Book Review: Slaves And Slavery In Ancient Rome

Slaves And Slavery In Ancient Rome, by Zvi Yavetz

What is it that you think of when you think of slavery in ancient Rome?  There are admittedly several angles that you could think of, but in judging this book it is worthwhile to note that the author of this volume is focused on the subject of slave revolts.  The most famous of the slave revolts in antiquity was, of course, the Spartacus war during the late Roman Republic, and that is one of the four slave revolts during that time period that forms part of the core material to this book.  There are, of course, many other questions about slavery in ancient Rome that one might wish to ask but that material is not covered here, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, if you are looking for a work that gives some information about the reasons for slave revolts and how they were conducted during the period between 136 and 60BC, this book has a lot to offer, and offers indeed a bit of a mystery to the reader in the form of the question as to why such revolts ceased if slavery itself continued beyond this time.  How is it that the late Republic was a period where slave revolts were so common relative to the rest of Roman history?

This book is between 150 and 200 pages long and is divided into three sections.  The book begins with a preface that discusses the importance of knowing about slavery in the Roman world as well an introduction that discusses the debate over the reasons why slave revolts are limited to such a small period during Roman history and how it was that slave revolts were avoided earlier and later.  The core of the book consists of a discussion of the primary sources in ancient history relating to four slave revolts, namely the Sicilian Slave revolt of 136-132BC, the war against Aristonicus and his forces in the effort to stop the establishment of Roman rule over Anatolia, the Sicilian slave revolt of 104-100BC, and the war against Spartacus.  This is the core of the book, and it consists at least some information that is not directly related to the wars but instead sets a context for the conflicts and the political and social state of the areas.  The book then closes with a very lengthy postscript that discusses debates and issues in the study of slaves and slavery in such a fashion that it deals with politics and other uninteresting matters.

Admittedly, this book contains more material than just the material on the ancient sources regarding slave revolts.  It seems unlikely that many readers will be more interested in the turgid discussion of the contemporary political arguments over the history of slavery and slave revolts in the ancient world than in what the ancients had to say about the subject themselves.  Therefore it is unsurprising that the core of this book consists of competent translations from Greek and Latin relating to slave revolts that provide the historical context that anyone would have to use when discussing the subject today as a classicist or ancient historian.  One of the advantages to the reader of becoming well acquainted with this subject material is having a grasp of what is known from the writings of the ancient world as a way of keeping one’s fancy in check and also being able to note when a historian is seeking to substitute their own a priori assumptions about slavery based on their own ideology for what is actually present in the historical record.  Knowing the historical record allows one to hold others accountable for how they act with regards to it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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