BMCR 2023.09.25

Greek and Roman slaveries

, , Greek and Roman slaveries. Blackwell sourcebooks in ancient history. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2022. Pp. xvii, 381. ISBN 9781118969298



Greek and Roman Slaveries is a source book collecting a significant number of literary and documentary texts, all translated, and some archaeological material across Greek and Roman antiquity. The book is organised thematically and is ‘issue driven’ rather than collecting texts by period, location, genre or other criteria. Each section has a brief introduction. Sources are very briefly introduced, and associated with a genre. Documentary texts are given a location and dates are attributed to the texts. After each text, there is a series of questions.

As the authors point out, this is not the first collection of ancient texts on slavery, Thomas Wiedemann’s Greek and Roman Slavery: A Sourcebook (1981) being a notable predecessor, while Werner Eck and Johannes Heinrichs’s Sklaven und Freiglassene in der Gesellschaft der römischen Kaizerzeit (1993) focuses on Roman texts. Bathrellou and Vlassopoulos seek to avoid significant duplication with those collections, which is a challenge. The result is ambitious and wide-ranging and often surprising. The texts are drawn from well over a millennium and range geographically from the Near East to Ireland. The collection features many inscriptions, some papyri, a large number of legal texts, and literary texts from the Bible and Homer to the Church Fathers and Suda. There are Pompeian wall paintings, some artefacts and archaeological plans.  There are slightly surprising boundaries: Old Testament texts but no rabbinic writings. All this material is presented clearly, with the exception of some of the material culture for which the photographs are of such low quality that I could only see them by going on-line and looking at the relevant museum collections.

This collation is a significant work of scholarship in itself. I will use texts from the collection for teaching and it will inform my understanding of slavery. I do, however, wonder as to the target audience. The questions after the commentary follow a textbook convention and would seem to be pointed towards students. Yet, the introductions are often brief. The first questions require only a careful reading of the source but the later questions turn to the nature of slavery. Some of these later questions are straightforward; others are likely to be baffling. Since the collection is eclectic, which is its strength, the contexts of many extracts will be opaque. For instance, 1.12 (P. Herm. 18), which is an interrogation of a slave about his family, is glossed with a question as to what this tells us about natal alienation. A student working alone is going to find that hard to answer. Similarly, 2.17, Alciphron, Letters 2.24-5, contains letters between a master and a slave, the slave’s letter being a suicide note in despair at her repeated sexual exploitation. The editors ask how realistic the text is and how sexual services relate to other forms of slave labour. How would one start to answer those questions? The suicide of a slave who had found her sexual exploitation unliveable raises questions which go beyond the ‘realism’ of a text. The question invites us to think about sex work as another form of intimate labour; it needs context that can only come from multiple other texts for any discussion to be meaningful.

Sexual exploitation is a recurring theme but not a chapter in itself. The repeated referencing supports an assumption that such violence was culturally normalised. Yet, such normalisation would likely have had ethical implications that would require exploration, particularly within a teaching context. Horace, Satires 1.2.116-9 (source 4.14) is quoted, with its account of casual sex. The questions that follow are curiously bland: ‘what reasons for using slaves for sexual gratification does the passage offer? What options were available to men without slaves of their own?’ The egocentrism of the speaker’s presentation of the relationship (he wanted sex; a slave was available) is more telling and significant than the question of where else men might have gone for sex. The focus remains on the male exploiter rather than victims. One does not want to reduce slaves to passivity, nor impose one’s culturally specific values, yet in some instances it seems appropriate to employ a language of victimhood, if only to take the reader beyond the values of the text into the imaginative territory of the slave. The questions following the citation of the slave collar placed on Adultera (ILS 9455: source 6.3) do ask the reader to consider what any slave might have felt after having such a collar, but fail to provide the contextual information on the use of prostitution as punishment. The practical implication of placing the collar on a woman who was to be prostituted point to Adultera having no options, no escape and no significant agency. That she died and was buried in the collar is not merely poignant, but significant.

