Is it possible to argue that the Roman slaves were respected as human beings?

Roman Italy was understood to be a ‘slave society’ considering slaves comprised twenty-percent of the population (Hopkins, 1978, p.99). It is arguable whether Roman slaves were respected as human beings, despite their low level status in society. In this essay, I will examine the claim by analysing the complex relationships between slaves and the citizens of Rome and also the economical impact of slavery. It is important to note that one of the key issues in this essay is the concept of cultural relativism. The Roman’s customs, beliefs and ethics are relative to their own time period and culture. Morality in the twenty-first century cannot be compared with Roman morality, since the notions of “right” and “wrong” are culture specific. When analysing the concept of slavery in antiquity, it is imperative to take into account that a slave’s fate is inextricably bound by the social hierarchy of power. In such a hierarchy, without the under-class there is simply no upper-class.

Many slaves lived in complete conditions of trust alongside their masters and mistresses (Rawson, 2010, p.24). The writings of several Roman authors illustrate the notion that slaves were considered by some citizens to be human beings instead of commodities. In a letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca the Younger articulates a high level of respect towards slaves; stating that slaves and their respective masters are equal, as the fate of both social classes are effectively intertwined:

“I am glad to learn, through those who come from you, that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. “They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. “Slaves!” No, comrades. “Slaves!” No, they are unpretentious friends. “Slaves!” No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike.”
(Seneca the Younger, Moral Letters to Lucilius 47.1)

However, the idea that slaves were respected as human beings certainly did not hold true for all slave-owners. Tactitus (Annals 14.42-45) outlines the general attitude that Senators had towards slaves in A.D. 61. A city prefect was murdered by one of his four-hundred slaves and after the Senate deliberated, it was decided that all slaves in the house-hold were to be executed (Tactitus Annals 14.42). Despite Senator Gaius Cassius insisting slaves “received the affection of their masters [from birth]”, he spoke the opinion of many Senators by proclaiming that the executions were necessary to reinforce the slave’s inferiority: “you cannot control these dregs of society except through fear” (Tactitus, Annals 14.44). These two conflicting viewpoints support the view that many Romans identified slaves as disposable products in an economy; rather than a human who you could sympathize towards and come to love. The latter stance is one that is supported by Pliny the Younger, as he expresses deep affection for his freedman in a letter to Valerius Paulinus:

“But were I naturally of a rough and hardened temper, the ill state of health of my freedman Zosimus would suffice to soften me…He is, besides, endeared to me by a long‑standing affection, which is heightened by his present danger. For some years ago he strained himself so much by too vehement an exertion of his voice, that he spit blood, upon which account I sent him into Egypt; from whence, after a long absence, he lately returned with great benefit to his health.”
(Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.14)

Slaves were also crucial in the composition of Roman households. Saller (1987, p. 82) suggests that slaves were “human beings as controllable property” in an attempt to manipulate family size and composition. As a consequence, slaves inevitably had specific tasks to perform, and accordingly slave-owners provided their respective slaves with food to eat and clothes in order to increase efficiency of labour (Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 2 56-59). From this perspective it can be argued that life as a slave for some was better than dealing with the vicissitudes of life in the ancient times, due to the basic tender that the Romans provided to their human property. For example, Epictetus comments on the life of a freedman whose current living conditions are worse than it had been before:

”Someone else kept me in clothes, and shoes, and supplied me with food, and nursed me when I was sick; I served him in only a few matters. But now, miserable man that I am, what suffering is mine, who am a slave to several instead of one!”
(Epictetus, Discourses 4.1:36)

Slaves were status markers in Rome and it was perceived to be favourable to “manipulate [slaves] in a socially acceptable fashion” (Saller 1987, p. 66). Although slaves were considered to be “instrumentum vocale” or ‘speaking tools’ (Varro, On Agriculture 1.17.1), Seneca criticizes the social pretensions that separated slaves from their Roman masters:

“That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave. But why should they think it degrading? It is only because purse-proud etiquette surrounds a householder at his dinner with a mob of standing slaves.”
(Seneca the Younger, Moral Letters to Lucilius 47.2)

In addition, child-raising was “largely given over to slaves” (Saller 1987, p. 80). Although slaves were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the Romans essentially trusted slaves to raise their children. From this perspective, the value of a slave correlated to their inherent talents. For example, a slave who was proficient in speaking Greek or teaching philosophy was in high demand (Saller 1987, p. 80). Hence the Romans understood that these skilled slaves might command a price much higher than the vast number of agricultural and mining slaves destined to performed manual labour. For instance, Pliny the Younger describes the talents of his freedman:

“He is honest and well-educated; but his profession, his certified accomplishments, one might say, is that of comedian, wherein he highly excels. He speaks with great emphasis, judgement, propriety, and some gracefulness; and also plays the lyre more skilfully than a comedian need do. To this I must add, he reads history, oratory, and poetry, as well as if he had singly applied himself to that art. I am particular in enumerating these qualifications to let you see how many and agreeable services I receive from this one man’s hand.”
(Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.14)

The great price held out to all slaves was the possibility of being free. Manumission was not only the end of captivity for the Roman slave; it was also progression towards social integration.  Some masters manumitted their slaves as a special reward, while other masters freed their slaves in their will or via a slave’s epitaph (ILS 8532). A slave could also buy his own freedom with his savings (peculium) (Shelton 1998, p.173). Therefore the Romans to a certain extent respected the process of a slaves’ assimilation into Roman society, however there were still significant prejudices against freedmen. Freedmen suffered the social stigma of having been slaves, and were looked down on as coarse and vulgar (Petronius, The Satyricon pp.51-91). Furthermore freedmen could never reach senatorial rank, nor could they hold a high rank in the army (Stewart 2012, p.120).

 In conclusion, it is conceivable that some Romans did respect their fellow slaves as human beings however this view in antiquity was not necessarily one held by the majority of Roman citizens. The Romans understood that slavery was an efficient method of stimulating the economy, and as a result slaves were purchased to work for their respective masters. The hierarchy of power ultimately decided the fate of countless slaves, although some slaves were fortunate to have affectionate masters who tendered to their essential needs. Manumission did not effectively mean that freedmen escaped the prejudices attached to their former experiences, thus consequently highlighting the underlying social stigma that Roman society had towards current and previous slaves.


Primary Texts:

Cato the Elder 1998, On Agriculture 2, trans. J.A. Shelton, Oxford, New York.

Epictetus 1926, The Discourses, trans. W.A. Oldfather, Heinemann, London.

Petronius 1986, The Satyricon, trans. J.P. Sullivan, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Pliny the Younger 2009, Letters, Vol II, trans. B. Radice, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Seneca the Younger 1969, Moral Letters to Lucilius, trans. R. Campbell, Penguin Classics.

Tactitus 1998, Annals, trans. J.A. Shelton, Oxford, New York.

Varro 1998, On Agriculture, trans. J.A. Shelton, Oxford, New York.


Secondary Texts:

Hopkins, K 1978, Conquerors and Slaves, 1st ed., Cambridge University Press.

Rawson, B 2010, A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Wiley-Blackwell.

Saller, R 1987, ‘Slavery and the Roman Family’, in Classical Slavery, London.

Shelton, JA 1998, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, Oxford, New York.

Stewart, R 2012, Plautus and Roman Slavery, John Wiley & Sons.

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