their control of space and time as well as the control of slaves’ movement—as well as servile tactics of flight, damage, theft, and other forms of misbehavior as they counteract the slave owners’ demands.

The book is not only a highly welcome contribution to the archaeology of Roman slavery—a still underrepresented field of research—but also an original and innovative study in the field of cultural geography and cultural theory. The authors avoid a one-dimensional reading of texts by embedding the information given by legal texts or literature in the material record. The study, however, remains one-dimensional in another way: basing their study on de Certau’s concept of strategies and tactics, the authors necessarily focus on masters’ and slaves’ behaviour that is characterised by efforts for containment or avoidance. Legal and literary texts do provide examples for containment and avoidance; but they also portray interactions that de Certau’s theory does not take into account. Joshel and Hackworth Petersen are well aware of the often hypothetical character of their conclusions. Nevertheless, they succeed in going beyond previous studies in their effort to identify slave quarters, such as those in the famous example of the villa at Settefinestre, where rows of small rooms near working areas are often attributed to slaves.

Regardless of these limitations, by carefully analysing domestic plans Joshel and Hackworth Petersen illuminate convincingly the circulation of slaves and the restrictions of movement in the house, especially during a banquet, in the streets, the workshops, and villas. For example, by analysing the different heights of doorways, the authors can show which door was meant for the patron and his guests and which one for the service, thus making the slaves invisible. The authors also discuss the role of back doors for the circulation of slaves within and outside a house. Villa A at Oplontis, where the owners used zebra stripes to mark the service corridors, provides a very convincing example of regulating the circulation of slaves.

Less convincing is the analysis of slaves’ tactics. The authors try to identify hiding places within the house in order to show how slaves could disappear during a banquet, to what extend they are visible, invisible, or audible in the house. Also hypothetical is the analysis of the slaves’ access to the world outside the house: their lingering at fountains in order to fetch water, or the possibilities to passing time at nearby bars. Legal texts or the satirical works of Petronius, Juvenal, Horace, and Martial provide copious textual evidence for the slaves’ misbehaviour, such as laziness or negligence. The attempt, however, to locate the places of servile misbehaviour is stimulating but necessarily speculative. Furthermore, the focus on slaves’ misbehaviour and the masters’ efforts for containment unduly influence the interpretation of texts and the material record: for example, one gets the impression that shackling slaves was the norm and not a measure to constrict fugitive or untrustworthy slaves (see p. 140).

Overall, this book will outline new ways of research for cultural scientists as well as those working on the archaeology of slavery. It is to the credit of Sandra Joshel and Lauren Hackworth Petersen—both specialists in the history and archaeology of Roman slavery—to have made visible slaves in the archaeological records as well as in scholarly literature.