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We know a great deal about the ancient civilizations of Athens and Rome, but much of it is about the senators, military leaders, battles, literature and philosophy. Recent scholarship has focused more on the lives of those who are not so prominent in traditional histories: the women, children, the merchants, the poor, and the slaves. It's no simple matter to work out what their lives were like, partly because of the great diversity of circumstances over many centuries, varying social customs, the stratification of their societies, and also because the main writers of the times said very little about the lives of less notable parts of society. We have few or no direct accounts of the lives of these different groups. So often the method of learning about them has to be indirect, using clues as a detective might, to piece together a fuller picture of the whole of their experience. There is a good number of specialized books aimed at academics on these topics, but Peter Hunt's Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery is one of the first overviews of the lives of slaves in Greece and Rome aimed at a more general reader.
The book is 220 pages of main text with 13 chapters, so each chapter is of easily manageable length. The early chapters set the background and the methodological problems for the studies of ancient slavery. There are questions of definitions and law about slavery, and especially interesting is the question of how slaves were obtained, and what role they played in the growth of the ancient world. Citizens could become slaves through debt bondage, and slaves could be obtained through taking in abandoned babies, but it was far more common for slaves to come from outside of the centers of the civilizations, captured in military expeditions, and from piracy. Of course, when slaves had children, those slaves would also become slaves, and this was also a significant source of new slaves. Hunt guides the reader through the difficulties of estimating the size of the slave population through time, and the relative proportions of slaves from the different sources, and explains some of the debate about these numbers by different scholars. While there are disagreements on specifics, it is clear that the slave population was enormous and was constantly in need of replenishing. For example, it is estimated that in the ten years of Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BCE, he brought in about 100,000 slaves each year, and yet they needed more than 300,000 new slaves each year to maintain their slave population of 6,000,000.
Hunt makes clear that for both Greece and Rom, they had a slave society that was economically dependent on this massive slave economy. For both societies, the slaves could have been 25% of the population, and more in some regions. Slaves were generally cheap, depending on their abilities, and generally even relatively poor citizens could afford them. Some slaves were skilled and could help significantly not only with helping individual slave owners running their households and farms, but they could also help the state in administrative functions and serving as soldiers. It is even arguable that Greek "democracy" might not have been possible without the existence of their slave system.
Hunt moves on to examine the ways that slaves lived, in chapters on culture and then on sex and family life. He shows the variation in extent to which they retained their original language, religion and customs, and to what extent they adopted the culture of the family which owned them. In the case of educated Greek slaves, their very attraction for Roman owners who admired the Greeks was that these slaves could serve as cultural educators for the family. But most slaves were for more direct use by their owners, and that was especially true for slaves who were used as prostitutes or who were used for sex by their masters. Slaves sometimes also had their own sexual and romantic lives, although some owners discouraged or prevented this.
In the Roman world, it was common for slaves to be given their freedom. This is known as manumission. These slaves would become Roman citizens, while freed Greek slaves would not become citizens. It's an interesting question why the Romans had this practice -- it seems unlikely that it was due to respect for human rights. Sometimes slaves were able to buy their freedom, and they would often pay more than it cost to buy a new slave, so it made economic sense for the owner, especially when slaves often didn't live past their 40s, and the slave would be less productive in their older years. But there were cases of ex-slaves becoming respectable members of society, and going on to make a lot of money themselves, in which case they would have slaves of their own.
Hunt addresses the resistance of slaves to ownership in two chapters. In the first he addresses everyday conflict, and the ways in which slaves can express their opposition to being owned. He emphasizes how slaves are completely vulnerable to their owner's whims and so risk grave punishments if they are perceived as being deliberately difficult. But at the same time owners have a financial incentive to avoid damaging their own property. Slaves can also disguise their own mischief as accidents, if they damage property, or they can steal food and other property if they are given enough independence. There are records also of slaves running away and even murdering their masters. Obviously these forms of rebellion were harshly punished when slaves were caught. However, the scale of punishment was far greater in the cases of organized slave revolt where armies of slaves fought against the Roman armies. The Roman slave wars occurred at the end of the Republic in the first and second centuries BCE. The scale of these wars is hard to imagine: the war against the armies of Spartacus required 40,000 legionaries and resulted in 6000 captured slaves being crucified. The slaves probably realized they had almost no chance of success, yet they chose that rather than stay in slavery.
The final three chapters address the representation of slavery, the philosophy of slavery, and the end of slavery. In both literature and philosophy, slavery as an institution was never seriously questioned by those in the mainstream. Even ex-slaves don't argue for the abolition of slavery. It is either seen as a natural institution due to differences in human nature, with some populations or individuals being innately servile, or else it is seen as a great misfortune that falls upon those who are unlucky. There are stereotypes in ancient literature which depict slaves as lesser beings, being innately lazy or stupid. If slaves are depicted in a positive way, it is when they show loyalty to their owner's families. There are "clever slaves" in some comedies, who can make their masters look dim-witted. Hunt considers several plays that feature slaves and considers some possible interpretations of their depictions of slaves.
No named ancient philosopher is known to have clearly opposed slavery, but there are references to the idea of abolitionism in some philosophical literature, mainly in the work of Aristotle. But Aristotle himself, the Stoics, the Jews and the Christians all basically accepted slavery, although they may not have recommended it. The chapter on philosophy does a nice job of showing how Christian authors used slavery as a central metaphor in their theology, recommending that Christians should be slaves of God, and should be obedient. The main critique in regards to slavery was to condemn cruelty by masters: several traditions argued that it was wrong for a master to inflict unnecessary pain or harm on their slaves, and occasionally showed sympathy for the plight of slaves who were cruelly treated.
Slavery started to decline as the Roman Empire fell apart, starting around 400 CE. Hunt explains that there is not clear understanding of why this happened, and he shows that there is a complicated relationship with the rise of serfdom -- it is a mistake to think that serfdom simply increased as slavery decreased. He finishes with some discussion of the impact of slavery on the thought and practices of later centuries.
Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery is a fine book for general readers and for students who are looking for a survey of the contemporary understanding of ancient slavery. Each chapter ends with a section of recommended readings, and the information is well -referenced. The writing is clear and the book is set out in helpful sections. If I have any quibbles, it is that it would be helpful to have more systematic separation of practices in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, and some pages of the best estimates of crucial information, so it would be easier to use the book as a quick source of facts. As it is, one has to search for this information or keep one's own mental tally. But it would still be an excellent book to use for an undergraduate course on the ancient world, either as a main text or as an adjunct to a more traditional textbook that focuses on the traditional narratives of these societies.
© 2018 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.