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Handling slaves in the wake of war: a closer look at the Roman slave supply.

Matthieu Abgrall

The significance of military campaigns in the Roman slave supply of the Republic has long been debated with regards to its scale and organization. However, until now, most scholars have focused on aggregate numbers and averages of slaves taken captive per year (Scheidel 2011) and on large but rare transit centers for slaves such as Delos. The scholarly consensus has mostly given preference to large events which are better documented. On the other hand, Welwei 2000 and Ziolkowski 1986 have summarized smaller literary accounts of enslavement in the wake of war and explained to what extent we can use these numbers. Building on this work, I argue in this paper that Roman enslavement events were dealt with primarily at a local level, i.e. that the Roman army most frequently sold slaves locally and close to where they were captured. Only in rarer large events (>10,000 slaves captured) were they transported inter-regionally.

In this paper I employ a statistical approach, examining the diversity of military expeditions according to historical accounts, to show that most operations were small scale. I created a database with all the reported enslavement events and ran several statistical tests, ranging from the study of mean, median value, and standard deviation of my sample to more elaborate regressions. As a result, I am able to map the distribution of the major enslaving campaigns from the first Punic war to roughly the fall of Corinth in 146 B.C.E. and to create a typology of enslavement events. I organize the various categories according to the numbers of slave taken captives, ranging from small events (< 3,000 captives) to large events (> 10,000 captives). This shows that large operations dominate in terms of slaves taken captives, but small scale operations dominate in terms of frequency. Consequently, in this paper I show precisely how statistical tools give us confidence in the fact that we can accurately quantify the frequency of various sized enslavement events while retaining the numbers provided by historical accounts along the lines of the scholars mentioned above. Even if a large number of smaller expeditions did not make it into the historical record, it would not substantially change the overall picture of Roman supply regarding aggregate numbers. In fact, it would reinforce any argument about the small scale nature of most Roman enslaving operations.

This matters because it means that most enslavement operations of the Roman army led to small scale sales on the spot, which in turns informs us about the local nature of slave trade and the individuals (negotiatores, mercatores, lixae) and associations participating in it. It means, for example, that contrary to the traditional image of uprooted slaves in the Roman world, many war captives could have lived within reasonable reach of their original community. These results help us to think anew about the logistics of Roman slavery and the human organization behind it, focusing on smaller communities and smaller scale phenomena and flows of economic resources.

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War, Slavery, and Society in the Ancient World

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