Thursday, 10 March 2016

Roman slavery

Female slaves attend their mistress

The Digest of Roman Law, the Code of the Emperor Justinian,  drew a fundamental distinction between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus, or slave.  A slave was defined as someone in potestate, in the power of a master, whereas the free person is sui juris, able to act in his own right.

Slavery was universally accepted. Apart from a few Stoics, no-one thought it was wrong. There was no concept in the ancient world of individual human rights. 

Roman society relied heavily on slaves. From the 3rd century BC onwards slaves flooded into Rome from all quarters –for example, there   were 75,000 enslaved prisoners from the first Punic War.  During the last two centuries BC Sicily, North Africa and Italy possessed economies that were firmly grounded in slave labour. Unless poverty- stricken, every free man owned at least one slave.  But many Romans were poor, and it is unlikely that those living in the cramped tenements in Rome could have owned even one slave.  However, important Romans may have averaged four or five hundred slaves apiece. Romans of good family were brought up by slave nurses, and as children played with slaves of their own age. Their teachers and coaches were slaves. Their suicides were aided by their slaves. The relationship between free and slave was one of close physical proximity. Slaves worked alongside citizens not separately from them- there were no specifically slave occupations. They were defined not by their labour but by their legal status.  

Legal Status 
A slave was a res, a piece of property; he could be bought and sold and left in a will. He had no civil status or rights. He could not own property, vote, or serve in the army.  He could not legally marry, but could with his master's permission, enter a form of marriage. He could not bring an action in a law court.   Evidence in law was only allowed if it was exacted under torture. This is because they were deemed unable to act freely; only torture could free them from the control of their masters. Slaves were part of the master's household (familia). The pater familias had complete control over them.  He could punish them by whipping them, imprisoning them in a slave prison  (ergastulum) or even having them executed. 

As the Roman Republic expanded, slaves were brought to Rome from all over the Mediterranean world and beyond.

  1. The majority of slaves were prisoners captured in war  - eg Caesar in Gaul. The country of origin was important. Greek slaves were valued for intelligence and skill. But as many slaves had Greek names, their purchasers could be misled. 
  2. Piracy was second to war as a source of slaves and was often a cover for the slave trade. 
  3. Brigands often captured travellers and sold them as slaves. 
  4. Some were born slaves.  Slaves could not marry legally, but they could live together as man and wife. Children became the property of their owner. Children of masters and slave girls were also slaves. 
  5. Although Roman law forbade the practice of buying and selling a free person, this did happen in practice. In  85-84 BC Sulla, by his heavy tax demands, forced many parents to sell their children, and eventually themselves. Peasants forced off the land often sold their children into slavery  - therefore the number of slaves was always increasing. 
  6. A result of being exposed as an infant. If unwanted children were found, they could be made slaves. 
  7. Under the Principate, criminals might be enslaved as a punishment for serious unrest and made to serve in the mines or the quarries. Crimes included theft, sacrilege and arson.  

The evidence is thin.  It is possible that in Italy at the time of Augustus there might have been 2 million out of a population of 7 million.  In Rome, out of about 1 million inhabitants, perhaps a quarter were slaves. The philosopher Seneca (4 BC- AD 65) wrote in his piece On Clemency
‘On one occasion a proposal was made by the Senate to distinguish slaves from freedmen by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves began to count our numbers.’ 
(However, compare with US figures when in the slave-holding estates in 1850 there were 51 slaves to every 100 free men.)  

Slave Occupations 
Slaves on a villa rustica: A large proportion of slaves, perhaps the majority, were employed on country estates.  When the upper classes grew rich from the spoils of war, they bought up land, and these new, large estates were worked by slaves.  Slaves were part of the property and classed along with the farm stock. The day was long  - 9-15 hours, with few holidays. They lived in barracks. In the master's absence, slaves were under the control of the vilicus, usually a slave himself. Slaves who displeased their masters were kept chained in prison overnight.  Augustus ordered these prisons to be inspected. Before then, there was no supervision. Rural slaves were less likely to be freed than slaves in a city.

Slaves on a villa urbana: This was a wealthy Roman’s country house, served by a maintenance staff. The master would bring his slaves with him.  

Slaves in the mines: The labour force in the mines consisted of escaped convicts and prisoners of war.  Miners quickly   became exhausted and died. Lucretius: ‘What malignant breath is exhaled by foul mines!  ... Have you not heard how speedily men die and how their vital forces fail when they are driven by dire necessity to endure such work?'  

Slaves in the arena: Gladiators were slaves -  generally either prisoners of war or condemned criminals. (This will be followed up in a later post.)

Criminals faced various penalties 
Ad gladium  - sent to the arena 
Ad ludum - sent to training school 
Ad bestias - thrown to wild beasts  

In workshops: Brick works, lamp factories, lead pipe works, glass works, potteries. 
In households:  Cleaning, cooking, serving, gardening; nurses, tutors.  
A slave holds up his master's writing table
Urban slaves had more holidays in the town than in the country. Many of the slaves were specialists - hairdressers, litter bearers, secretaries. Such people were only busy for short periods. The greater the level of skill, the better the treatment. Many slaves were given a wage (peculium) by their masters. It remained the property of the master, but slaves were usually allowed to save it, and they could use it to buy their freedom.  

