Tuesday, March 06, 2012

History of Roman slavery

Brit classicist Mary Beard runs one of the world's liveliest historyblogs, a unique blend of elite gossip, personal disclosure, and enthusiastic scholarship. She's also no slouch at the review essay. This one is devoted to the strangeness of slavery in Rome, and the failure of historians to account for it:
If we were to take the evidence of surviving tombstones at face value (and most are much simpler and much less loquacious than the baker’s tomb), the vast majority of the free inhabitants of the metropolis were of slave origin. Leaving aside a few aristocratic commemorations and those of slaves themselves, roughly three-quarters of the people recorded on epitaphs from Rome are almost certainly ex-slaves, and most of the rest are probably their direct descendants.
Rome, seemingly, was a society where slaves were routinely freed and incorporated into the citizenry, creating for thoughtful historians a "huh?" problem (can slave status ever be treated so casually?), an economic problem (if they freed so many, where did they find the replacements?), and a conceptual problem (Rome was an empire populated by ex-slaves?).
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