Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 18.

Niall McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery? Duckworth Classical Essays. London: Duckworth, 2007. Pp. 174. ISBN 978-0-7156-3185-0. UK£12.99.

J. L. Hilton
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

The Duckworth Classical Essays series under the editorship of Thomas Harrison offers lively and thought- provoking studies of the ancient world. The present book provides a good example of this. It consists of a short, readable survey of the scholarship on ancient slavery, that is all the more valuable because many of the original works are difficult to obtain. McKeown is rather equivocal about his own approach to writing history (‘I am not necessarily a postmodernist’, p. 9), but he has nevertheless reflected with care on the process. He uses the analogy of the cinema to explain the object of his inquiry -- just as a film consists of a number of still photographs that give an impression of movement when shown in sequence, so the historians of ancient slavery make use of ‘professional sleight of hand to produce a narrative’ (p. 10).

McKeown begins in Chapter 1, ‘The Changing Face of Roman Slavery’ (pp. 11-29), with the views of Tenney Frank, Mary Gordon, Reginald Barrow, and Arnold Duff, that the orientalization of Roman society as a result of immigration from the East and the manumission of slaves from Asia Minor led to the decline of Roman Civilisation. This is clearly a hot topic, especially in view of the current debate on immigration and xenophobia in Europe, the United States, and, indeed, South Africa. It is easy to criticise this theory as racist, but more recent studies (such as those of Wallace-Hadrill and Sandra Joshel) stress the positive aspects of this demographic shift, without which, it should be noted, Christianity would not have had such favourable conditions in which to grow.[[1]] McKeown argues (pp. 28-29) that these different emphases exemplify the problem of historical interpretation and show that ‘when we explore it [the past], we tend to find what we are looking for’ (p. 29). This conclusion seems self-evident, but it is grounded on a thorough discussion of the difficulties of using epigraphic evidence, in which, for various reasons, freedmen appear to be over-represented. McKeown also touches very briefly on the inverse formulation of the argument of Frank, Gordon, Barrow, and Duff, namely the process of Romanisation, that must always have been a preliminary condition for the manumission of foreign slaves. At the same time, however, McKeown avoids discussion of the reasons for the legislation of Augustus that restricted the manumission of slaves. Some mention of this controversy would clearly have added to his case.

In Chapter 2, ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Geography’ (pp. 30-51), McKeown tackles the Mainz Academy’s Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei, exemplified by Fridolph Kudlien’s book on slavery in oracular responses, and the Groupe internationale de recherche sur l’esclavage dans l’antiquité, represented by Garrido-Hory’s studies of slavery in the works of Juvenal and Martial.[[2]] The selection of these two exemplars of the work of these schools exaggerates the differences between them -- Kudlien emphasises the positive side of ancient slavery, whereas Garrido-Hory stresses the cruelty of slave-owners to their slaves. Here too there are omissions: a central issue in the question of the emotional bonds between slave-owners and their slaves is the fact that many slaves were the children of their owners (the vernae). The importance of this group of slaves has long been recognised and deserves more discussion.[[3]] On the other hand, there are clearly problems with using rhetorical and literary texts such as Juvenal and Martial as evidence for the anxieties of Roman slave-owners towards their slaves.

Marxist theories of ancient Roman slavery, especially that of Shtaerman et al., are the subject of Chapter 3, ‘Struggling with Class: Shtaerman, Trofimova and a Marxist View of Roman Slavery and Agriculture’ (pp. 52-76).[[4]] This work argues that the change from a slave-based agricultural economy in the Roman empire to one worked by serfs (coloni) was the result of a ‘class struggle’ in which slaves increasingly resisted the power of their owners, who tried to suppress this resistance through terror and violence, until a point was reached at which it was more profitable for the master class to co-opt the labour of free tenants. McKeown critically interrogates the assumptions on which Shtaerman et al. base their argument, especially with regard to the supposed crisis of rural slavery and the alleged deterioration of relationships between slave and free in the Roman empire, which, according to Shtaerman’s school, forced the passing of more liberal legislation concerning slaves. In my view, the key argument here has more to do with the theory that the relative cessation of warfare within the Roman empire led to a decline in the supply of slaves, which deserves to be given rather more of an airing than McKeown allows.[[5]]

Keith Bradley’s work on slave resistance to oppression in ancient Rome forms the subject of Chapter 4, ‘Keith Bradley: Passionate about Slavery’ (pp. 77-96). Bradley argues that evidence from Roman Law indicates that acts of theft and sabotage to the property of the slave-owner constituted resistance. Mckeown points out the difficulties with this interpretation: the acts of slaves in these cases are often indistinguishable from those of the free, there is no telling how systematic such pilfering was, the actual motives for the cases mentioned are irrecoverable, and so on. Here, as elsewhere in the book, McKeown adopts a neutral stance (‘I have actually no brief to argue in favour of one side or the other of this debate’, p. 88). He points out on the favourable side of ancient Roman slavery that there ‘obviously was some debate about the limits of ill-treatment’ (p. 91), and that the comparative argument -- that Atlantic slavery showed signs of slave resistance, for example -- is vitiated by counter-examples -- in Africa slavery was supposedly far more integrated into the socio-economic structure. McKeown’s object is to show that Bradley’s approach was polemical (p. 95) and that the evidence is open to a different line of interpretation.

