Slavery was an integral part of the Roman economy and society,
evident by the wide range of positions slaves filled, from farm workers to
tutors. The first official mention of slavery can be traced back to 451 BC
through “Rome’s first codified body of law, the Twelve Tables”, which had rules
outlining the punishments for slaves as well the process for liberating slaves
(McKeown). The primary source for slaves in Roman society was members of other
communities that Rome had defeated. Accounts by later Roman historians, such as
Livy, discussed how one of the conventions of warfare during that time was
enslaving war captives. Since Rome’s military was one of the strongest in
Italy, they were able to enslave many people from the surrounding areas. Another
source for slaves was voluntary enslavement, an option many Romans took in
order to pay of a debt or to escape a cycle of poverty that was especially
common in the countryside (Jones & Sidwell). The methods for obtaining
slaves create an interesting dynamic between slaves and the rest of society.
Unlike slaves in the United States, who were seen as inherently worse because
of their skin color, slaves in Roman society were simply a product of negative
circumstances. As a result, slaves were not completely devoid of protection and
there were laws that dealt with the treatment of slaves as well as how they
could obtain freedom. Slaves were still officially deemed property during both
the Republic and Imperial Periods, but the change in laws of both eras help
shed light on how the attitudes towards slaves and slavery in general changed. While
there were similarities between the Republic and Imperial Period in the
treatment of slaves, the emergence of philosophies, such as stoicism, suggest a
more humanitarian attitude towards slaves in the Imperial Period compared to
the Republic; however, the addition of laws under the Emperors demonstrate a
desire to further manipulate and control the slaves.

 

One law that marks the tightening control on slaves is found in
Tacitus’ Annals. In AD 10, during Augustus’ reign, the senatusconsultum
Silanianium was passed and “provided that, if a master was killed, all slaves
in the household were to be interrogated under torture, and any who might have
prevented the killing were to be put to death” (slavery and rome 430). This
effectively meant that the whole slave-establishment which belonged to the
murdered individual would be executed. While the extreme and unreasonable nature
of this law makes it illogical at first, a further analysis of the law reveals
it was meant to deter slaves from acting out against their owners. Tacitus
writes about an incident during Nero’s reign that involves a slave who murdered
his master, Pedanius Secundus, “either because he had been refused his freedom
. . . or in the jealousy of a love” (Tacitus 14:40). As expected, the entire
slave household was sentenced to death, but “a dense a threatening mob, with
stones and firebrands” protested the ruling. The response of the citizen body
reveals how there is an awareness of the cruelty of the slave’s situation;
however, the sympathy towards slaves by the common people was not shared by
those in power, such as Senators. Caius Cassius in particular was outspoken on
this case and argued “who will be kept safe by the number of his slaves when
four hundred have not protected Pedanius Secundus” (Tacitus 14:43). Clearly,
Cassius knows the strength in numbers of the slaves and expresses his fears
over the possibility that they can collude together. Thus, the decree of
senatusconsultum Silanianium during Augustus’ reign could have been in response
to feelings that slaves were gaining too much autonomy.

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The letters of Seneca, specifically letter forty seven, suggests a
positive shift in how people viewed slaves during the Imperial Period. Seneca,
advisor to Nero, was also a notable Stoic philosopher, so it is logical to
assume his views were shaped, in part, by Stoicism. In one of his moral letters
to Lucilius, Seneca discusses the relationship between a master and slave. He
begins by saying “Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike”
(Letter 47). Saying slaves and free men are ultimately alike under the
influence of Fortune gives the feeling that there is in fact no difference
between slaves and free men in the larger picture. This statement sets the tone
for the rest of his letter as Seneca continues to imply some sort of equality
between slaves and masters without explicitly stating slaves are equals of
other men. He continues his letter by observing that the mistreatment of slaves
by “slave owners make them enemies” (Letter 47). Unlike some Senators who
felt terror would keep slaves in order, Seneca appears to suggest the exact
opposite, arguing instead that excessive punishment creates slaves who do not
“bare their necks for their master . . . and keep silent during torture”,
because they are alienated by the cruel treatment of the masters. While it
seems Seneca has an ulterior motive for treating slaves better, later on in his
letter he claims that a slaves soul “may be that of a freeman” and the freemen
can be slaves to “lust, another to greed, another to ambition” (Letter 47).
Once again, Seneca implies equality between slaves and freedmen by suggesting
no one is truly free. Clearly, slaves are no longer just seen as property and
are more humanized. While it is hard to determine if this was the common belief
during the Republic, the spread of new philosophies meant that such opinions on
slaves must have been well known, at the very minimum. It is interesting that
this change in ideology on slaves is not reflected in the new laws passed
during the Imperial Period. During the Republic, slaves were seen as property,
and the laws dealing with slaves treated them as items as well. It would seem
logical that if slaves were viewed as having some degree of equality during the
Imperial Period, then laws would be passed to ensure they received some sort of
rights as well.

