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Roman Slavery and the Question of Race

Those who sell slaves must state the natio [place of origin] of each at the sale; for the natio of a slave frequently encourages or deters a prospective buyer; hence it is advantageous to know his natio, since it is reasonable to suppose that some slaves are good because they originate from a tribe that has a good reputation, and others bad because they come from a tribe that is rather disreputable.

(Edict of the Aediles, Digest, trans. Alan Watson)

As the Roman law on the sale of slaves makes clear, the ancient Romans paid attention to the origin of the slaves whom they bought, sold, and used in their houses, farms, and businesses. The term, “origin,” in Latin is natio:  the Oxford Latin Dictionary tells its readers that natio can mean origin, people, nation, or race.  Which noun a translator chooses will connote particular meanings for readers of ancient Roman texts in the twenty-first century, especially in the context of slavery.  Although we acknowledge that slavery existed in places and cultures other than the southern United States, in particular Greco-Roman antiquity, popular historical imagination usually associates slavery with race—in particular with the millions of black Africans shipped to the Americas from the seventeenth century on.  In effect, slave is associated with black.  While the Romans had clear notions about non-Romans, other cultures, and even different body types and facial features, they lacked the notions of race that developed in Europe and the Americas from the fifteenth century to the present: that is, a notion that associates a particular set of characteristics (usually deeply discrediting for all but whites) with a skin  color and particular physiogamy.   

This is not to say that the Romans never saw a black African or that some slaves in the Roman empire were black. Roman paintings and statuary, like a small statuette from the third century CE, which accompanies this article, depict men and women with African features.  Currently in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France

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