The best books about Roman slavery

Who am I?

I'm the Director of Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge University. My research looks at Roman cultural history, with a focus on history "from below," meaning that I'm most interested in ordinary Romans, slaves and the poor. There have been thirty-five translations of my books into sixteen languages. I come from a modest background and was the first in my family to go to university. I found moving up the social ladder a bewildering and sometimes terrifying experience. Classics back then was still an elite subject, dominated by people from wealthy backgrounds. My research interests have always reflected my fascination with those at the bottom of the social ladder.


I wrote...

The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx

By Jerry Toner,

Book cover of The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx

What is my book about?

My book provides a clear and simple manual for managing slaves the Roman way. Full of details of the reality of ancient slavery, its shows how the Roman world, for all its apparent familiarity, was almost casually shocking.

I wrote it in the guise of Marcus Sidonius Falx, a Roman of noble birth, because I wanted to get across how normal slavery was back then. I also wanted to expose how dreadful it was from the inside. My book is based on lots of original sources to show all the details, like how they bought slaves and then got the best from them. It talks about what made a good slave, how you punished bad slaves, whether you could have sex with them and how you set them free.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Aesop Without Morals: The Famous Fables and a Life of Aesop

Jerry Toner Why did I love this book?

You've probably heard of the Aesop fables, which were written so that slaves could speak the truth to their masters in disguised terms. The Life of Aesop is an ancient novel length version of the escapades of the slave. Potbellied, snub-nosed and bandy-legged, his openly sexual behaviour broke all the rules of ancient life, which generates much of the humour. He is a trickster who wins small, temporary victories based on an intimate knowledge of how the powerful operate. He works constantly to invert the social order and even though he loses in the end it is only to overwhelming odds. The translation can be found in Daly, L. W. (ed.), Aesop Without Morals: The Famous Fables and a Life of Aesop.

By Lloyd W. Daly, Grace Muscarella (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aesop Without Morals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here are the familiar Fables of Aesop--moralistic pap for school children for so many hundred of years that it is almost impossible to think of them in any other light. But Lloyd W. Daly, prominent educator and classicist, now presents the Fables in a new light--as adult literature, as an important and telling expression of Greek creative genius.


Book cover of Conquerors and Slaves

Jerry Toner Why did I love this book?

Keith Hopkins was Professor of Ancient History when I was a student and his brilliant courses on ancient papyrus evidence made me want to do a PhD. I then fell out with him big-time but his book on how the Roman slave system worked is still an inspiration. In incredibly clear language he spells out how the slaves generated by conquest were recycled into the broader economic system in a way that seems obvious.

By Keith Hopkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conquerors and Slaves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The enormous size of the Roman empire and the length of time it endured call for an understanding of the institutions which sustained it. In this book, Keith Hopkins, who is both classicist and sociologist, uses various sociological concepts and methods to gain new insights into how traditional Roman institutions changed as the Romans acquired their empire. He examines the chain reactions resulting from increased wealth; various aspects of slavery, especially manumission and the cost of freedom; the curious phenomenon of the political power wielded by eunuchs at court; and in the final chapter he discusses the Roman emperor's divinity…


Book cover of Slavery and Society at Rome

Jerry Toner Why did I love this book?

Imagine slaves and we generally think of the workers on the cash-crop plantations of the British Caribbean or the southern states of antebellum America. Roman slavery was in many ways a more complicated institution and owning slaves was as much about status as it was about economic exploitation. Bradley's excellent book goes into tremendous detail but always manages to do so with amazing clarity. Definitely the best introduction to a difficult other world.

By Keith Bradley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slavery and Society at Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book, first published in 1994, is concerned with discovering what it was like to be a slave in the classical Roman world, and with revealing the impact the institution of slavery made on Roman society at large. It shows how and in what sense Rome was a slave society through much of its history, considers how the Romans procured their slaves, discusses the work roles slaves fulfilled and the material conditions under which they spent their lives, investigates how slaves responded to and resisted slavery, and reveals how slavery, as an institution, became more and more oppressive over time…


Book cover of Slavery in the Late Roman World, Ad 275-425

Jerry Toner Why did I love this book?

Roman slavery existed for a thousand years. We usually think that it was simply the result of empire, which saw millions of prisoners-of-war enslaved by their Roman conquerors. But slavery continued to play a core role in Roman society long after the empire had stopped expanding. Harper's detailed book shows how pervasive savery was to Roman culture, so much so that Christians thought it was normal too.

By Kyle Harper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slavery in the Late Roman World, Ad 275-425 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Capitalizing on the rich historical record of late antiquity, and employing sophisticated methodologies from social and economic history, this book reinterprets the end of Roman slavery. Kyle Harper challenges traditional interpretations of a transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, arguing instead that a deep divide runs through 'late antiquity', separating the Roman slave system from its early medieval successors. In the process, he covers the economic, social and institutional dimensions of ancient slavery and presents the most comprehensive analytical treatment of a pre-modern slave system now available. By scouring the late antique record, he has uncovered a wealth of…


Book cover of Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine

Jerry Toner Why did I love this book?

Peter Garnsey was my PhD supervisor and he is a generous soul with a love of big topics. This book gives an overview of the many ways in which the ancients thought about slavery. It is true that there was no Roman abolition movement, but many ancient writers thought deeply about slavery and the issues involved. Sometimes they justified it, other times they criticised it, but throughout slavery was seen as unavoidable. The Christians called their God “dominus” just as slaves would have done their master.

By Peter Garnsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study, unique of its kind, asks how slavery was viewed by the leading spokesmen of Greece and Rome. There was no movement for abolition in these societies, nor a vigorous debate, such as occurred in antebellum America, but this does not imply that slavery was accepted without question. Dr Garnsey draws on a wide range of sources, pagan, Jewish and Christian, over ten centuries, to challenge the common assumption of passive acquiescence in slavery, and the associated view that, Aristotle apart, there was no systematic thought on slavery. The work contains both a typology of attitudes to slavery ranging…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Slavery, the economy, and Aristotle?

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