During the existence of the Republic, the Senate had mainly an advisory function. However, after Octavian Augustus took power in 27 BCE, the role of the Senate changed. Since then, this institution had a legislative function, and the adopted resolutions had the force of binding law and often rewarding the upper classes. The resolution of the Senate was called Senatus consultum. In 10 CE, one of the most brutal resolutions was adopted – Senatus consultum Silanianum.
The resolution Senatus consultum Silanianumwas proposed by the consul for 10 CE, Gaius Junius Silanus, who belonged to one of the most important senatorial families at that time. The resolution assumed collective responsibility of slaves for the murder of their master (in practice also the spouse or legal heirs), and the penalty was death. All slaves in domus and the environment close enough to be able to save the master’s life were subject to punishment.
The law was a response to the growing phenomenon of murdering owners by and with the complicity of the master’s slaves. A common motive of the murderers was to hate the master, or to believe that the will meant their liberation (manumissio).
The resolution resulted from growing concerns for their safety of the upper classes of Rome. Strong lobbying and the fact that the law was constructed by a senate composed of representatives of the aristocracy led to the adoption of the document. It was decided to counteract the practice of murdering owners or failing to defend them. The resolution was a deterrent and guaranteed a certain degree of security, especially for the higher social classes. Familia of the murdered could expect a legitimate interrogation and the indication of the guilty party.
The execution of all slaves had previously been preceded by an interrogation process (quaestio), involving torture in order to obtain the most reliable information possible – it was in accordance with “ancient custom” (vetus mos).
The resolution was taken into account when the body of the murdered indicated unnatural death. Moreover, it was forbidden to open the will before the end of the interrogation, as it was feared that the murderer might gain the benefits written in his will and use them earlier.
Slaves (servi) in ancient Rome could have had different life situations. Some of them enjoyed the trust of their masters and in practice were part of the family. In return for their good service, they could accumulate fortune, which they then used to redeem themselves from slavery, or received liberation from the lord (dominus) for reward. Liberation could take place during the owner’s lifetime or as a result of a will. An example of a well-treated slave was Tiro, who was the assistant and scribe of Cicero.
For the most part, however, a slave’s life was not all roses. The huge farms required a lot of hands to work, and the owners often punished mistakes, disobedience and treated workers worse than animals. Suffering and humiliation led the slaves to rebellions and murder their torturers.
It is also worth noting that Roman law favored the upper classes much more. The higher up in Roman society, the less consequences faced a citizen who acted against the law. The regulations worked to the disadvantage of the lower classes and people from the very bottom of the social hierarchy could expect much worse treatment. The law and customs were designed to humiliate and degrade slaves and the poor.
Already during the existence of the Republic, the problem of slave protests was sufficiently important. The expanding Roman state, which brought enormous masses of prisoners to Italy, had to face the growing problem of slaves who raised their hands or persuaded others to kill their master. A custom had developed to torture slaves during interrogation to obtain as much information as possible. The aim of the quaestio was not to punish the slaves, but only to extract the most reliable information from them to identify the murderer. Torture (tormenta) was a form of support and it was used much earlier. Regardless of everything, the slave would die anyway as a form of punishment for failing to protect his master.
Moreover, Roman customs treated slaves as guilty when the owner committed suicide, not approved by the authorities1. Slaves were required to value his master’s life more than his own. Lack of reaction, and even help – at the request of the owner – in the death task was treated as raising a hand to the master. Sometimes a Roman citizen who wanted to commit suicide first liberated his ward to avoid punishment. A great example here is Antistius Labeo, a supporter of Brutus, who after the the battle of Philippi in CE 42 BCE, he decided to commit suicide, having previously liberated an assistant slave. Then he handed the sword to the servant and had his throat pierced.
