MacMaster, Eastern Mediterranean slave supply in post-Roman world

Out of the Wilderness to the Fleshpots of the Nile: Maintaining the eastern Mediterranean slave supply in the post-Roman world

Thomas J. MacMaster (University of Edinburgh)

The eastern Mediterranean lands formed the developed economies of the post-Roman world.  Un-free labourers were required both to mainrain and increase prosperity.  As will be demonstrated, this meant that a regular and reliable supply of slaves was required from outside the region.  Maintaining and securing that supply stood behind many of the trading systems that existed in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman command economy; only the identity of those controlling the slave supply and the sources of slaves themselves fluctuated during the first millennium.

In this paper, the legal methods by which the slave supply was secured will be examined in two apparently disparate eras; as it stood in the last decades of the sixth century (when the Mediterranean was a Christian and, arguably, still Roman lake) and in the second quarter of the eighth century (when most of the more developed regions were securely under an Islamic regime).  In both periods, the supply of slaves from the western Mediterranean to Egypt and the Levant was a crucial factor in both economics and regional politics but the way that slaves were provided had moved from a largely under-regulated mercantile system to one in which the export of slaves had become a cornerstone of the legal social and political relationships across North Africa.  Both the differences and the continuities can be used to understand the break in the longue durée between the last phases of the ancient world and systems that followed it.