 

            Some
slaves saw an increase in opportunities as a result of the Emperor gaining more
power. As power shifted from the Senate to the Emperor, the Emperors began to
rely more on their household staff to help in the management of the empire.
Unlike senators, slaves could never ascend to the throne, so people felt they
had no reason to manipulate the emperor to gain power for themselves. As a
result, slaves were trusted with providing counsel to the Emperor and being
involved in managerial tasks, such as communicating with audiences and
providing information (slavery under principate 281). The collection of slaves,
freedmen, and freedwomen working under the emperor came to be known as familia
Caesaris (sabine muller). Unlike during the Republic, when slaves were given
simple household tasks, some slaves during the Imperial Period basically had
more power and influence than Senators and Roman citizens because of their
closeness to the Emperor. It is ironic that even though slaves were still seen
as inferior to others in society, they were given positions of power and played
an integral role in running the Empire. This system can be seen throughout the
Imperial Period, from the Julio Claudian Dynasty to the Flavian Dynasty. For
example, Claudius had a slave named Narcissus, who “rose from a humble slave
status in a junior post in the emperor’s service, to freed status with a
responsible position in the bureaucracy” (MI Finley 123). After becoming a
freedman, Narcissus represented Claudius in Gaul and helped manage the Roman
army during the Invasion of Britain (Britannica). Another privilege of
belonging to the familia caesaris was that “male members were able to contract
alliances with free women while still slaves” (gale group). Unlike during the
Republic, where slaves were given positions in businesses to benefit their owners,
the slaves of the familia caesaris were allowed to use their position to fulfill
their own interests. The autonomy of slaves belonging to the familia caesaris
challenges the perception that slaves were just property. Even though the
opportunities of slaves belonging the familia Caesaris is not applicable to all
slaves during the Imperial Period, the fact that slaves and freedmen could even
have access to power reflects a change in how slaves were perceived during the
Imperial Period. At the very least, the notion that slaves are inferior is
complicated by the fact that some slaves had a role in maintaining order across
the Roman Empire.

 

            The
change in attitudes towards slaves can be seen through various laws passed
during the Imperial Period, which offered some degree of protection to slaves. During
the Republic it was acceptable for a slave owner to treat his own slave as he
pleased; however, Lex Petronia, which was passed during Augustus’ reign made it
so that “masters could not consign their slaves to fight wild beasts in the
arena” (slavery and roman law 433). This law was strengthened by later
emperors, such as Claudius, who “said that sick and infirm slaves abandoned by
their owners were to be given their freedom” and Hadrian, who “forbid an owner
to kill his slave without the judgement of a court” and Antoninus Pius, who
declared that “someone who killed his own slave without a cause know to the law
was . . . to be liable to prosecution” (slavery and roman law 433).  These laws demonstrate a concern for the
wellbeing of slaves as they aim to prevent unnecessary and excessive violence;
however, according to Jane F. Gardner, a common occurrence that developed in
certain provinces was “slaves fleeing to a temple or to the emperor’s statue
for a kind of sanctuary, in order to plead for protection” (slavery and roman
law pg 433). Such public displays would likely anger the common people, as seen
when they protested the killing of Pedanius Secundus’ entire slave household.
Thus, the reason for implementing laws to prevent mistreatment of slaves could
also be motivated by a desire to keep the common people from revolting against
the idea of slavery. Whether or not these laws were motivated solely by
humanitarian reasons, they still offered more protection to slaves and
acknowledged that slaves had some degree of rights because they could have
access to a trial.

 

            The
progress of slave rights through laws, such as Lex Petronia was met with
equally restricting laws that made obtaining freedom more difficult. During
Augustus’ reign, two laws that dealt with the freedom of slaves were passed in
response to an increase in manumissions. According to (slavery and  roman law), after the civil wars that
concluded with the battle of Actium in 31 BC, many slaves blackmailed owners
who committed crimes during the war for their freedom.  Moreover, “many owners freed large numbers of
slaves simply out of ostentation” (slavery and roman law 437). The influx of
freed slaves was alarming because some of the slaves were apparently criminals.
Thus,

