Monday, March 10, 2014


Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 288. ISBN 9781107026018. $99.00.

Reviewed by Jason Morris, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site


Slaves to Rome is an ambitious book that seeks to explore the ways in which the Roman ruling elite conceptualized their imperial project. As a study of Roman self-identity, the book is written very much in the spirit of anthropological studies of ancient cultures such as those conducted by Jonathan Hall and Emma Dench.1 However, Lavan has chosen to follow a methodology that draws on a close analysis of specific Latin terms reflecting power relationships embedded in Roman social practices rather than on any complex anthropological theory. This focus on the use of language to illuminate culture, follows the approach taken by John Richardson in his recent study of Roman imperialism.2 The book itself, which evolved out of Lavan's 2008 Cambridge PhD thesis, consists of six thematic chapters with numerous subheadings framed by an introduction and conclusion.

In his introduction, Lavan boldly states that whereas much recent scholarship has focused on the relationship of the provinces to Rome, his project is focused on the senatorial and equestrian orders and the ways they conceptualized their domination or rule over the provinciales. More specifically, Lavan is interested in the tropes of discourse found in Latin literature expressing paradigmatic relationships of power. In order to explore the normative framework within which the Roman ruling elite exercised power and the discourse about imperialism which generated competing visions of empire, he considers a series of metaphors, comparisons and analogies drawn from the study of Roman social relations. As Lavan himself says, to explore Roman power in terms of masters and slaves and clients and patrons is to conceptualize empire in terms of the concrete and familiar power structures of daily life.

The texts employed range from Cicero and Caesar to the second-century CE historians Tacitus and Florus, with occasional excursuses on later Latin literature. With the exceptions of Dio Cassius and the corpus of imperial letters written in Greek, Lavan has chosen to omit nearly all literature written by Greek-speaking members of the Roman world because their conceptualization of Roman imperialism reflects a totally different negotiation of power relationships.

Lavan opens Chapter 1 by showing that while there were a range of terms that Latin authors could use to refer to the population of the empire, the most commonly used word was socii. Writers in the Later Republic and Augustan age, such as Cicero, deployed this generic term alongside more legalistic vocabulary, including: gentes, peregrini, tributarii, stipendiarii, and provinciales to create a rhetorical image of a highly stratified empire with many types of power relationships. But by the second century CE, most authors lost interest in fine distinctions of legal status and simply use the terms provinciales and socii when referring to all non-Italians to create a sense of subordination and exclusivity.

In Chapter 2, Lavan explores the centrality of slavery and mastery to the language of Roman imperialism, by showing how many authors invoked the concept of servire as a metaphor for Roman conquest and control over the provinces. As Lavan says, the verb servire means to enslave, and the concept of slavery was an integral part of Roman society. The metaphors of slavery invoked by Latin authors to describe the subjugation of the provinciales and the repression of revolts against Roman control form a continuum from the explicit to the relatively latent.

Lavan provides a number of excursus on such fascinating topics as the ever-changing concept of libertas in Roman culture, the servile nature of crucifixion as a punishment, and the role of animal metaphors in describing the exploitation of the provinces and provinciales. Perhaps the most significant point in the chapter is Lavan's observation that there were two ways in which Rome pacified her foreign enemies: some were forced to serve as slaves; others were bound by their own sense of moral obligation for Roman benefactions. As he argues, the institution of slavery provided a paradigm for the social condition of those peoples whose relationship with Rome was regulated by the threat of force. While slavery is all-important for this intellectual construct, it is significant that the central parallel to that institution, manumission, is almost totally absent from depictions of the provinces. This absence is surely due to the fact that much of Roman society depended on the activities of slaves and freedmen, but the Roman elite who always had to feel in control, were reluctant to acknowledge it. As Lavan points out, the Roman elite resented being dominated themselves and thus the tropes of domination became increasingly important to those who felt it was their place to rule over others even as their own freedom of action was being curtailed by the person of the emperor.

