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Slave – an object

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mosaic showing a master beating a slave
A mosaic showing a master beating a slave

Ancient Romans treated slaves like things and did not pay much attention to their lives. Marcus Terentius Varro, a man considered as one of the best-educated ancient Romans, treated slaves as nothing other than speaking tool (instrumentum vocale). In addition, he believed that food should not be wasted on sick and unemployed slaves, and that they should not eat too much.

Similar thoughts had the famous orator Cato the Elder. He did not waste food on sick and unemployed slaves. What’s more, in his opinion slaves should not have full stomachs, because then they are lazy. Plutarch sums up Cato’s approach to slave management:

However, for my part, I regard his treatment of his slaves like beasts of burden, using them to the uttermost, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a very mean nature, which recognizes no tie between man and man but that of necessity. 2 And yet we know that kindness has a wider scope than justice. Law and justice we naturally apply to men alone; but when it comes to beneficence and charity, these often flow in streams from the gentle heart, like water from a copious spring, even down to dumb beasts. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out with age, and of his dogs, too, not only in their puppyhood, but when their old age needs nursing.

Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 5

Columella, who created a twelve-volume work on a farm, had the opposite view to Cato. He recommended that the slaves should be treated with kindness. He explained that: “When I realised that such friendliness on the master’s part relieved the burden of their continual labour, I often joked with them and allowed them to joke more freely” (Res rustica, X.15).

It is worth mentioning that there was often a “rape” on slaves, which in Roman law did not occur in relation to slaves. Even if the victim of sexual assault belonged to another Roman, the perpetrator could at most be charged by the owner for damage to property.

During the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (he had a lover Antinous) it was forbidden to castrate slaves if they did not express themselves it’s consent. Moreover, slaves could not be forced into prostitution unless they were to be used for this. In the case of failure to comply with the legal norm, the slave woman was to be released.

  • Marek Sydoniusz Semp, Wytresuj swoich niewolników... czyli starożytna sztuka zarządzania, Kraków 2015

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