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  • Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World
  • Richard J. Hoffman
Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. By Youval Rotman. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. 307 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Slavery as both a trope and a real human condition existed as a part of the Western world for millennia. While the apostle Paul might have called himself a slave (doulos) of Christ, the metaphor would have been ironic for the Stoic philosopher and erstwhile slave Epictetus. In Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World Youval Rotman picks up the thread of imperial Roman slavery by tracing its development in medieval Byzantium. Rotman's ambitious purpose is to examine Byzantine slavery in terms of economics, politics, social structure, religion, culture, and mentality as it evolved in the six centuries between 527 and the beginning of the twelfth century. Over the course of his work he argues that slavery represented "only one form of unfreedom" (p. 178) in Byzantium, and that although it continued to be economically important over the six hundred years under examination, its nature was modified by civil and ecclesiastical authorities. On the surface this monograph ought to appeal to anyone interested in various forms of dependent labor, ancient or modern, Western or non-Western. Unfortunately, however, Rotman delivers far less than he promises.

On the positive side, Rotman makes contributions to the study of slavery in several areas. First, he places Byzantine slavery within the ever-changing geopolitical space of the Mediterranean and adjacent lands. Although ignoring vernae, individuals born into slavery, Rotman clearly explains the other sources of slaves in these centuries, showing not only how this differed from the Classical Age, but also how the ethnic and religious groups varied over time. His explanation of the role of Christianity in this process is particularly enlightening. For example, the practices for and reasoning behind ransoming Christian slaves laid down in the Byzantine Empire were carried forward to places like Spain well into the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. And second, despite very scant evidence, Rotman shows how slavery remained an economic [End Page 833] force at the same time that the status of the slave began to change, at least legally if not mentally. Thus in the second century c.e. Antoninus Pius tried to protect slaves while simultaneously asserting the owner's almost absolute right over them. But over the course of late Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire, from Constantine I to Leo VI and Alexius I Comnenius, Rotman convincingly argues that the law changes, "making personal power over one's own children, one's own slaves, one's own body, and one's own birth an affair of the state" (p. 176).

Another contribution lies in Rotman's use of evidence. Sources on slavery are notoriously thin and equally slippery to use. Legal materials, for instance, present a somewhat idealized and static picture, while personal letters, like those of a Cicero or a Jefferson, present other problems. One source is almost always absent—that of the slave. Epictetus is one major exception for antiquity, providing as he does insights into a slave become freedman. Despite the scantiness of documents, the Byzantine period does contain some sources that are nearly unique, sources that Rotman uses well. He mines the Radhaniyya, for instance, to create a map for the European and Mediterranean slave trade, supplementing it with other evidence as well. Similarly, he uses the Book of the Prefect to get a picture of the role of slaves in the urban economic life of Constantinople during the reign of Leo VI. And finally, Rotman examines hagiographic sources to explore the changing attitudes by some writers toward slaves in Byzantine society.

In spite of these successes, however, many problems arise in the course of his monograph. First, Rotman has a tendency to draw exaggerated conclusions that neither his evidence nor arguments support. For example, he argues for a "marked change in mentality" (p. 163) regarding slaves: instead of being "presented as a passive agent" (p. 157) and mere objects, they are transformed into active personalities and are perceived as real human beings. This supposed change in mentality is evinced from a very...