On 7th November, Fernanda Pirie gave a plenary lecture at the opening conference of the Bonn Center for Slavery and Dependency Studies. Reviewing early laws on slavery from across the globe, she asked 'What did it mean to be a slave'?

In Mesopotamia, the Middle East, India, and Rome, early law-makers all wrestled with the meaning and consequences of slavery. There were evidently slaves in these societies – this was a social fact – but their status gave rise to legal issues, which the laws addressed in different ways. Many of these recurred in different contexts – conditions for manumission, the consequences of escape, forms of transfer, the status of children, and slaves’ legal capacity – and the solutions varied.

In some contexts, slaves were entitled to protections, in others they had no rights at all, and slaves captured during war were generally treated differently from those in debt bondage. But all the laws started from the assumption that the concept, or state, of slavery, was unproblematic, and generally made no attempt to provide a definition. It was left to particular rules to address the numerous legal difficulties that arose from the status of slavery, and the grey areas, the degrees of unfreedom, and the people who hovered on the boundary between freedom and slavery or moved between the two.

It is a puzzle, then, that some of the later and most sophisticated laws on slavery, those made in classical Rome and the early Islamic world, defined slavery in stark and simplistic terms, suggesting that all people were simply free or unfree. In this presentation Fernanda explored the ways in which lawyers addressed the problems of definition and ask if the historic material reveals a tendency to oversimplify, which may resonate in later periods, when laws have been concerned to abolish and criminalize, rather than approve and regulate.