THE MATERIAL LIFE OF ROMAN SLAVES

By Sandra R. Joshel and Lauren Hackworth Petersen

CUP (2014) h/b 286pp £65 (ISBN 9780521191647)

 The authors begin with an accusation: that we, archaeologists, historians or tourists, by concentrating on the more obviously informative parts of a site, have come to see those sites only from the perspective of the owner, or of one of their guests. As visitors ourselves, we move from frescoes to mosaic fragments to garden features; we do not consider the small unlabelled rooms and connecting corridors. And even when slaves feature in those frescoes, or toiled in the workrooms, we miss the chance to imagine how they might have actually lived in the space we share with them. Instead we bemoan the paucity of evidence, literary and archaeological, for the life of slaves and resign ourselves to their oblivion.

This book reveals how much is to be gained by looking differently. Its method, clearly set out in the introduction (and restated succinctly at the very end), is to examine the ruins of streets and buildings, in this case those of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding areas, and at Ostia, from the point of view of owners who were trying to control their slaves and, critically, from the point of view of slaves who were trying to make the most of their constrained circumstances. The ‘master strategies’ of the owners are illuminated both by their complaints about slave behaviour and by the laws and agricultural manuals which, albeit from differing periods, define the constraints they imposed. The ‘slave tactics’ are derived from whatever it would take to resist the master strategies in a particular context. Thus the owners were concerned about, among much else, laziness, truancy, intrusiveness and negligence—and choreographed the slaves’ movements to ensure the most effective supervision and prevention. The slaves, on the other hand, would be seeking opportunities to evade that supervision and grab a rest, prolong an errand, filch some of the bread they were baking or vent their frustration by breaking a tool. From the layouts and features of the buildings or streets we can begin to imagine that choreography and its leakage.

The book then applies its method to four different settings—the town house, the street, the workshop and the country villa. In each case, the authors examine the topography before considering it in action—a banquet at the House of Menander has the slaves carrying food to the diners, shirking and escaping from the diners’ line of sight. We discover the series of much lower doorways that indicate a ‘slave route’ and the temptations to loiter that staircases and store rooms, above and below ground, presented. The street, with its regular or festival clamour, offered a different range of opportunities for the slave fetching water, or going to a shop or a temple, or slipping out through a back doorway: taverns were not choosy about their customers. The chapter on the workshop describes the stages of baking and fulling in detail, to discuss how these might have been managed or deliberately mismanaged by those shackled to their place, and to digress onto the potent association of slaves with donkeys. The chapter on villas moves from large out-of-town houses such as the villa at Oplontis, where we meet the service corridor marked with (it is conjectured) go-faster stripes, to villae rusticae or farms, perhaps run by a bailiff rather than the owner himself, and the estate around them. Here the owner seems the ghost rather than the large body of slaves needed for the operation.

The authors are aware of the limitations of their approach—their picture is of a few particular localities; small buildings, where the slaves and the owners were crowded together, offer few clues to how the slaves lived, if indeed there were any slaves at all; different times of day would have meant different activities and different choreography; the number of slaves working on a given task in a shop is hard to gauge. To this one might add that the derivation of slaves’ behaviour from complaints about, or restraints upon, their misbehaviour automatically generates a stand-off which might not always have existed; and the process of deduction which the authors apply can seem repetitive, though never dull. Even given a few caveats, the result is nothing less than a wake-up call: it demonstrates that, in making slaves vanish from the buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we have in fact taken our cue from their owners. The great merit of this study is to restore to us, at least in part, the eyes of a manager of slaves, to give us a sense of the uneasy relationship between the citizens of Campania and their workforce, and to enable and induce us to interpret archaeological remains from the slaves’ standpoint.

The book is magnificently produced: there are copious plans and photographs, many taken by the authors, closely married to the text. Bring a magnifying glass, however, for some of the numbering. The notes are comprehensive, as is the index.

Christopher Tanfield

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