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Conditional Probability in Ancient History: ‘Servile’ names and the scale of manumission in Roman Ostia

Date and Time: 
Thursday, January 21, 2021. 10:00 AM
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
Data Scarcity in the Ancient Mediterranean
Meeting Description: 

This paper presents part of a larger project revisiting the question of the scale of manumission in Roman Italy. It focuses on a rule of thumb that has become an essential tool in the social history of Roman Italy: the notion that free persons of indeterminate status who have a Greek cognomen can be assumed to be freed. Myles Lavan will argue that this rule is based on a fundamental (but common) error in reasoning. It is possible to proceed from onomastic data to an estimate of the prevalence of freed status, but an entirely different approach is required. With the right method, it is possible to do more with the scarce data available, as Lavan will illustrate using the particularly well-documented case of Ostia. The presentation will use the example to make some wider observations about how ancient historians can respond to the problem of data scarcity: (1) the inadequacy of non-quantitative approaches to quantitative problems; (2) the need to embrace formal probabilistic reasoning if we are to avoid errors in historical inference; and (3) the importance of considering the margin of error in our estimates and the utility of what archaeologists call 'tactical' simulation as a means of doing so.

Myles Lavan is Reader in Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. He works on citizenship, slavery and the culture of imperialism in the Roman empire, and on the development of quantitative methods in ancient history. He is the author of Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture (2013) and co-editor of Cosmopolitanism and Empire: Universal Rulers, Local Elites, and Cultural Integration in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean (2016).

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