BMCR 2022.01.33

L’esclave dans l’Égypte romaine: choix de documents traduits et commentés

, L'esclave dans l'Égypte romaine: choix de documents traduits et commentés. Cahiers du CEDOPAL, 8. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2020. Pp. 150. ISBN 9782875622402 €14,00.

When we talk about the history of slavery in Greco-Roman Egypt, two names immediately spring to mind for the historian familiar with the subject: on the one hand, that of the Polish historian Isa Biezunska-Malowist;[1] and on the other, that of the papyrologist Jean A. Straus.  L’esclave dans l’Égypte romaine. Choix de documents traduits et commentés is a sourcebook for the field of papyrology and, within this discipline, for the history of slavery in Roman Egypt. The monograph is part of the Cahiers du CeDoPaL (nº 8), a collection curated by the Centre de Documentation de Papyrologie Littéraire de la Université de Liege, an institution of which Straus himself used to be a member. The main aim of the series is to acquaint as many readers as possible with papyrological documentation and the history of ancient documentation, with an emphasis on younger audiences. Straus’ work dovetails well with this goal and guides lay readers through a particularly difficult type of documentation for anyone unfamiliar with papyrology. Yet a basic knowledge of Roman history and the literature on ancient slavery is recommended to take full advantage of the volume.

The core of the book consists of a selection of texts related to the institution of slavery in the province of Egypt, chosen and translated into French by the author—except where a satisfactory French translation already exists. The documents are set chronologically and spatially within the Egyptian territory all through the Roman period (first century BC – fourth century AD) . As the author himself acknowledges (p. 7), in this selection of 157 texts, papyrological documentation far outweighs other types of sources such as literary or epigraphic ones, something that is explained by the idiosyncrasies of the Nile region itself, but also by the author’s own training and the nature of the collection that makes up this volume. Therefore, the collected texts are mainly papyri and ostraka in the Greek language, with a few exceptions of texts in Latin or in both languages.  Before dealing with this documentation, the author introduces the reader to the subject by providing certain tools, including digital resources for consulting the documents and their transcription into the original language. Straus mainly makes use of the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri. The inclusion of this resource is by no means negligible as it makes up for the absence of a critical apparatus which, because of the very nature of the work, is absent from the volume. Apart from the DDBDP, Straus uses the 13 volumes of the Berichtigungsliste der griechischen Papyrusurkunden aus Ägypten. The volume also includes maps of Egypt and the Fayyum region and a short glossary of calendar events, measurements and general terms useful for understanding the texts.

The central chapters of Straus’s work respond with some precision to the classic structure of studies on ancient slavery, with a first chapter entitled Devenir esclave (the sources of the bonded labour force) and a final section entitled Cesser d’être esclave, dedicated to texts that signify the death or manumission of the slave according to Greek and Roman customs. In between the author builds upon the dual status of the slave as property and as a human being and shows the slave as both the subject and object of a wide variety of actions, such as: being sold or donated (Changer de maître), used as labour, instructed in a trade, or used as collateral for a loan (L’esclave utilisé), paying taxes or being taxed (L’esclave contribuable). Throughout the selected texts, Straus also shows us the slave acting maliciously or criminally (L’esclave malfaiteur) and being punished or even mistreated for it (L’esclave maltraité ou puni), a situation that could cause the slaves to run away (L’esclave fugitif). The author also devotes a section to slaves of varying status whose special characteristics deserve a separate mention, such as the imperial or elite-owned slaves who appear with some frequency in public functions, the vicarii (slaves who had their own slaves) or individuals of servile status who are identified as conservi or syndouloi (“fellow slaves” who shared the same master). Finally, with the title L’esclave et ses maîtres the author compiles a series of documents that illustrate master-slave relationships that are not depicted in previous chapters, whether affective, consanguineous or sexual, three elements that are not necessarily in synchrony (p. 117).

Despite the variety of subjects that structure the book, most of the analysed documents are of a mercantile, administrative or juridical nature. Even the texts that are less constrained by bureaucratic formulas such as oracular consultations (see no. 9) or private letters between family members are imbued with a notably economic-commercial character. However, Straus’s analysis of sources and the fine irony with which he sometimes baptises the different documents—as in the complex case of a slave with several masters who is given in pledge by only one of them, which Straus titles Les adventures du tiers de l’esclave Martilla (Nos. 55, 56 and 57)—allows the reader to transcend the purely economic level to access a holistic dimension of the reality of slavery. After the selection of documents, the author suggests a series of readings for further study of the different topics proposed throughout the work. As would be expected, in this selection, there are frequent references to articles and monographs published by the author (and also by other experts in the field) on the study of Egyptian papyrology from the Roman period, complementing the textual comments of a work which, due to its desire to be accessible to a wide audience, is sometimes more descriptive than analytical. The volume closes with a comparative list of the selected texts, arranged firstly by order of publication and secondly by the order of their original publication (BGU, Chrest. Mitt. , P. Oxy., etc.), making it easy to consult them at a glance.

