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Slaves in Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco from the so-called House of Agrippa on the Tiber in Rome
Fresco from the so-called House of Agrippa on the Tiber in Rome (now in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme museum). It depicts a slave serving his owners when they indulge in tenderness. Slaves accompanied their owners everywhere, and apparently their presence did not cause discomfort even in the most intimate moments. | Photo: Michal Kubicz

The prevailing view is that slavery is one of the darkest sides of Roman civilization. From our perspective, this is a reasonable opinion, but on the other hand, it must be remembered that slavery was a common phenomenon at that time, so when condemning it, one should probably also take into account the different state of social development, different mentality of people, etc.

What is most shocking about Rome, however, is the scale of this phenomenon compared to other societies of the ancient world. The ubiquity of slaves in Rome becomes clear when we remember that their primary source not only in Rome but throughout the ancient world was war. And since Rome was the most expansionist state at that time, it is not surprising that there were the most slaves in it. It is estimated that from the conquest of Gaul alone, Julius Caesar brought over a million slaves to Rome.

In historical studies, you can find information that a slave in Rome was relatively cheap. The richest had hundreds of them at their disposal, the wealthy – dozens and even a relatively low-situated free man could afford one or two slaves. Such statements, however, should be approached with some caution, because there is a natural temptation to use an intellectual shortcut and interpret them in such a way that the slave in Rome was like today’s television set – today everyone has one at home, and sometimes several. But it’s much more complicated because the numbers cited only testify to the terrifying social stratification, since such a huge part of society was de facto and de jure outside the social bracket and was not the subject of social relations, but their object. One could even say that in Rome it was enough to be a free man to automatically be included in the elite living above the slave mass. Unfortunately, this is another simplification that distorts the whole picture.

It is often pointed out that the economic and life status of slaves was very different depending on whether they served, for example, in someone’s home as personal servants, or on a farm, or, for example, in quarries. This differentiation is a truism, so it’s worth going further, because in ancient Rome everything was much more complicated than we think from today’s perspective. Did a free man freezing in a leaking attic of a dingy insula have a better life than a wealthy man’s personal servant sleeping in a warm cubiculum? Was a free man living illegally in a gloomy tomb on the Appian Way better off than a slave of one of the patrician families? Was a freeman subsisting on imperial food distribution really counted among the social elite compared to the personal secretary or accountant of some wealthy merchant? Was the legal situation of a slave so different from that of a free man of good birth, who was subject to the almost unlimited power of his pater familias? I would venture to say that in some cases a slave, to whom the owner granted the management of some property (the so-called peculium) could have a greater scope of actual freedom than a free man subjected to the authority of his domineering father. Well, as you can see, the standard of living and legal status in Rome were so independent of each other that it is difficult to describe them in modern terms.

However, there is no denying that legally the status of a slave was unenviable. I read somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) that in ancient Rome slaves were not as dehumanized as they were in the late republic. Initially, they reportedly had limited legal personality; only later, when slavery became the basis of economic relations, did they become a SPEAKING THING. In relation to each object, the owner was entitled to rights that define the right of ownership to this day – ius utendi (right to use), ius fruendi (right to collect benefits), ius disponendi (right to dispose) and– ius abutendi (right to use and destroy things). With regard to the slave, the law of wear and tear of this specific “property” sounds especially ominous. In the darkest period for slaves, the owner had ius vitae ac necis – the unlimited right of life and death.

Here’s a little curiosity: the identification of the slave with the thing went so far that even if the owner abandoned him (just as we throw something into the trash and thus get rid of property), such a slave did not automatically become a free man. On the contrary: he was still just a thing. NOBODY’S thing. A thing that anyone could take and thus become its new owner. Just like today, when someone takes in an abandoned dog wandering in the forest…

Many aspects of slave life today are really hard to understand: for example, today every person has “automatically” legal capacity, that is, he can be the subject of rights and obligations. But not every person has legal capacity – e.g. children or incapacitated persons cannot perform legal acts on their own (that is, to simplify: e.g. a child may be the owner of a house, but cannot buy it on their own). But in Rome it was the opposite: slaves had no legal capacity (they could not be the subject of any civil law relations), but they could perform legal acts on behalf of their owner. They were only tools: they could make deals, but always only as their master’s “pen”.

Reading the dry legal rules that define the legal position of slaves, it is easy to miss the terrible reality that sometimes lay behind them. Consider, for example, the child of a slave woman: it was always born as a slave belonging to the owner of the mother, regardless of the legal status of the father. We can imagine the drama of a free father who could only watch what the owner does with his child… A terrifying prospect, isn’t it? Perhaps even the Romans were aware of the cruelty of this rule because it was eventually recognized that if a woman was free for even a moment during pregnancy, the child was born free – one of the rare examples of the “human reflex” of the Roman legislator.

Having no rights, slaves could not form families, could not marry, and had no rights to their own children. Even if they were in an actual relationship (the so-called contubernium), it was only with the consent of their master. The master could use at will – also sexually – the body of his slaves: women, men and children. How did people feel when their unfree partner, partner or child had to give themselves to their master or mistress? In such cases, even my imagination fails me….

Roman law had one purpose: to ensure the owner’s unlimited obedience and discipline among slaves. The owners, therefore, had the right to punish slaves at their discretion, and the law did not generally interfere with these “internal relations” (exceptions below). For nothing terrified the Romans more than the prospect of collective disobedience by the slave masses. The most extreme and cruel example of statutory obedience is the principle of collective responsibility in Rome – if a master was murdered by a slave, all slaves belonging to the murdered were punished with death (I am not sure, but I think it was only domestic slaves, not everyone – e.g. working on farms). The most famous and controversial case of such collective punishment occurred in the time of Nero when a slave attempted the life of his master, a certain Pedanius Secunda. This was a particularly drastic case since the slave was clearly acting out of passion, driven to despair by his master. Nevertheless, the punishment was carried out meticulously – no one was spared, not even children.

Despite this legal dehumanization of slaves, the actual situation of slaves always ultimately depended on who owned them. It is impossible to believe that the Romans perceived slaves only as a thing also in extra-legal relations. In fact, Roman literature is full of examples of slaves who were as loyal to their masters as they were to their father and mother. Many Romans were brought up by and educated by slaves, so the natural bond between tutor and pupil was not uncommon. The sheer number of manumissions suggests that humanity towards slaves was common in Roman households.

But it is worth reaching further and imagining the slave’s everyday life in a Roman house: slaves not only served their owners, not only cleaned or cooked for them, but also washed them, dressed them, and even watched over their sleep. Slaves became such an integral part of their owners’ world that they were present in every aspect of their lives. Is it possible that the young slave did not feel desire when he saw his mistress naked? How is it possible that she did not feel any embarrassment at the presence of her servants during bathing, dressing, and even the sexual act? The difference between the Roman mentality and ours makes any attempt to understand it very risky.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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