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22 - Slavery in the late Roman world

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2011

Cam Grey
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Keith Bradley
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
Paul Cartledge
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

THE STATE OF THE QUESTION

The fate of slaves and slavery in the late Roman world is a subject that may be taken as a weather vane for prevailing trends in scholarship concerning late antiquity. The late third to fifth centuries were long regarded as an awkward appendage to the classical period, or a prequel to the mediaeval world, to be dealt with swiftly in both cases. Surveys of slaves and slavery tended to follow suit. Standard accounts of slavery in the Roman period characteristically ended with the Severans, leaving the Dominate well alone. When the late empire was discussed, it was as a period during which numbers of slaves declined drastically, either as a result of a significant reduction in external sources, or as an attendant to the more general economic stagnation of the period. The most elegant statement of this was Marc Bloch's (1947) posthumous article ‘Comment et pourquoi finit l'esclavage antique’, which argued for a growing tendency to settle slaves on land as tenants, rather than in the slave gangs of the early imperial period, and a coalescence of this group of agriculturalists with the large numbers of formerly free peasant proprietors and tenants, whose condition declined to one little short of slavery in the period. Similarly, Marxist scholars focused upon the problem of the transition from the slave to the feudal mode of production. The late Roman empire was considered a period during which the inherent limits of slave productivity became increasingly apparent.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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