The Medieval Review 10.03.27

Rotman, Youval. Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 307. $35 ISBN 978-0-674-03611-6. .

Reviewed by:

Cameron M Sutt
Austin Peay State University

Youval Rotman's book is both an interesting and an important work. Interesting because it covers a period frequently ignored when discussing slavery--Byzantium from the seventh through the eleventh century. Important because the period in question was one of significant cultural changes, and these changes allowed Rotman the opportunity to analyze their effects upon slavery in the eastern Mediterranean. The result is a reminder that slavery was not a static institution.

Rotman begins his work with a discussion of the theories regarding the nature of slavery, and he demonstrates how typical definitions of slavery tend to rely upon the placement of slavery in opposition to freedom. Thus Moses Finley determined classical Athens and Rome to be slave societies where freedom was equated with citizenship. Out of this paradigm, Rotman argues, come the social stratification models of slavery where levels of unfreedom are measured according to their distance from the idea of freedom. Rotman notes that modern historians have frequently projected ideas of republican citizenship upon their definitions of slavery. The problem with defining slavery in terms of its relationship to freedom is that while that approach may work for republican societies, it does not adequately describe autocratic societies. The world of Byzantium is a perfect example of such a society. In autocratic societies all are in some way "less free" than their ruler and the idea of freedom is an artificial construction. Hence, Rotman argues that slavery should be regarded, in part, as a civil status. At the same time, slavery should be seen as a social relationship. The submission owed by slaves was termed douleia, but douleia, like the Latin equivalent, servitium also described the submission owed by other groups of unfree indicating that slavery was viewed as one social relation among many. Rotman rightly argues that it is a mistake to characterize forms of unfreedom along a hierarchical scale as we frequently do. Instead, we should view the dependency of groups such as coloni as a different social relationship than that of the slave.

In the second chapter, Rotman describes how the changing geopolitical environment drastically affected the attitudes towards slaves in Byzantium. Roman law regarding war captives stemmed from the attitude that those submitting to capture rather than death forfeited the honor due to a freeman and therefore deserved the enslavement that ensued from captivity. Such an ideology could only be supported when warfare generally resulted in victory. With the Arab conquests of the seventh century, Byzantium found itself in a decidedly different situation, and the law regarding the enslavement of captives evolved as a result. The religious nature of the wars with the Arabs led to movements aimed at ransoming Byzantine captives as acts of Christian duty. The increasing connection of Christianity with the Byzantine state combined with the increasing number of Byzantines who found themselves captives of Muslims meant that ransoming and exchanging war captives became imperial policy. The validity of the marriages of these captives also contributed to the changes in imperial policy toward them. If captives were married at the time of their capture and then found themselves back within the Empire through trade, the question arose as to whether their marriage was still valid since their legal status had changed. The solution by the eighth century was to allow those captives reintroduced into Byzantine territory to regain their freedom and therefore their marriage. By the tenth century, the Byzantine state had adapted to geopolitical realities to the extent that it entered into international treaties in which captured Byzantine nationals were no longer to be considered slaves.

The remainder of the second chapter focuses on the origins of slaves within the Empire and the effects of the changing political landscape from the sixth to the eleventh century. Here Rotman argues that rather than thinking of trade as merely a Mediterranean phenomenon with Constantinople at the periphery, we should view Constantinople as the center of a vast trade network from the western Mediterranean to the Baltic and even Red Seas. Byzantine policies had a significant effect upon trade routes, including the trade in slaves. The Radhaniyya, for example appears to have avoided Constantinople in order to avoid paying the customs imposed there. In the slave trade too, Byzantine policy shifts were influential. As the alliance between Russia and Byzantium grew, Russian traders replaced Bulgars in the Black Sea region, and Russians became key suppliers of slaves from the tenth century. Rotman also shows how Byzantine policies vis-à-vis Venetian traders were influential in the Adriatic.

The third chapter begins with a discussion about the nature of the terminology for slaves during the period. While doulos and oiketes consistently referred to slaves in legal documents, hagiographical documents showed some variation. That is, both terms could be used to refer to slaves and non-slaves in hagiography. Rotman takes this as indication "that in Byzantine society during the era concerned, there were nonslaves with the same economic role as slaves; the literature presents them in similar social positions..." [87] This change in usage coincides with a general change in emphasis in which the relationship between master and subordinate is more important than that between master and slave, and Rotman develops this idea more fully in chapter four.

What was particularly interesting to me in chapter three was the discussion on the role slaves played in artisanal as well as agricultural life. Rotman very successfully demonstrates that the use of slaves in business provided important advantages to their owners. First of all, wage-workers (misthioi) could only be hired for thirty days legally, but there was no such restriction placed upon the use of slaves. Also, slaves could be set up as shop foremen with only the backing of their master required whereas if the master made himself the foreman, he needed five guarantors. In addition, masters could get around rules forbidding them from entering more than one industry by placing slaves as the foremen of their various shops. Finally, the use of slaves as foremen had the advantage of allowing masters to absorb punishments for breaking the law more easily. For example, if a slave were in charge of the shop and the law were broken, the slave was to be confiscated as punishment while if a freeman were in charge of his business, he faced a fine that was three to four times the cost of the slave.

As for the presence of agricultural slaves, Rotman argues against the general trend that holds that slaves were not significant in the countryside. The Rural Code, the Marciana Treatise, and hagiography all indicate that slaves were used by small landholders, but they appear absent on the lands of the powerful, lands that were rented to paroikoi. The absence of slaves from documents of tax exemptions and cadastre registers can be explained by the fact that tax agents had no interest in the means of farming.

There follows then a discussion of the role of freedmen in the countryside. Rotman has shown that upon emancipation, freedmen remained in the "house" oikos of their master who then referred to the freedmen as "my men" anthropoi mou. The oikos of course did not refer to the physical domicile or estate but rather to the unit of persons connected through ties of social obligation. Remaining within his master's oikos, the freedman received benefits that he would not have had if he had simply left. As one of the "men" of his master, the freedman received material aid, usually by staying in the home of his master.

The last chapter focuses on the changing perception of the slave during the period. Rotman argues that beginning in the ninth century, a shift occurred in which slaves came to be perceived more as people than as objects. One factor in this change was the repeated insertion of the church into the slave-master relationship. Acts of emancipation began to occur in the church and on the occasion of baptism. The enforcement of the law of asylum also contributed. Any slave seeking refuge in an ecclesiastical institution was to be accepted as part of that institution. While the patristic age emphasized the importance of slaves obeying their masters and held the slave-master relationship to be the focal point of the slaves' attention, the ninth century saw the beginning of a shift. No longer was the master-slave relationship the most important one. In its place was the God-slave relationship. Literary sources from the period began to portray slaves as more than merely objects or literary props. Instead, slaves appear in hagiography as heroes and agents, and the term psukharion, or "small soul," came to be commonly used to refer to slaves. Rotman holds that the greatest effect upon the change in social position of slaves was the intrusion of the public authorities, and especially the emperor, into the affairs of slave holders. This intervention coincided with the increasing role of the emperor as God's representative on earth. Thus, the emperor inserted himself into the God-slave relationship, so that the slave in effect came to be considered an imperial, rather than private, subject.

Rotman's work is important though not without problems. It makes for difficult going at points, and I do not believe this is the result of the translator. The reader would be well served by more significant chapter summaries and transitions. Nevertheless, the content makes it well worth the effort. Rotman fills a gap in the study of slavery by addressing changes in slavery in Byzantium during the medieval period, and even more importantly, he supplies a fresh theoretical approach that perhaps clarifies the study of slavery in autocratic societies.