Sunday, October 14, 2012


Jean Andreau, Raymond Descat, The Slave in Greece and Rome. (Originally published in French 2006; translated by Marion Leopold). Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. Pp. 198. ISBN 9780299283742. $26.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Hunt, University of Colorado at Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site

Jean Andreau and Raymond Descat have packed this short survey—168 pages in the main text—with a wide variety of theoretical inquiries as well as a cornucopia of vivid detail about slave life in antiquity.1 As the title implies, the authors discuss both Greek and Roman slavery. One of the book's great strengths consists of the comparative insights this double focus allows. Andeau and Descat also take on a wide chronological span, beginning with slavery in the Linear B tablets and finishing with chattel slavery's persistence after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Their conclusions are sometimes iconoclastic and encourage reconsideration of issues on which scholarly consensus, especially that of Anglophone scholars, is based on conformity rather than evidence. The translation from the original French version of 2006 is usually faithful and unobtrusive and only occasionally awkward. A feature criticized in the French version, inconsistent footnoting to scholarship and occasional missing references to ancient sources, remains a problem.2 This makes it hard to evaluate eccentric arguments or claims.3 The book also sometimes takes too credulous an approach towards our sources, especially the late and derivative ones—see below. Nevertheless, both for students and for scholars, this book provides a lively yet erudite survey of a crucial and controversial area of ancient social history.

The book contains a short introduction and seven main chapters. The first chapter, "What is a slave?" discusses the definition of slavery and the distinction between slavery and other forms of un-free labor. It also introduces the contrast between slave societies and societies with slaves—to which the authors return in their treatment of slaves in the economy. Andreau and Descat claim without discussion that there were no chattel slaves in Phocis and Locris "until the middle of the fourth century"(8). If we were to accept this report, attributed to Timaios in Athenaios' Deipnosophistai,4 we would need to rewrite the whole history of chattel slavery in Greece. In particular, conventional interpretation of ancient Greek justifications of slavery—or the relative absence of such justifications— would need to be rethought. But even Andreau and Descat themselves in "Thinking on Slavery"(pp. 128-136) take no special account of these supposed exceptions to slave-holding in central Greece right in the middle of the classical period.

"The earliest forms of slavery" deals with the development of Greek slavery from Mycenaean through archaic times and argues that slavery was already significant in archaic Rome, i.e. before the fourth century. In this case Andreau and Descat's resistance to hypercritical approaches to our sources is convincing overall. The authors also emphasize the way that, in both Greece and Rome, the chattel slavery of outsiders developed as the result of a crisis in a system of debt bondage of (former) citizens. They draw a strong and persuasive parallel between the two situations: "We think … that this transformation was achieved in more or less the same manner in Rome and Greece."(39)—and they add the necessary caveats of course.

The next chapter, "A slave population," tackles the issue of the demography of the slave populations of classical Greece (mainly Athens) and the Roman Empire. Their position on the total number of Roman slaves is clearly laid out and lies within the span of scholarly opinion. They opt, however, for a very high estimate of the number of slaves for classical Greece, and Athens in particular: "In certain cities of classical Greece, slavery reached 50% of the population, maybe even more" (65). This is the result of an attempt (misguided in my opinion) to rescue Athenaios' reporting of Ctesicle's 400,000 slaves at Athens (42-45).5 Andeau and Descat believe that this figure reflects a census conducted by Demetrious of Phaleron in 317 BC that counted the number of household members, later misunderstood as oiketai, slaves (42-44). This number of household members would imply 200,000- 250,000 slaves at Athens (44), a suspiciously high number even for the peak of Athens' fifth-century empire and wealth and even less plausible in the late fourth century, shortly after the disastrous defeat in the Lamian War.

"Slavery and agriculture" treats topics such as agricultural slaves, peculium and praepositio, and the extent to which classical antiquity was marked by a "slave economy." Much of the chapter is shaped by the concerns of Marxist historiography, long influential in the study of ancient slavery. It offers a clear and concise critical introduction to this perspective, which is still valuable even in the light of the insights of recent economic historians of slavery, who have tended to deploy concepts from classical economic theory.6

"The slave in the household and city" is a long and amorphous chapter, as one might guess from its title. It includes sections on, for example, "Familia Rustica and Familia Urbana"; the ambiguous position of slaves as officially excluded from civic life but playing a role nonetheless; and even a short section on justifications and criticisms of slavery. In this, Andreau and Descat tentatively connect Stoicism's insistence that the legal categories of slave and free masked a continuum of slavery with a putative increase in manumission and naturalization of slaves at Athens beginning in the fourth century (133).

The penultimate chapter, "Escaping slavery," considers flight, revolt, and manumission. Andreau and Descat succinctly cover each of these phenomena in Greek and Roman contexts and bring up key debates and striking evidence. I am skeptical, however, about whether we actually know that flight was "the most common route to escape" (138), i.e., more common than manumission. The book concludes with a chapter on "Slavery at the end of the Western Empire," which treats topics such as the hypothesized decline in slavery, coloni, and Christian attitudes towards slavery—on the last of which topics they stake out a plausible middle ground between anti-clerical and apologetic treatments (164-7). Andreau and Descat conclude that "Despite the changes and various official measures, slavery in the fourth century CE was no different from that of the preceding centuries . . . It is during the High Middle Ages that more significant changes took places and that Western Europe abandoned the slave society for good" (168).

As I read this book I disagreed, sometimes strongly, with many statements, conceptions, and arguments. Sometimes I ended up modifying my opinions, but my positive impression overall was more a matter of how much I learned. Whether by a telling piece of inscriptional evidence—e.g., an epitaph for a master killed by his slave (140)—or by a insightful treatment of a slave in poetry or by Marxist economics, I found that my knowledge of ancient slavery was increased and deepened by this little book.


1.   By way of full disclosure, I have begun work on a book on Greek and Roman slavery for Blackwell-Wiley. Its projected completion is several years away.
2.   Niall McKeown, Classical Review 60.1 (2010) 180. For example, "When the poet Horace writes: 'I am in the habit of going for walks alone,' we hear, five lines later, that he is with one of his three slaves" (95). But there is no reference to tell the reader where Horace writes this.
3.   For example, Andeau and Descat claim that "A slave does not acquire the full status of freedman overnight; intermediate steps precede final 'liberation.' This is why in the third century BCE the philosopher Chrysippus still called the freedman a 'slave'"(150). Given the ubiquity of the concept of freedom in Stoic philosophy and their insistence that only the wise man is truly free—in contrast to freedmen, who suffered a reputation for materialism—I was skeptical of Andreau and Descat's claim that Chrysippus' point about freedman concerned their legal status and not the slavery of (almost) all humans. If they are referring to Chrysippi Fragmenta Moralia #353 in Von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta III = Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 267b then my suspicions are correct.
4.   Brill's New Jacoby 566 F 11a=Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 264c-d
5.   FGrH 245 F 1 = Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 272c
6.   For example, see the illuminating articles by Walter Scheidel: "Real Slave Prices and the Relative Cost of Slave Labour in the Greco-Roman World," Ancient Society 35 (2005) 1-17 and "The Comparative Economics of Slavery in the Greco-Roman World," in Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern, edited by Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari (Cambridge 2008) 105-26.

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