Ancient Roman Slavery: Entry Points

The Bible mentions slaves a number of times, in both the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 21:1–11) and the New Testament (e.g., Eph 6:5–9), so the study of ancient slavery is certainly relevant to a study of Christian Scripture. Fortunately—or, actually, rather dauntingly—there is a ton of scholarship available on ancient slavery. To get a handle on the subject will take some time, but here are the books I’d start with.

A widely used sourcebook is the one by Thomas Wiedemann, published by Routledge in 1981 (preview). It covers Greek slavery along with Roman slavery. It’s divided topically into 12 chapters (as you can see at that preview), and it’s fairly concise, at just under 300 pages. Wiedemann presents quotations from all kinds of Greek and Roman authors on the subject of slavery, and brief introductions help orient the reader to the ancient text being quoted. All the qutoations are individually numbered, the last one being #243. Sometimes the quotations are pretty short, such as #1, a quotation from Justinian’s Digest comprising only a few lines. Some quotations are pretty long, such as #2, from Aristotle’s Politics, that takes up about 6 pages. There is also, for instance, a full English translation of Seneca’s very interesting Epistle 47 (#238, pp. 233–36), in which he argues—perhaps not completely in earnest—for the humane treatment of slaves.

One of the big names in terms of scholars of ancient Roman slavery is Keith Bradley. His most accessible book on the subject is Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge, 1994; preview; Bryn Mawr review). It’s nine chapters do not quite reach 200 pages, so it also is pretty concise. I’m looking forward to reading this one.

The book I’ve actually started with, though, is by Sandra Joshel called Slavery in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2010; preview; Bryn Mawr review ), designed as a student text. It’s a pretty easy read, lots of pictures, with five chapters stretched over 215 pages of text. This quotation is from the end of the book.

The study of slave labor gives us a picture of the variety of Roman slavery. Farming, herding, baking, making and selling, serving, cleaning, and cooking—Roman slaves did it all, but they labored at these tasks in different sites and circumstances for slaveholders as grand as the politician Pliny and as ordinary as the smith Atimetus. Some slaves worked side by side with their owners: they could expect their freedom and, perhaps, their own shops. Others labored in the fields in chains or under the close supervision of foremen: they had few opportunities for eventual liberation or independence. Still other slaves waited on elite men and women, living at the margins of elegance or at their owner’s side, near the rich and great but worlds away in terms of social standing, although some could hope that diligence and loyalty would have its rewards.

Joshel, pp. 213–14

Joshel does a good job, here and elsewhere, of presenting the variety of conditions in which slaves found themselves in ancient Rome.

A few other books for your notice: if you want to think about how Christians, or the New Testament in particular, interacted with Roman slavery, you should start with this book by Jennifer Glancy (written in 2002). Or, for slavery in Judaism, see Catherine Hezser‘s 2005 book. For slavery in ancient Israel in comparison with Greco-Roman slavery, see David Lewis‘ 2018 book (Bryn Mawr review). And for Roman slavery after the Christians took over (i.e., after Constantine), see Kyle Harper‘s 2011 book (Bryn Mawr review).

Yes, this is just for starters. There’s way more to read about ancient slavery so that you can speak competently about the issue when you come up against those slavery texts in Scripture. But there’s no need to be in a rush. Start reading now, and you’ll have something useful to say in a few years.

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