the first law, enacted in 2 BC,
was the lex Fufia Caninia, which “limited the number of slaves who could be
freed by will” (slavery and roman law 427). Depending on how many slaves an
individual owned, they would be allowed to grant freedom to a certain
proportion. This was followed by the lex Aelia Sentia in 4 AD, which
complicated the process for manumission of slaves. One restriction was that the
slave being freed had to be older than thirty years or else they would have to
go through a trial in order to a become Roman citizen. Another restriction was
that “slaves who had been put in chains by their masters as a punishment, or
branded, or subjected to other punishments” would not be able to become Roman
citizens after manumission. Instead, they would belong “in the class of
Peregrini dediticii” (William Smith).  Preventing
slaves who had a history of punishment from ever becoming official Roman
citizens is a clear attempt at trying to introduce the best possible freed men
into society. While these laws seem well intentioned in that their goal was to
prevent bad slaves from gaining freedom and becoming Roman citizens, the
various restrictions points to another motive. Specifically, the lex Fufua
Caninia which limited the number of slaves that could be freed by will creates
the sense that manumissions should be exclusive. Instead of simply being able
to free all or most of their slaves, owners would likely choose their best
slaves to free. This would encourage positive qualities among the slaves, such
as loyalty and obedience, so that they would be in better standing with their
owner. The clause in lex aelia sentia that required a slave to be thirty years
in order to receive freedom would also encourage loyalty among slaves since
they were essentially required to serve for a longer period of time. These laws
during the Imperial Period reveal that restrictions on obtaining freedom were
used to keep slaves in order and give more leverage to the owners. In order to
remedy “the abuse of manumission by both private individuals and politicians in
the late Republic” laws during the Imperial Period appeared more stringent when
it came to the freedom of slaves.

 

            The
difference in the treatment of male and female slaves could also be seen during
the Imperial Period. Even though both received protections, the consequences
for certain acts against male slaves were harsher than certain acts against
female slaves. One punishment that male slaves were protected from during the
Imperial Period was castration. According to (roman slavery and law),
“castration was actively prohibited and penalized from the Principate onwards.”
In fact, Hadrian equated castration to murder and permitted slaves to complain
to magistrates if the procedure was performed on them. Domitian also “fixed a
low maximum price” for castrated slaves, so that owners would be deterred from
castrating their slaves as their sale value would go down. Harsh consequences
like the ones discussed above suggest that the Emperors were dedicated to
resolving the issue. On the other hand, when looking at the laws against the
prostitution, it does not appear to be as much of a concern. Vespian decreed
that a slave sold “under a covenant that she was not be prostituted” would be
set free if this condition was broken (slavery and roman law 434). There is no
consequence for the owner who sold the slave other than losing the amount payed
for the slave. (slavery and roman law) attributes this to the fact that “male
slaves could potentially become Roman citizens, but those made eunuchs could
never father children.” The difference in severity of punishment can be traced
to the laws passed during Augustus’ reign that aimed to integrate slaves into
society. Unlike prostitution as a slave, which had no effect on an individual’s
social standing after they were free, castration would prevent free male slaves
from fully contributing to Roman society. Since prostitution among slaves did
not have as big of an impact on life after slavery as did castration, it was
not as strictly regulated. Once again, the protections offered to slaves seem
to stem from reasons other than solely humanitarian ones. Instead of preventing
castration because it is wrong, the Emperors wanted to have more functional
freed men who would be able to add to society.

 

            One
change in the treatment of slaves that did not appear to have ulterior motives,
such as creating more stability or giving owners more leverage was how slave
families could be split up. Technically, slaves had no family or relatives as
they did not belong to any gens. Throughout the Imperial Period, “whether
claves . . . were kept together with their families tended to depend on the
interpretations of individual lawyers (slavery and roman law 425). For example,
if an owner passed on his slaves to his child through his will, the child was
not entitled to any possible slave children born to the slaves mentioned in the
will (slavery and roman law 425). Clearly, there was an absence of compassion
in dealing with slave relationships. Considering the fact that slaves had no
officially recognized familia makes breaking up slave families seem even
crueler as those families were the only relations slaves could have.
Eventually, Constantine “ordered that divisions of property be made so as to
allow close relatives among slave to stay together” (slavery and roman law
425). This order is an example of when Roman society treated slaves with some
compassion. There is no clear advantage to slave owners as a result of this
law. In fact, it makes selling slaves more difficult because owners can no
longer sell any one slave. They have to consider slave relationships and
construct sales around that. It is interesting to see how the importance of
gens and familia in Roman society was eventually reflected in the treatment of
slaves. From the beginning of the Republic, the role of family played a key
role in Roman society as it determined an individuals’ social standing as well as
what opportunities they could have. The recognition of familial relationships
among slaves demonstrates a shift from the previously held belief that slaves
are exclusively property. The fact that Constantine recognized and instructed
owners to keep slave families together shows that slaves were seen in a more
humane light as the Imperial Period progressed.