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Slavery Essay

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'The Roman empire was a slave society but not a slave economy.' Discuss. The distinction between a 'slave society' and a 'slave economy' is blurred at best. Bradley, for example, defines a slave society in almost exclusively economic terms, as one 'in which slaves play an important part in production and form a high proportion of the population'; in which they supply 'the bulk of the immediate income from property
… of the elites'; and in which 'unfree labour' generally is the greatest source of income for the wealthy. Part of the problem we face is that slavery in the ancient world has often been examined through comparative studies, seeking to draw conclusions about the scale and nature of slavery in Roman Italy, say, through the examination of 'similar' societies such as colonial South America or the antebellum southern United States. While a valid and informative method of inquiry, given our lack of solid contemporary data, this methodology tends to incorporate the assumption that slave ownership was primarily an economic phenomenon. For the Romans, slaves were clearly a visible and important element of society, but without readily accessible world markets onto which the products of slave production could be dumped, the same economic imperative that existed for slavery in the New World cannot have existed in the ancient world. The case for a slave economy therefore needs to be constructed from scratch, and our conclusion is dependent on the answers to four key questions. Firstly, what was the extent of slavery? From the vague figures we occasionally encounter in our sources, historians have derived quite different estimates of the total number of slaves in Italy and in the empire generally. Deciding on a plausible figure is clearly important; a large number is a prerequisite to our application of Bradley's 'demographic' criterion for a slave society to Rome. Secondly, what were attitudes towards slaves? While Roman agronomists showed concern with the economic benefits of slave ownership, slaves were not seen as a purely economic investment. If slavery was more of a social category, the case for a primarily servile economy must suffer. Thirdly, how were slaves used in practice? In Italy at least (the only region for which we have significant information), slave labour was certainly present in agriculture, which was the main economic activity of the empire. However, there is debate over the extent of slave-worked holdings - the villae rusticae and latifundia - particularly in relation to smallholdings worked by free peasantry. Historians have also disagreed over whether slave labour was necessarily more profitable than its alternatives. This brings us finally to the related question of the relationship and distinction between slaves and free labour in the countryside. If, as Hopkins has argued, free yeomen were displaced by the influx of slaves, this would support the conclusion that slavery was a profitable and thus economically motivated enterprise. On the other hand, the argument has been put forward, primarily by Italian Marxist scholars, that slavery was only one element of rural exploitation by the elites, which extended to the degradation of free labour through the institution of the colonate. If we subscribe to this view, we might be justified in concluding that though the economy of the empire was elite-dominated and exploitative, it was not built on the back of slaves alone. Despite the fragility of the evidence, there is a clear impression that the extent of slavery was very great in the empire, being particularly visible in the last century of the Republic and the first century of the Principate. Ancient sources give an idea of the scale and spread of slave ownership: the lex Fufia Caninia, which put limits on manumissions by will, divided slave owners into categories depending on the number of slaves owned. At one end of the spectrum, the law envisaged owners of up to 500 or

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