Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Slavery and Society at Rome

Keith Bradley
Slavery and Society at Rome
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994, pp. 202, £12.95

THE EXTENT to which classical civilisation can truly be defined as ‘slave society’ continues to vex ancient historians, and this contribution helps to take us a little deeper into the problem.

On the question as to whether Roman society can be correctly described as based upon slavery, the author of this book is of the opinion that if we restrict this definition to those societies in which slaves amounted to over 20 per cent of the population, then historically there have only ever been five that fit the bill – Brazil, the Caribbean, the USA, Athens and Roman Italy (p. 12). He quotes M.I. Finley approvingly that in Italy ‘slaves dominated, and virtually monopolised, large-scale production in both the countryside and the urban sector’ (p. 13). But even if Italy itself does so qualify, the number of its slaves being some two or three million during the reign of Augustus, or between 33 and 40 per cent of the population (pp. 12, 30), this high figure is certainly not true of the richer and more densely inhabited parts of the empire further east. Even so, he believes that ‘a pattern of slave ownership is apparent in fact which suggests that in the central period of its history Rome should properly be termed a slave society’ (p. 12).

‘But what does it mean to describe Rome this way?’, he asks. ‘In what sense was Rome a slave society?’ (p. 12) By concentrating on the general impact of slavery on society, and on what it felt like to be a slave, he moves the argument on from where it stands at the moment, bogged down in purely legal and economic definitions: ‘Once Roman slavery is approached as a social institution in which the economic aspect, though important, was subsidiary, it becomes possible to appreciate the vast amount of time and space in which the Romans were conscious of the presence of slavery among them and of the impact slavery made upon their culture.’ (p. 16)

There is material a-plenty illustrating the attitudes of the possessing classes, and it is well marshalled and coherently organised here. But for the other side of the story ‘the historian of Roman slavery is at a special disadvantage’, comments Dr Bradley, ‘for although a great volume of information is on hand it is all subject to the fundamental flaw that there is no surviving record, if indeed any existed, of what life in slavery was like from a slave’s point of view’ (p. 7). Whether he does succeed in his task of reconstructing this by drawing analogies from the experience of slavery in modern times in the American south, the Caribbean or Brazil, I leave to others to judge. Certainly it is a worthwhile exercise, but doubt must remain as to whether it is a valid one. For example, he notes that in the ancient world ‘the fundamental distinction between slavery and freedom affected everyone’ (p. 72), but modern slavery in the new world was a secondary outgrowth of capitalism, in which the predominant mode of production was wage labour, and this tension must have had a massive impact upon slave consciousness in the Americas by calling into question the legitimacy of the institution as a whole. Similarly, capitalism’s drive to maximise production for a world market gives it a far more dynamic thrust than the operations of even the largest latifundia, which must also have had its impact upon work organisation, as well as upon consciousness. So that although Dr Bradley is to be congratulated on his endeavour, we must continue to be on our guard about accepting parallels drawn from other times, other places, and other social systems.

And although the book well catalogues the resentment of what it was to be a slave, and accepts that ‘exploitation was resisted in a variety of ways’, it denies the existence of class struggle as such because ‘there never developed among the slave population a sense of common identity – or class consciousness – that led to an ideological impulse to produce radical change in society’ (p. 72), and Ste Croix’s contention that ‘class consciousness’ is ‘not necessarily a requirement of class struggle’ is curtly dismissed (n20, p. 73). We can only answer to this from a Marxist standpoint that whilst exploitative societies are as old as civilisation itself, of these only capitalism is a total entity that produces that acute polarisation between the classes that leads to generalised class consciousness in any case. In that sense class society, and class consciousness along with it, themselves undergo development in history. Capitalism alone is a worldwide system that destroys, undermines and incorporates all other class formations completely into its structure, whereas previous societies – feudal, slave or Asiatic – are less polarised, less dynamic, more restricted geographically, and can coexist for centuries along with other forms of social organisation. We can hardly expect peasants or slaves to have the class consciousness of the industrial proletariat. Moreover, however little its victims are aware of it, class conflict certainly goes on in our society, and the same may well be true of previous ones.

But whatever unease we may feel about the assumptions behind it, this book is a thoroughly worthwhile undertaking, and richly deserves the close consideration of those who are serious about understanding the broad lines of historical development.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011