Transformative impact of the slave trade on the Roman World, 580 - 720
MacMaster, Thomas Jarvis
According to its first great historian, the story of the English Church began in a street market in Rome sometime around 580. There, Bede reported, a young cleric named Gregory joined a large crowd examining what newly arrived merchants had to sell: Dicunt, quia die quadam cum, aduenientibus nuper mercatoribus, multa uenalia in forum fuissent conlata, multi ad emendum confluxissent, et ipsum Gregorium inter alios aduenisse, ac uidisse inter alia pueros uenales positos candidi corporis, ac uenusti uultus, capillorum quoque forma egregia. Quos cum aspiceret, interrogauit, ut aiunt, de qua regione uel terra essent adlati. Dictumque est, quia de Brittania insula, cuius incolae talis essent aspectus. The conversation continued as Gregory quizzed them regarding their religion and homeland, including the part usually summarized as “non Angli, sed Angeli!” The slaves were from Deira and their king was named Ælla; Gregory made further puns on these. Afterward, he went to the Bishop of Rome, begging to be sent as a missionary to the English. Though the Pope was willing to send him, the Roman people would not allow Gregory to leave the city. Eventually, Gregory himself became Pope and dispatched Augustine and his companions to fulfil his ambition. Gregory’s encounter with the angelic slaves has long been one of the most familiar stock-images of English history even though, in the principal source, Bede himself warns that he cannot testify to its veracity as he only knows the story from oral accounts. However, the very strength of an oral tradition makes it seem likely that the idea of English slaves being sold in Rome did not surprise Bede or his audience while, as Pope, Gregory himself wrote instructing his representatives in Marseille to purchase English slaves there. Other written evidence demonstrates that, at the end of the sixth century, there was a movement of slaves from the Anglo- Saxon kingdoms southwards to Gaul as well as a further movement of slaves from Gaul into the Mediterranean world. Whether or not Gregory ever actually had the reported conversation, it was widely seen as likely that slaves from Britain would be offered for sale in Rome. This slave trade across Gaul, as well as a second route along the Atlantic coasts of western Europe, brought a steady supply of goods from the developed economies of the eastern and southern Mediterranean to these western lands while, in return, the peoples of those regions exported both raw materials and other humans. At the time of Gregory’s papacy, this system of exchange linked all the parts of the former Roman Empire. Within little more than a century, however, it had all but disappeared. That trade within the former boundaries of the Roman Empire and its disappearance in the period between the time of Gregory’s visit to the market (roughly 580) and Bede’s recording of it (sometime before 731) is the subject of this thesis. Investigating the slave trade in the long seventh century in the post-Roman world will involve investigations into both slavery and commerce in a period in which neither was static. Instead, the seventh century was an era of rapid and profound change in many things, not least of which were transformations within the slave trade itself. Yet, the slave trade, as argued in this thesis, can be seen as providing a critical framework for understanding the economic and cultural developments of the entire period. The slave trade and its fluctuations may even have been a driving force in some of the enormous social changes of the time that continue to shape the present world. Four principal theses will be advanced and supported through the combination of a reading of the written sources (primarily, though not exclusively, those in Arabic, Greek, and Latin), an examination of relevant archaeological data, and the use of analogous evidence from other periods. These four propositions may be seen as the basis of the overall argument demonstrating 1) that slaves were numerous and that they played a crucial role in the societies of the post-Roman world, 2) that the continuing function of these societies required a greater supply of slaves than could be provided internally, 3) that this resulted in a long-distance slave trade that was a key force in the post-Roman system of exchange in the Mediterranean world, 4) and that the breakdown of this system of trade and of many contacts across the Mediterranean during the seventh century was caused primarily by alterations in the sources of the slave supply of the most developed economies. None of these four has been argued previously though academics have been increasingly examining the pre-modern history of slavery and of the slave trade. Though numerous articles and volumes have looked at particular aspects of slave-systems in the periods immediately before or after, none have examined the slave trading systems of the long seventh century itself. Similarly, those works that do touch on it have been largely concerned with other issues or focussed solely on a single region, whether that is the Byzantine Empire, the British Isles, Spain, Gaul, or the earliest Islamic societies. Older works were similarly limited in geographic scope, with even the broadest concentrating solely on European or Islamic materials. No one has previously attempted to bring together materials from the whole of the post-Roman world in a single coherent account nor has any prior scholarship shown either the ubiquity of slavery in the period or the extent of the slave trade at the time. By putting together these four arguments, an overall thesis that provides an original synthesis and reconciliation between divergent interpretations of the economies of the end of the Roman Empire and the formation of the medieval world will be created.
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