ANCIENT GREEK AND ROMAN SLAVERY

Peter Hunt

Wiley Blackwell (2018) p/b 248pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781405188067)

Slavery was an integral part of how the ancient world worked; those parts we know most about, classical Athens and late republican-early imperial Rome, were ‘slave societies’ every bit as much as the pre-bellum Deep South. This very ubiquity makes it, paradoxically, harder to understand. The literary sources on which we rely hardly ever felt it necessary to discuss slavery. In the rare cases when they do, what we hear is one-sided: we get the masters’ points of view but never hear the voices of the slaves. If we are to try to understand how the system worked and how it varied, we must depend on very disparate evidence: tombstone inscriptions for ex-slaves, a few legal documents, comic caricatures, illustrations on pots, an occasional philosophical comment.

In this wide-ranging and thorough book, H. navigates these complex and partial sources with great skill to produce a comprehensive account of how slavery operated, varied and changed throughout the ancient world, from the first mention of some female slaves on a Linear B tablet to its decline in Europe in the Middle Ages. The book is mainly divided into themed chapters, in which Greece and Rome are compared and contrasted in terms of the topic of each chapter. The first two chapters, after a brief historical overview, discuss the nature of the evidence, the difficulties historians face in interpreting it and the methods available to them. The next three chapters consider broad issues about the institution: how slaves were supplied, the economics of slavery and its political effects. These are followed by chapters on the lives of slaves: their culture, sex and family lives, manumission and its consequences. Two chapters follow on the antagonistic relationships between slaves and their masters, first at an individual level and then open slave revolts (most famously, Spartacus). The perspectives of slave owners are then discussed: how slaves are represented in literature and art, and justifications and criticisms of the practice. Finally, H. covers the eventual decline of slavery and its legacy (not forgetting the way the American South used Aristotle’s notorious comment about the natural inferiority of non-Greeks to bolster their racist argument).

Within each of these topics, H. is careful to present contrasting scholarly views of the evidence and to allow the reader to decide. He is particularly good at warning against generalising from imperfect and partial evidence. For example, we know quite a lot about manumission in Rome, because there are several literary references to it, freedmen could become wealthy and powerful in their own right, and the manumitted often left their own testimony in inscriptions. From all this material we might easily infer that being a slave in Rome was not so bad: masters were inclined to see the slave as part of their family (familia), and manumission was a kindly custom which Romans developed (but Athenians never did). But, as H. points out, we know nothing about what proportion of domestic slaves were well treated or manumitted; it may have been very small, and there was nothing to prevent a master being cruel. Life spans were in any case so short that most domestic slaves probably died long before there was any question of their gaining their freedom. And the domestic slaves anyway were a relatively small number compared to the huge populations of slaves used in agriculture and mining operations, who would never see their real master, would be run by overseers, and would most likely die early from overwork. Again, we hear much in the literature about the blessings of Athenian citizenship and democracy, but we know nothing about what those excluded from it thought, especially those who worked the farms and the silver mines in Laurion.  

Towards the end of the book, H. speculates as to why there seem to have been no abolitionists in the ancient world. There were a few voices arguing that it was unjust and against nature, and (towards the end) increasing attempts to make cruel treatment of slaves illegal, but whether any of this amounted to abolitionism we simply do not know. When slavery eventually dies out in Western Europe, it seems to be for economic reasons, just as economic factors originally stimulated its growth. Clearly, we must queasily acknowledge, the notion of liberty as a ‘human right’, belonging to us simply as an effect of our humanity and for no other reason, is a wholly modern one. For the ancients, rights are entirely a matter of belonging to the group, being a citizen. We owe most of our civilisation to the ancient world, but in terms of ‘human rights’ they failed us. Indeed, it seems that the times when Athenian and Roman civilisation were at their height were precisely the times when slavery was at its strongest and most crucial to the system.

This is intended as a book for students, and its treatment of a huge subject is serious and well balanced, and also well written, an easy read. Highly recommended.

Colin McDonald

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room