BMCR 2018.09.53

Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery

, Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2018. xv, 248. ISBN 9781405188067. $34.95 (pb).


In Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery Peter Hunt delivers an introduction to classical slavery that will appeal to a wide range of readers. As Hunt intends, the book will function equally well as a textbook in courses on ancient slavery, social history, or comparative slavery, and as a reference work for historians working on slavery in other periods. It is difficult to produce a text that serves the needs of these distinct audiences, but Hunt does so successfully by using case studies that guide the reader through the methodology of studying ancient slavery.

Hunt begins with two introductory chapters. The first provides the necessary historical background, while the second, addressing the nature of our evidence for ancient slavery, lays the groundwork for the interpretative challenges that Hunt will return to throughout. The remainder of the book is organized thematically with chapters on enslavement, economics, politics, culture, sex and family life, manumission and ex-slaves, everyday conflict, revolts, representations, philosophy and law, and a concluding chapter on the decline and legacy of ancient slavery. In each thematic chapter Hunt provides an overview of the subject and discussion of methodological issues before moving onto detailed case studies from both the Classical Greek and Roman worlds. Sometimes these case studies allow for direct comparison between the two periods, as in Chapter 10 “Revolts” where Hunt explains why large-scale slave revolts occurred in Republican Rome, but not in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. At other times, the case studies cover different topics that fall under the same thematic umbrella. The Greek half of Chapter 5 “Politics” traces the concomitant growth of ancient slavery and democracy, while the Roman section examines the role of slaves and freedmen in the imperial government.

As is obvious from these examples, Hunt has selected his case studies to hit on major debates in the field rather than to provide even coverage of all topics. There are pluses and minuses to this choice. If the volume is used as a textbook, the instructor will need to fill in gaps. Chapter 4 on economics, for example, focuses on the demand for slaves, progressing from the definition of a slave society to the viability of slave labor to the slave trade. While it covers a great deal of ground, it nevertheless does not address the basic and important question of what types of labor slaves were performing. This information is readily available in the work, but it must be gleaned from scattered references throughout—there are 28 entries under “work, slaves” in the index—rather than from a comprehensive discussion. Fortunately, it is easy to find readings to fill any holes in Hunt’s picture. Each chapter includes an up-to-date “Suggested Reading” section at the end, and many chapters are paralleled by more detailed accounts (one Greek, one Roman) in The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 1, the Ancient Mediterranean World (Cambridge, 2011).

Even if supplemental resources will occasionally be required, the case study approach has much to offer. By delving into more specific, tangible examples, Hunt gives himself the space to engage with the complexity of the sources, and in doing so produces a more sophisticated guide to ancient slavery than one would expect from an introduction. For each question —from whether slaves retained their birth culture to the frequency of manumission—he first presents the available evidence and its challenges, and then walks the reader through multiple interpretations of the material. His voice is strongly present throughout as he directs readers to the interpretation he finds most compelling. He is not dogmatic, but rather gives the reader the sense that everything remains open to individual interpretation.

Hunt’s deep engagement with the evidence should be effective for both intended audiences of his book. Historians and other advanced readers from outside the field will appreciate the focus on how we know what we know since, as Hunt explains, many of the types of primary sources used to study slavery in other periods are simply not available for antiquity. For undergraduate students, on the other hand, Hunt’s skeptical approach to the evidence will be of pedagogical value. Through both explicit discussions of interpretative dangers and his own model analyses, Hunt provides training in reading primary sources.

In the “Suggested Reading” section of Chapter 1, Hunt notes that “there are a number of good general treatments of Greek and Roman slavery” (15) and lists the current options.1 He does not make a case for a new introduction to ancient slavery but I can make one for him from the perspective of an instructor looking for a textbook. Instructors employing a chronological approach or focusing on a single period will not find the book useful; the chapters are too integrated to be split into Greek and Roman sections. For a course organized thematically, though, Hunt’s work offers a better alternative to the existing option for English-speaking students, Andreau and Descat’s introduction to classical slavery, published in English translation in 2011. Both books focus on connections and contrasts between the Greek and Roman worlds, but the latter was already missing important scholarship at the time of its original publication in 2006.2 More significantly, a course on ancient slavery is necessarily a course on interpretation.3 Hunt drives this home, while Andreau and Descat are frequently uncritical of the evidence. Hunt’s book is certainly, then, more effective as a companion to what is, anecdotally speaking, the most frequently assigned text for ancient slavery courses, Wiedemann’s classic sourcebook. It would also pair well with a more general social history sourcebook for a course on non-elites in antiquity. Like Knapp’s Invisible Romans (Cambridge, MA, 2011), Hunt captures the excitement (and difficulty) of learning about the lives of those on the margins of our record.

The book’s correspondence with Wiedemann’s sourcebook is a weakness as well as a strength. While striving to include a wider range of evidence, Hunt still replicates Wiedemann’s emphasis on texts. Iconographic and archaeological materials receive far less attention in the body of the work and bibliography. The imbalance is clearly represented by the fact that there are only twelve figures, five of which are text; in comparison, Joshel’s textbook for a similar audience has over seventy images. The shortage of images is all the more frustrating because when Hunt does include one, he makes the most of it. A runaway slave notice preserved on papyrus is not reproduced simply to add interest to the page (148). Instead Hunt carefully walks the reader through identifying the letters to make out the name of the fugitive slave Philippos, so that even those without a background in ancient languages get to experience the thrill of reading straight from the source. The name is also of analytical significance; Philippos, along with most of the other fugitive slaves attested in these documents, is male. Hunt speculates on the role of gender and family relationships in determining a slave’s willingness to escape while directing the reader back to another image in the book, that of unchained women and children following chained men on the stele of a slave trader.

The book is well priced for students and available at an even lower price point as an e-text. I tested out the e-text platform and found it generally user-friendly though it contained errors not present in the print volume: some chapters are mistitled, there are no page numbers in the index, and under “Illustrations” one finds a list of maps but not figures.

The choice of this book over the existing options will likely come down to whether the instructor or reader prefers a chronological or thematic approach. I personally had intended to use a chronological approach for a course on ancient slavery that I will be teaching this fall. The greatest compliment that I can pay Hunt is that it he has convinced me that a thematic one, using his text, will be much more interesting.


1. For Greek slavery: Yvon Garlan, Slavery in Ancient Greece (Ithaca, NY, 1988); N. R. E. Fisher, Slavery in Classical Greece (London, 1993); and David Lewis, Greek Slave Systems and Their Eastern Neighbors: A Comparative Study (Oxford, forthcoming). For Roman slavery: Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge, 1994) and Sandra R. Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2010). For both Greek and Roman slavery: Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (London, 1988) and Jean Andreau and Raymond Descat, The Slave in Greece and Rome, trans. Marion Leopold (Madison, 2011). In addition to the above, I would add Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford, 2005) and Jennifer A. Glancy Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford, 2002), working with different bodies of evidence.

2. Keith Bradley, review of The Slave in Greece and Rome, by Jean Andreau and Raymond Descat, translated by Marion Leopold, The Classical Review 63 (2013): 154-156.

3. As shown so clearly by Niall McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery? (London, 2007).