In addition to serving as a convenient approach to the papyrus as a source of historical knowledge, Straus’s work describes in rich detail the reality of the slave in Egypt under Roman rule. As I have already pointed out, in the author’s own conception of the institution of slavery, the dual status of the slave as property and as a human being is of fundamental importance. The papyrological documentation further supports this idea, according to which the slave is capable of being bought, sold, inherited or rented, like any other commodity; however, we are also shown a servile population that is certainly independent (see text no. 135) and in constant interaction with the free individuals of the Egyptian society, with whom they frequently share work (see nos. 26, 32, 72 and 73), business (through the flexible institution of the peculium) but also feelings and conflicts. Nowhere is the dual status of the slave more evident than in the fiscal documentation (p. 67), where the slave is taxed both as a human being (e.g. the laographia applicable to all men between 14 and 62 years of age) and as a tangible asset (p. 67). This duality often has a cruel interpretation. This is the case of the master who has a child with his female slave, but does not hesitate to sell her in order to alleviate his financial difficulties, even at the cost of separating a newborn child from its mother (nº140). Straus’s comments are essentially expository of the contents of the text, which in no way precludes L’esclave dans l’Égypte romaine from being of considerable significance. The very selection, classification and arrangement of the texts helps to give the reader of this volume a very concrete image of the institution of slavery both in a global sense applicable to the whole Empire and specific to the region in question, with particular emphasis on the apparent independence of action enjoyed by many of the slaves who inhabited the Nile basin.

Finally, it is worth noting certain – minor – problems relating to the chronological dispersion of the selected texts. Although almost all the texts are dated with meticulous precision, and the author claims not to find fundamental differences in the status of slaves during the five centuries covered by the textual selection, certain milestones such as the expansion of Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the Empire in 212 AD, the appearance and disappearance of certain magistracies and public offices or the creation of the province of the Thebaid in the time of Domitian (with a veiled mention on  p. 7) may have some relevance to the content of the documents and, by not being explicitly mentioned, could cause some confusion to the more inexperienced reader. The Constitutio Antoniniana and its effects on the application of citizens’ rights is a particularly relevant issue, especially in the chapter devoted to manumissions, in which Straus differentiates procedures that follow Greek law from manumissions adapted to Roman law. The definitive expansion of Roman citizenship may have had obvious (though not automatic) effects on these actions and, in fact, may lead us to cast certain doubts on some of the cases mentioned by the author (such as the example in no.147).

It is also worth noting a number of editing issues. Although the two maps included at the beginning of the work[2] make it easier to physically locate the selected texts, they lack elements such as the indication of the different nomoi into which the Egyptian territory was divided, an administrative circumscription that frequently appears in the texts of the volume. Nonetheless, I am aware of the technical difficulties of legibly including this type of information in a small publication. Lastly, the final table of contents is unnecessarily brief, as it does not include the page references of the different subchapters of the work (which would perhaps make it easier to consult). But once again, the small size of the volume makes this an admittedly minor issue.

These minor caveats in no way detract from the value and usefulness of this volume, which undoubtedly constitutes a very satisfactory approach to the socio-economic reality of the slave in Roman Egypt through its sources and, in a very special way, from the papyrus. Readers interested in finding out more about these issues need only consult the rest of the contributions by Jean Straus[3]—of which this volume is quintessential—where they will find a world as rich as it is complex. Its greatest success lies in the contrast between this complexity and the apparent simplicity of L’esclave dans l’Égypte romaine.


[1] I. Biezunska-Malowist, L’esclavage dans l’Égypte gréco-romaine, (Warsaw 1974).

[2] Adapted from G. Husson & D. Valbelle, L’État et les institutions en Égypte : des premiers pharaons aux empereurs romains, (Paris 1992).

[3] Especially J. A. Straus, L’ achat et la vente des esclaves dans l’Égypte romaine: contribution papyrologique à l’étude de l’esclavage dans une province orientale de l’empire romain, (München 2004).