However, based on another message, it is not entirely certain that the liberator could also really count on special treatment when the service “blamed” on the master’s death. In 45 BCE the former consul Marcus Marcellus was murdered. He was inflicted by a person from outside the household, but when the slaves and freedmen saw their master in blood, they decided to run away, realizing the consequences that could meet them – they were responsible for the master’s safety and did not prevent his death. Thus, they preferred to run away and hope for survival, rather than expect death after being tortured. Their fault was “obvious” as they were under the “same roof” (sub eodem tecto), and so they could have prevented the murder. Slaves in the vicinity of the house could also expect punishment, but certainly not so dramatic.
Matters related to the senatus consultum Silanianum
Three interesting cases have survived from the time of the Empire, which include the use of s enatus consultum Silanianum and influenced the development of legislation in this matter.
The case of the murder of Pedanius Secudnus
In 61 CE, the Roman senator Lucius Pedanius Secundus (consul for 43 CE) was murdered in his home. Due to the senatus consultum Silanianum, all of his 400 slaves were to die for failing to prevent a murder. As it turned out as a result of interrogation, the murderer was one of the slaves who held a grudge against his master. However, despite the identification of the guilty party, the remaining servants were punished.
The incident sparked protests among Roman residents, who believed that such a large number of people should not be punished brutally if one person was murdered; especially when the guilty party has been identified. The verdict, in his speech (preserved in Tacitus), was translated by the lawyer and former consul Cassius Longinus, following “ancient custom”. The punishment had to be drastic in order to deter others from similar acts and to induce other household members to respond to any strange behavior of the potential murderers. Cassius admitted that indeed the execution of the innocent is unfair, but that the plight of some people will benefit the public good (utilitas publia).
As it turned out, the case of Pedanius Secundus created some precedents:
- first, despite the term murderer, all slaves in the household were still subject to the death penalty;
- second, even the slave children were not spared; they were also punished. However, it seems that the children were punished less drastically.
- thirdly, there was the idea of chasing the liberators who should have also counteracted the murder. This issue, however, was vetoed by Nero.
The case of the death of Afranius Dexter
Gnaeus Afranius Dexter was a Roman senator who served as consul in CE 105. That same year, he died in his home. His death was considered unnatural and considered: death at his own hand, death at the hand of another person, at his behest or murder. After questioning, one of the slaves was found guilty.
Interestingly, during the senators’ interrogation of slaves and freedmen, Pliny the Younger showed a kind of humanitarian (humanitas) for those times. Thanks to his arguments, the liberators were found guilty of not defending dominus, but instead of death they were exiled (relegatio).
Interestingly, the issue of understanding the enacted law of 10 CE still remained open over the years. For the reign of Nero (54-68 CE) the liberator would not have been punished when he could expect punishment already in the 2nd century CE.
Details about the trial have been preserved in Pliny’s letter to the lawyer Titus Aristo.
Execution of a child slave
Legate Trebius Geminus in one case decided to impose the death penalty on a slave boy who was a minor (impubis). However, he did so against the convention senatus consultum Silanianum, which precluded the punishment of underage children of slaves. Geminus argued his decision that the boy was still living “under one roof” and, moreover, he was sleeping in his master’s room at the time of the murder. According to Geminus, the boy was so aware of the situation that he should have raised the alarm and knew that the life of the dominus was most important. Geminus did not fully question the provision of impubis, but only clarified that people in close vicinity were still guilty and were subject to the most serious punishment.
Times of a mature empire
Based on the above examples, it can be seen that the adopted resolution of the Senate from 10 CE was regularly tightened up and extended to new issues. Senators and officials stood on the side of the upper classes in order to reduce the number of murders and increase the responsibility of servants.
A variation on the understanding of co-responsibility for the murder of the lord was presented by Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138 CE). In his opinion on the case of a slave who did not come fearing for her life with the help of the murdered lady, he believed that special heroism should not be expected of the weaker person. Help can even take the form of shouting or signaling an emergency. In this case, the slave did not even do so, so she was subject to the death penalty. Regardless of how it may sound, it was certainly some form of softening the resolution; additionally empowered by the authority of the emperor.
The later Emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 CE), as the only representative of the upper classes, drew attention to an overly strict approach to treating all household members as guilty. His oratio to the Senate was then to be used in the construction of the law during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 531.