The collection finds fictional and dramatic texts that represent a slave viewpoint and some measure of slave agency. Some free Greeks and Romans could empathise with slaves. Inevitably, our available material tends to normalise rather than problematise slavery. There is frequently a recognition of the terrible circumstances of being a slave, but most slavery texts are concerned with the masters and exhibit the type of failure to understand the lives of others and the lack of social awareness that we would associate with our plutocrats. One might note among many examples Libanius on the care-free life of a slave when compared with the woes of a master (Orations 25.66-67: source 5.11) or Pliny the Elder’s lament on the thievery of slaves as moral decline (Natural History 33.26-27: source 11.9) or his nephew Pliny the Younger’s self-congratulatory discussion of his kindness to slaves (Epistles 8.16: source 5.13).

This collection does not treat slaveries as social givens. Yet, the cultural-historical approach situates slaveries within a Greek and Roman continuum of cultural thought which is dominated by the masters. Any conventional historical approach, no matter how critical, risks replicating these masters’ narratives. Foregrounding ethics would allow the reader to break through the cultural normalisation of such manifest ethical wrongs. In a source book, such ‘reading against the text’ is difficult, but is necessary for generating empathy and a critical distance from the masters’ social and cultural assumptions. For the modern Abolitionist movement sympathetic or sentimental literature was crucial.  The decision to allow the texts to be interrogated by the reader and to offer minimal introductions works against such ‘reading against the text’, such as might be attempted in feminist criticism, but such counter-readings are essential.

Scale is often seen as having been important in differentiating antique slaveries. The concentration of thousands of slaves within certain Roman households might have produced different dynamics from those in the typically smaller Greek households. The display of status in being accompanied by large slave entourages seems particular to the Romans: Apuleius, Apology 17 (source 3.11) is a response to a questioning of Apuleius’s status because he was not so accompanied. The structuring of society likely varied depending on the proportion of slaves in the population. Census-type documents help assess the prevalence of slaves, but more texts on the scale of slaving, untrustworthy though they may be, would provide a better picture. The Romans were conscious of the economic transformation of their society and associated different slaveries with different economies. Yet, in the micro-dynamics of individual relationships between slaves and masters, those differences might be less pronounced than we might imagine: Odysseus’s murder of the slave women of his household (not in this collection) seems not to be materially or ethically different from Roman murders of slave households.

The collection gives space to late antique texts and thus reflects the increased scholarly attention on the slavery of that period. Christianity imagined some religious relationships as slavery, as Roman-provincial relations were also sometimes envisaged. Such metaphorical usages of slavery potentially lessened the purchase of any ethical issue in slavery. One wonders also as to the relationship of other forms of unfree or even free labour to slavery. Perhaps wisely, the collection does not engage with the coloni of late antiquity, but that leaves our understanding of late antique labour systems and the social and economic distinctions therein unclear.

The plural of Greek and Roman Slaveries suggests a variety of cultural approaches to slavery. Yet, the juxtaposition and organisation by theme does not help distinguish any historical or geographical differences between various slaveries. Source 1.25, for instance, is drawn from Life of Melania the Younger from the fifth century CE. Source 1.26 is extracted from Aristophanes. The editors link the two as depictions of (asymmetric) negotiation of slaves and masters. The juxtaposition of texts dating eight centuries apart is not designed to create a sense of historical change. Even the texts in the chapter ‘Slavery and Historical Change’ do not seem to support a narrative of change. Yet, the various sociological, economic, and ideological contexts must have differed. The reader might wonder how they are to find different slaveries in this collection.

Different slaveries exist within the same period and society. Cretan material points to the use of multiple legal categories to identify slaves of different sorts. The Romans were clearly conscious of a difference between slaves of the house and slaves of fields and factories, a parallel one could probably replicate in transatlantic slavery. The variety of social and cultural treatments suggests that forms of slavery were locally contextual and multiple and that this was likely well understood by the various social actors.

The authors are laudably committed to allowing the sources to speak for themselves and readers to reach their own judgements, but I would have liked more support in how one might read these sources. Nevertheless, this is a provoking (in a good sense) collection and a valuable resource. I will use it and make sure that my students can access it. More editorial voice could have pointed more firmly to stories that might be told of the brutal, inhumane (but very human), and multifarious histories of Greek and Roman slaveries.