The Roman Slave Community – Enslaved Life in the Ancient World: Britannia and Germania

  • Roth, Ulrike (Principal Investigator)
  • Sandon, Tatjana (Researcher)
  • Morbidoni, Pier Luigi (Researcher)

Project Details


This project creates sizeable datasets and wide-reaching working hypotheses regarding the presence of agency among the enslaved in ancient Rome. Current understanding of Roman slave agency is limited to isolated qualitative observations. Where quantitative analysis has been undertaken, it is either focussed on the city of Rome (ignoring the rest of the vast Roman empire) and/or limited to small sub-sets of data (rendering the results meaningless for wide-reaching conclusion). The present project will focus on the collection of the relevant inscriptional evidence from two provincial sub-sets of manageable, yet sizeable proportion (Britannia; Germania). The published epigraphic corpora are scrutinised for all occurrences of agency on the part of the enslaved – including in the areas of family life, professional activity, religious involvement, master-slave-relations, etc. Unlike other types of Roman evidence (e.g. literary, archaeological), the epigraphic evidence is uniquely equipped to offer insights into enslaved life, being both a socially inclusive medium and one that documents the enslaved voice. The collected data is prepared to populate a FileMakerPro database: all attestations are (multiply) tagged to enable searches for sub-categories (e.g. religious activities; female agency; etc.) in the data. Key sub-data strands will be presented in graphic form. The data analysis is designed to present all the documented family relations, enabling for the first time a complete statistical overview of the legal statuses involved in servile relationships.

Layman's description

What difference does it make for our understanding of slavery if we conceptualise the enslaved as socially isolated and natally alienated or communally networked and embedded in kinship relations? This project addresses this question on the example of Roman slavery. A powerful theory in slavery studies identifies the enslaved as ‘socially dead’ (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death 1982) – deprived of familial and communal ties that are recognised in wider society. Focusing on the social embeddedness and connectivity of the enslaved in ancient Rome, this project challenges the ‘social death’-model of slavery. Analysing the rich (esp. inscriptional) Roman record of (self-driven) interactions and relations among the enslaved as well as with their enslavers widens our perspective of the ‘servile spectrum’: social death is one extreme on that spectrum, matched at the other extreme by social agency and negotiation powers of the type widely associated historically with medieval serfs. But where do socially embedded Roman slaves leave the great historical transformation from ‘Roman’ to ‘medieval’, from slavery to freedom in the Western world – hinged on the assumed differences between ‘slave’ and ‘serf’? In sum, beyond putting current understanding of enslaved life under scrutiny by giving centre stage to the evidence left behind by those subjected to slavery, ‘The Roman Slave Community’ builds the much-needed platform for a radical reorientation of our historical conceptualisation of slavery more broadly. The project will moreover enable a fresh look at a supposedly seminal 'moment' in the history of Europe that is widely seen as documenting a near complete change in slaving practices, i.e. the so-called transformation from the ancient to the medieval world - hitherto framed by our specific historical understanding of the changing nature of slave exploitation in this period. Thus, the project is ultimately focused on the issue of the making of freedom in Western society.
Effective start/end date1/01/1930/06/19


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