The scope of Chapter 5, ‘”I too want to tell a story . . .”: Some Modern Literary Scholars and Ancient Slavery’ (pp. 97-123), is very broad -- it covers literary interpretations of slave presences in Horace, Martial, the Life of Aesop, Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Plautus, Apuleius, amongst other authors. Inevitably in such a wide-ranging chapter there are omissions, but in a book devoted mainly to Roman slavery it is surprising to find the Life of Aesop included and Phaedrus excluded. However, the central question in the chapter is clear: Can literary texts (‘the soft evidence’, p. 102) tell us anything of value about ancient slavery, especially when these texts are open to a variety of different interpretations? It is answered by the number of insightful observations by slaves and slave surrogates in these works. In trying to recover slave testimony about their experiences, which is otherwise absent from the historical record, all the available evidence needs to be considered, even if it is filtered through the authorisation of a slave-owner.

The demographic debate on the number and sources of slaves in the Roman Empire promises to provide more reliable information, but reads very much like fiction also (Chapter 6, ‘A Scientific Approach to Ancient Slavery’ (pp. 124-140). Much of the discussion here centres on the number of slaves that accrued from breeding. Surprisingly, little use is made of the evidence from Roman Law, which is of crucial importance (cf., e.g., Dig. 5.3.27 pr. quia non temere ancillae eius rei causa comparantur ut pariant).[[6]] The rate of manumission in Roman Society is another variable among many that demand resolution before the demographic overview can be thought convincing.

The final chapter, ‘The Greeks Do It (a Bit) Better’ (pp. 141-58), comes as a surprise as it deals, proteron husteron so to speak, with Greek slavery. McKeown reprises the problem of recovering a history of Greek slavery from the evidence of the Athenian law courts of the fifth and fourth centuries, investigates possible reasons for the omission of slaves from historical narratives (especially that of Thucydides), and critiques the attempt of DuBois to write slaves back in to Greek history as a rewriting of the ‘orthodox Anglophone view of slavery’ (p. 154). Throughout the chapter McKeown tries to uncover the hidden assumptions in these recent studies of Greek slavery.[[7]] He concludes that, while Greek historians have shown more concern for the gaps in the historical record of slavery in Classical Greece than have Roman historians, they are culpable of a similar tendency to interpret the evidence in accordance with their own ideological outlook.

Overall, McKeown shows concern about the fact that the evidence for ancient slavery can be used to support the views of scholars with very different views of the world. He claims, in contradiction with the rather facile title of the book, that he is not charging scholars with inventing slavery, but rather with not being sufficiently aware of the possibility of there being many different interpretations of the evidence (p. 163). However, after reading this book, one is left with the feeling that such ideological polarisation is inevitable, given that writing history cannot be anything other than a subjective act, especially in such a contentious and political a field of investigation. One also wonders what McKeown’s own approach to the problem would be -- the present book is really an analytical survey of the scholarship on ancient slavery in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.[[8]] As such, however, it is extremely valuable and an important introduction to the scholarship on ancient slavery.[[9]]


[[1]] Tenney Frank, 'Race Mixture in the Roman Empire', American Historical Review 21 (1916) 689-708; Mary L. Gordon, 'The Nationality of Slaves under the Early Roman Empire', JRS 14 (1924) 93-111; Reginald Haynes Barrow, Slavery in the Roman Empire (London 1928); Arnold Mackay Duff, Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire (Oxford 1928); Sandra R. Joshel, Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome : A Study of the Occupational Inscriptions (Norman and London 1992); A Wallace-Hadrill, 'Rome's Cultural Revolution', JRS 79 (198) 157-164.

[[2]] F. Kudlien, Sklaven-mentalität im Spiegel antiker Wahrsagerei (Stuttgart 1991); M. Garrido-Hory, Martial et l’esclavage (Paris 1981); M. Garrido- Hory, Juvénal: esclaves et affranchis à Rome (Besançon 1998).

[[3]] See, for example, the excellent inaugural lecture of André Hugo, The Cape Vernacular (Cape Town 1970) 18, and, in much greater detail, Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto, Ex Ancilla Natus: Untersuchungen zu den "Hausgeborenen" Sklaven und Sklavinnen im Westen des Romischen Kaiserreiches (Stuttgart 1994).

[[4]] E. M. Shtaerman and Mariana Kazimirovna Trofimova, La schiavitú nell'Italia imperiale : I-III secolo (Roma 1975). In addition to this Italian translation of the original Russian text, there is also a German edition: E. M. Shtaerman et al., Die Sklaverei in den westlichen Provinzen des römischen Reiches im 1.-3. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart 1987).

[[5]] See, for example, Keith R. Bradley, 'On the Roman Slave Supply and Slavebreeding', Slavery & Abolition 8.1 (1987) 42-64; idem, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World: 140 B.C.-70 B.C. (Bloomington and Indianapolis 1989) 20-26.

[[6]] See now the important discussion of this text in Alan Rodger, 'A Very Good Reason for Buying a Slave Woman?' The Law Quarterly Review 123 (2007) 446- 454, and Herrman-Otto (above n. 3).

[[7]] Page Dubois, Slaves and Other Objects (Chicago and London 2003). One might have expected some reference in this chapter to Y. Garlan (tr. Janet Lloyd), Slavery in Ancient Greece (New York 1988); Rachel Zelnick-Abramowitz, Not Wholly Free. The Concept of Manumission and the Status of Manumitted Slaves in the Ancient Greek World (Leiden 2005); see also the forthcoming issue of The European Review of History 16.3 (2009).

[[8]] McKeown is most notably a contributor to Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge (ed.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery (Cambridge, forthcoming).

[[9]] Note the following typos: ‘they their criticisms’ for ‘that their criticisms’ (p. 22); double full-stop (p. 88); ‘Olympidorus’ for ‘Olympiodorus’ (p. 143); ‘Neara’ for ‘Neaera’ (p. 143); ‘that’ should be ‘than’ (p. 155, line 2).