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Slavery in Late Antiquity

Jon Kyle Harper, Harvard University, Junior Fellow 2005–2006

During my fellowship, I succeeded in completing the research phase of my dissertation on slavery. When I started the term, I had written four chapters on the history of law and slavery—the first half of my dissertation. The second half of my dissertation analyzes the social role of slavery. From a research perspective, it is a much more ambitious and laborious undertaking. Dumbarton Oaks has allowed me to pursue a broad research strategy that would hardly be possible in any other environment.

I set myself the task of using the electronic databanks of ancient texts to search for slaves in late antiquity. The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and the Library of Latin Texts technology allowed me to create instantly indices that gave me virtually every reference to slavery from the period of my research. I have gone through over one hundred thousand references to slavery in late antique texts. John Chrysostom, for example, used some form of the word “slave” eight thousand times in his extant corpus. Because of Dumbarton Oaks and the electronic resources, I have been able to collect an amount of useful raw data that I hope can illuminate the importance and nature of slavery in the Late Roman Empire.

The next phase will be to turn this store of data into readable chapters. The late antique witnesses have shown me that slavery was a vital institution, woven into the fabric of late antiquity’s most important social institutions, above all the family. I plan to write three chapters on the place of slavery in the late antique family. One will address the relation between sexuality and slavery. I believe that the transition from a society whose sexual ethics were moored in the workings of status to a society that preached a Christian, spiritualized notion of sexuality was a slow, if fundamental, part of the transformation of the ancient world. My other chapters on the family will focus on discipline and labor, that is, how master-slave relations worked and how slaves were used in Late Antiquity.