In Chapter 3, Lavan changes perspective to focus on how Tacitus, in three accounts of provincial resistance reflecting different visions of empire, used the metaphor of slavery to sharply critique Roman society. Each account of provincial resistance forms an individual case-study within the chapter. The three studies are all well-written and full of insights. In spite of this, the chapter itself feels slightly tangential to the books main argument and might be read as an independent essay on Tacitus. As a demonstration of this point, at least part of this chapter has been published as a separate article in the Classical Quarterly.3

In Chapter 4 Lavan returns to the broad themes of Roman imperialism to look at benefactions, the second of the two methods used by the Romans to control their subjects. The Romans used benefactions to create hierarchical relationships and grades of dependence, and within the context of the discourse of power, Roman benefactions always placed a moral obligation on their recipients to reciprocate. The chapter concludes with a close reading of a passage from Pliny'sPanegyricus, which foregrounds the problem of Rome's dependence on resources from the provinces. In this close reading, Lavan shows that Pliny manipulates both language and historical events to reassert Roman dominance.

Chapter 5 discusses the language of clientela. It shows the close relationship between the act of surrender and clientage in Roman culture. Lavan identifies several expressions that the Romans used to signify a foreign people's entry into the Roman sphere of control with in potestatem venire and in fidem venire being the most prominent. He argues that in fidem venire or in fide esse were phrases that directly expressed the concept of a foreign people entering a state of clientage. It is a little disappointing that Lavan does not devote any space to a discussion of the other expressions here, many of which suggest aspects of slavery and domination. The following sections of the chapter show that the language of clientela is almost exclusively found in the context of Ciceronian invective, the narratives of Roman diplomacy found in Livy and in the text of Florus. Lavan considers what might be at stake in the choice between the very specific language of clientela and the more general rhetoric of benefaction and obligation. He concludes by arguing that the language of familial control only becomes part of the discourse on Roman power in the late empire. This argument, while interesting, could have been left for fuller development in a separate article.

Chapter 6 looks at the language used in official documents addressed to the provinciales. Consisting mostly of inscribed letters, these documents reflect a relationship between the emperor or his chosen representatives and individual cities. They focus on the particularities of each city's relationship to the emperor, creating a leveling effect in which hierarchy within the population of the empire reflects a continuum of, more and less, privileged communities. To do this, the letters draw on the long-established language of Greek diplomacy and Roman benefactions. Yet not every exchange or inscription carries this leveling rhetoric. A number of imperial edicts, such as the Augustan edict on extortion from Cyrene, were addressed to the entire population of the empire and used the sharp division of Romans and allies discussed in the first chapter. Documents reflecting the language of mastery are even rarer.4 Documents mentioning the provinciales as being slaves are, as one might expect, almost totally unknown. Lavan provides just one example, Nero's proclamation of independence delivered at the Isthmian Games of 67. Based on Lavan's evidence, it seems clear that the paradigm of enslavement dominated Latin literature even as the language of diplomacy and benefactions dominated imperial pronouncements.

In conclusion, Lavan makes a very substantive contribution to our understanding of Roman history and the role that Latin literature played in the elite's conceptualization and articulation of their imperial experience. However, the book incorporates far more material than seems necessary for its purpose. There are points at which the reader can feel overwhelmed at the shear mass of information packed into this volume. In spite of this, Myles Lavan demonstrates a remarkable ability for drawing out keen insights about Roman culture through a close reading of Latin literature. All students and scholars should engage with Slaves to Rome. The quality of Myles Lavan's scholarship makes it seem all the more regrettable that the publishers have allowed numerous partially bolded letters or words to mar the printed text of an otherwise well produced volume.


1.   Hall, J.M. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture. (Chicago, 2002) BMCR 2004.04.26; Dench, E. Romulus' asylum: Roman identities from the age of Alexander to the age of Hadrian. (Oxford, 2005).
2.   Richardson, J. S. The Language of Empire: Rome and the Idea of Empire from the Third Century BC to the Second Century AD. (Cambridge, 2008).
3.   Lavan, M. "Slavishness in Britain and Rome in Tacitus' Agricola." Classical Quarterly 61.1 (2011), 294-305.
4.   Two examples that are not included in Lavan's otherwise impressive collection are a judicial document from Corsica (CIL 10.7852 = ILS 5947), and a Greek letter of Antoninus Pius addressed to the people of Coronea (SEG 42.411).

1 comment:

  1. I was once told by a Latin teacher that in the writings of the ancient Romans there are no examples of metaphor as a literary device. Plenty of similes, especially in poetry, but no metaphors. His explanation was that the Romans were very practical minded people who took speech and writing literally. Since then, I have kept an eye out, but haven't found anything to disprove what he said. The slavery metaphor invoked by Lavan in describing the ruling Romans' policies towards the provinciales appears [from the review] to be one of attitude, not direct expression.


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