Public slaves 
These were owned by the state and the towns.  Many were used for clerical jobs especially in financial affairs. Others acted as assistants to the aediles. Slave craftsmen belonged to a trade guild association. The chances of freedom for able and ambitious slaves who served in the imperial bureaucracy were good.  But the majority were engaged in menial jobs.  

Slave revolts 
The Roman proverb was: ‘Every slave we own is an enemy we harbour'.  The Sicilian revolt of 135 BC and the Spartacus revolt show the dangers inherent in slavery. Many slaves, especially those from Gaul, Iberia and Thrace, had been born free.  Masters were always vulnerable to the despair of the slaves.  Slaves prepared their food, shaved them, and helped them to bed. 

Slave murders of masters. The law decreed that all slaves living under the master's roof at the time of the murder should be put to death.  This did not help Larcius Macedo, the ex-praetor, who was also of slave ancestry, who, in AD 100 was assaulted in his baths by all the slaves in attendance on him and left for dead.  However, he revived a few days longer, in which time he saw the slaves, who had run away, recaptured and executed.  A few days later he died of his injuries. In AD 61 Padanius Secundus, Prefect of the City of Rome, who owned 400 slaves, was murdered by one of them.  All the slaves were executed (including children) but Nero had to use an armed guard to prevent a riot.  After this critical case, legislative reforms against the abuse of slaves continued.  

Changing attitudes 
The classic Roman attitude is represented by the Elder Cato’s, 2nd century BC work On Farming. His sole motive was profit: slaves to be treated like animals, though there is more anxiety about the welfare of an ox, which is less capable of looking after itself. The best principle of management is to treat both slaves and animals well enough for them   to work hard. But from the late Republic and the Principate there is evidence of changing attitudes. The number of new slaves available from the wars declined with the advent of the Augustan peace. The last big haul of slaves was after Trajan’s Dacian wars. After this, the supply dried up and the slave began slowly to be replaced by the tenant farmer. 

The growth of Stoicism. Classical Stoicism taught that slavery was not natural, as Aristotle had stated, but artificial.  Though the theoretical belief  that all men were equal was not often taken literally, Stoics urged people to act with self-control and moderation.  A decree of Claudius stated that if a sick slave was abandoned by his master, he was to gain his freedom. Slave prisons were abandoned by Hadrian, who also restricted the punishment of slaves in the event of a master's murder to those who were near him when he was killed.  

Cicero argued that slaves must be given some hope of freedom. When Sositheus, a slave who had served as his reader, died, he wrote:  
'I am more upset about it than anyone would suppose I should be about a slave’s death’. 
Seneca's Moral Letters contain an epoch-making statement of his attitude to slavery: 
‘Please reflect that the man you call your slave was born of the same seed, has the same good sky about him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do.' 
From the 1st century onwards we find epitaphs to the souls of dead slaves. Slaves belonged to associations defraying the funerals of members of their community. 

The fundamental reason for the decline of slavery was economic. The replacement of slave gangs by free peasant labour suggests that in the later Empire, slaves were neither abundant nor cheap. 

Cinerary urn for the freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two women, probably his wife and daughter
The boundary between slave and free in Roman society was not necessarily fixed. Roman slavery differed significantly from Greek slavery, in that a significant number of Roman slaves gained their freedom. Most frequently a slave’s freedom was granted by his master’s last will, but a slave could also be freed by a special hearing before a magistrate. There were also more informal methods, such as sending a letter or making a special announcement in front of witnesses.

When Cicero manumitted his slave, Tiro in 53 BC, his brother Quintus wrote to congratulate him: 
‘He ought never to have been a slave and now you have decided that he should be our friend instead.’  
He went on to mention his own freedman and in doing so, revealed a primary motive for manumission: 
‘The loyalty which I receive from Statius is a sheer delight to me; so how much more you will gain in the same way from Tiro- and more, because Tiro is a scholar and a conversationalist, a humane man, and these are qualities which count for more than material values.’
A slave granted his freedom by a Roman citizen became a citizen himself, a strategy of incorporation without parallel among other slave-owning societies.  However, though he could become a citizen, a freedman could never qualify for membership of the Senatorial or Equestrian orders, or the higher magistracies.  But the sons of freedmen born after manumission could rise high. Horace became Augustus’s court poet. 

It was often in a master’s interest to free a slave. It got rid of the expense of feeding and supporting elderly slaves and provided younger slaves with an incentive to work. Freedmen were required by law to give their former masters obsequium (obedience) and officium (service).  More surprisingly, perhaps, masters and their former slaves could share common tombs.

Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and no-one could imagine a society without it. The Roman conquests increased the supply of slaves into Rome, where they a variety of occupations. Roman slavery was distinctive in that it manumission was relatively easy. The Romans believed that freedmen were a valuable resource for the state and provided a wealthy man with a trusted body of clients.