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Book Review: Slavery in the Roman World by Sandra R. Joshel

Sunday, August 29, 2021 - 15:46

One of the peculiarities of my reading habits is that, while I’m often reading multiple things in parallel, I keep them sorted out mentally by reading in different formats and different contexts. The most eclectic reading context I currently have is “things I read over breakfast on my Saturday morning bike ride to Walnut Creek.” It has to be a book that will fit in my belt pack, which means either mass market paperback or the equivalent of a trade paperback (including hardback books of similar size). Mass market paperbacks are generally fiction, which means generally read them in ebook. Exceptions include kickstarter fiction anthologies, where I’ve supported at a level to get both ebook and hard copy—which is normally trade size. The non-fiction that falls in the appropriate size category is pretty random. So if I’m not in the mood for an anthology and I go into my library to look for a book of the right size that inspires me for breakfast reading, the results can get very random indeed!

Slavery in the Roman World by Sandra R. Joshel (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

There was a time in my historic-hobby life when I was invested in researching the material culture of imperial Rome far in excess of the amount of time I spent actually participating in Roman-era activities. One of my excuses is that I have at least one historic novel in process set in that era. This falls in the category of “excuse” because I’m not sure that I’ll manage more than one novel with that setting, but honestly I’m simply fascinated by the amount of information we have about everyday life and our ability to mentally inhabit it.

But writing a novel involves different sets of data than doing historic re-creation and involves some very different questions. I think one of the hardest topics to tackle when writing relatively fluffy historical fiction set during the Roman empire is how to handle slavery. One can take an unhistorical approach and ignore it. One can take a brutally historic approach and have your characters treat it unquestioningly as normal and natural. One can have the characters hold ahistorically enlightened opinions on the topic. Especially in the context of romance fiction, one can fetishize the relationship between the enslaved and the enslavers and redeem the latter via True Love. (Which: ugh. I have a hard time being neutral when including stories of this type in the LHMP new books listings.) Or one can try to thread the needle and find a balance that both respects and accurately represents the experiences of enslaved people in Roman society, alongside the experiences of more privileged characters.

In any event, I picked up this book (based on a recommendation on Twitter) to try to help educate myself with respect to the last option. It’s a fairly quick read (and very readable for the non-specialist, I think), trying for a balance between using primary source materials while recognizing how badly skewed those sources are with respect to whose voices are represented and how honest they are able to be in their expression. It addresses the sheer scale of the role slavery played in the Roman economic and social structure, while recognizing the wide range of experiences of enslaved people, depending on factors such as geography, the rural/urban divide, gender, occupation, and the random chance of the personality of enslavers. Another focus is on the everyday precariousness of life for the enslaved, even within the most privileged contexts. But also the opportunities, the ways people worked around and within the system, and the extremely variable opportunities for advancement or manumission.

The author puts a lot of focus on the humanity of the people involved in Roman slavery and both the parallels and differences between the Roman experience and systems of slavery in other eras and societies. Definitely fulfils the purpose for which I acquired the book.

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