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Imperial legislation for protection of slaves

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Slave market, Gustave Boulanger
Gustave Boulanger, The Slave Market

Slaves in ancient Rome were an extremely important social group from an economic point of view. The number of slaves peaked in the 1st century BCE, which also coincided with the famous uprising of Spartacus (73-71 BCE). The economic transformations of the fall of the republic, as well as the increased popularity of the custom of liberating slaves among their owners, led to a significant decrease in their number at the turn of the century, which threatened to upset the Roman economy based on slave labour.

The response to the above processes came from the conservative legislation of the Augusta era, which aimed to halt the decline in slave numbers and increase the birth rate in general in Roman society. As Suetonius writes about the politics of Augustus: “(…) to keep the people pure and unsullied by any taint of foreign or servile blood, he was most chary of conferring Roman citizenship and set a limit to manumission”1.

In the epoch of Augustus, fundamental slave regulations were introduced: Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus from 18 BCE or the lex Papia Poppaea of 9 CE introduced a ban on marriages of liberated people to senators and their sons. The number of slaves who could be granted freedom in a will was also limited – Lex Fufia Caninia Fufiusa from 2 BCE limited the number of testamentary liberators (in the case of triggering more than two) in proportion to the number owned by the owner:

  • 4 – 10 no more than half,
  • 11 – 30 no more than 1/3,
  • 31-100 to 1/4,
  • over 100 and not more than 1/5.

The fundamental improvement in the situation of slaves during the principate period was due both to the further reduction in the number of slaves (and thus the reduction of supply at the same level of demand) and the spread of the Stoic doctrine, the essence of which was expressed by Seneca: “Live with the shorter man like you would like the taller to live with you”. The economic decline of the empire, the end of offensive wars and the reduction of the free population resulted in the need to increase the protection of slaves from cruel treatment by their owners. The situation of slaves was also influenced by the success of Christianity, which called for better treatment of dependent peoples. De facto equality with respect to religion in the context of imminent salvation made it possible to consecrate to the priesthood as long as the owner consented to it.

Since Claudius, freedom could be a reward for saving the owner’s life or for discovering his murderers. The master’s power to hand over a slave to be devoured by wild animals was limited by law. Lex Petronia de servis – possibly enacted as Nero in 61 CE regulated the use of slaves to fight animals.

Subsequently, prostitutes were forbidden to deal with slaves: Vespasian issued a decree according to which, if a slave woman was sold on condition of non-sexual immorality, and was used, then she was entitled to deliverance.

The separation of slave families has also been forbidden: a favourable interpretation of the law allowed for new forms of liberation and the lifting of previous restrictions. Justinian left only the prohibition of triggering in fraudem creditorum – to the detriment of creditors.

The Antonine era also prohibits the cruel treatment and abuse of slaves. On one of the islands on the Tiber (Aesculapius Island), a shelter for the sick and old slaves was built. Unjustified cruelty towards them could have resulted in the forced sale of such a slave, while the killing of a slave by the owner was considered a crime: in the event that one of the masters would rather kill the slave than send to Aesculapius, he would be prosecuted for manslaughter.

Also from the 2nd century CE changes have been made to the status of a slave-born child. Up to this point, the mother’s slavery determined the child’s status as well. In the Antonine era, it was assumed that if a slave girl was free at some point during pregnancy, in line with the tendency to promote freedom, the child was born free, and if abandoned by the owner, she was granted citizenship.

The right of asylum in holy places and places dedicated to deities, whereby a slave seeking refuge in a temple from an evil lord was not treated as a slave, was extended to include the right to take refuge from masters at the foot of an emperor’s statue – which in such a case was obliged to sell it. The source of this provision was the rescript from Emperor Antoninus Pius to the governor of the senatorial province Aelius Marcianus (Hispania Baetica) on mass escapes to the statues of the emperor and return because of his situation his comments.

Author: Piotr Baran
  1. Swetoniusz, August, 40

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