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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: September 2011

18 - Slavery and Roman material culture



At its best, Roman material culture brings a dimension to historical inquiry that written sources cannot by recapturing the texture of daily life and by providing a unique angle from which to interpret cultural attitudes and behaviour. This is especially important for Roman slavery since there are no slave narratives or plantation account books as there are from the antebellum American South, nor the vivid descriptions by contemporary commentators of slave systems'in Brazil or the Caribbean. In Roman archaeology, where the framework provided by historical texts has always prevailed over theory, the absence of written documentation makes the task of seeing slaves in the archaeological record particularly challenging. Furthermore, the value of material culture is defined by both the quality of its preservation and the nature of the analysis that is brought to bear by scholars. Both factors have had critical consequences for the contribution material culture has made to the study of Roman slavery. At first glance, when compared to other aspects of Roman society and to the ubiquity and economic importance of slaves, Roman material culture offers relatively scant direct evidence. Much of this is due to the poor quality of housing, clothing and other goods used by slaves that reduces their chances of survival in the archaeological record and makes it impossible to reconstruct, for example, slave religion, diet, or other aspects of a slave subculture.