1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Rome: Laws. Treatment of Slaves.

(Part 7)


Slavery in Ancient Rome: Laws. Treatment of Slaves.

By the original Roman law the master was clothed with absolute dominion over the slave, extending to the power of life and death, which is not surprising when we consider the nature of the patria potestas. The slave could not possess property of any kind; whatever he acquired was legally his master’s. He was, however, in practice permitted to enjoy and accumulate chance earnings or savings, or a share of what he produced, under the name of peculium. A master could not enter into a contract with his slave, nor could he accuse him of theft before the law; for, if the slave took anything, this was not a subtraction, but only a displacement, of property. The union of a male and female slave had not the legal character of a marriage ; it was a cohabitation (contubernium) merely which was tolerated, and might be terminated at will, by the master ; a slave was, therefore, not capable of the crime of adultery. Yet general sentiment seems to have given a stronger sanction to this sort of connexion ; the names of husband and wife are freely used in relation to slaves on the stage, and even in the laws, and in the language of the tombs. For entering the military service or taking on him any state office a slave was punished with death. He could not in general be examined as a witness, except by torture. A master, when accused, could offer his slaves for the "question," or demand for the same purpose the slaves of another and, if in the latter case they were injured or killed in the process, their owner was indemnified. A slave could not accuse his master, except of adultery or incest (under the latter name being included the violation of sacred things or places) ; the case of high treason was afterwards added to these. An accused slave could not invoke the aid of the tribunes. The penalties of the law for crime were more severe on guilty slaves than on freemen ; "majores nostri," say the legists, "in omni supplicio severius servos quam liberos punierunt." The capital punishment of the freeman was by the sword or the precipice,—of the slave by the axe or the cross. The lex Cornelia punished the murder of a slave or a freeman alike ; but the master who killed his own slave was not affected by this law.

Columella, like Xenophon, favours a certain friendliness and familiarity in one’s intercourse with his farm slaves. Cato ate and drank the same coarse victuals as his slaves, and even had the children suckled by his wife, that they might imbibe a fondness for the family. But that rigid old economist had a strict eye to profit in all his dealings with them. He allowed the contubernium of male and female slaves at the price of a money payment from their peculium. Columella regarded the gains from the births as a sufficient motive for encouraging these unions, and thought that mothers should be rewarded for their fecundity; Varro, too, seems to have taken this view. The immense extension of the rural estates (latifundia) made it impossible for masters to know their slaves, even if they were disposed to take trouble for the purpose. Effective superintendence even by overseers became less easy ; the use of chains was introduced, and these were worn not only in the field during working hours but at night in the ergastulum where the labourers slept—a practice which Pliny lamented as a disgrace to agriculture. Urban slaves had probably often a life as little enviable, especially those who worked at trades for speculators. Even in private houses at Rome, so late as the time of Ovid, the porter was chained. In the familia urbana the favourites of the master had good treatment, and might exercise some influence over him which would lead to their receiving flattery and gifts from those who sought his vote or solicited his support. Doubtless there was often genuine mutual affection; slaves sometimes, as in noted instances during the civil wars, showed the noblest spirit of devotion to their masters. Those who were not inmates of the household, but were employed outside of it as keepers of a shop or boat, chiefs of workshops, or clerks in a mercantile business, bad the advantage of greater freedom of action. The slaves of the Zeno and the lanista were probably in most cases not only degraded but unhappy. The lighter punish-ments inflicted by masters were commonly personal chastisement or banishment from the town house to rural labour ; the severer were employment in the mill (pistrinum) or relegation to the mines or quarries. To the mines speculators also sent slaves; they worked half naked, men and women, in chains, under the lash and guarded by soldiers. Vedius Pollio, in the time of Augustus, was said to have thrown big slaves, condemned sometimes for trivial mistakes or even accidents, to the lampreys in his fishpond. Cato advised the agriculturist to sell his old oxen and his old slaves, as well as his sick ones; and sick slaves were exposed in the island of Aesculapius in the Tiber ; by a decree of Claudius slaves so exposed, if they recovered, could not be reclaimed by their masters.

Though the Roman slaves were not, like the Spartan Helots, kept obedient by systematic terrorism, their large numbers were a constant source of solicitude in the later period of the republic and under the early empire. The law under which the slaves of Pedanius were put to death, probably first made under Augustus and more fully enacted under Nero, is sufficient proof of this anxiety, which indeed is strongly stated by Tacitus in his narrative of the facts. There had been many conspiracies amongst the slaves in the course of Roman history, formidable insurrections, We hear of a conspiracy about 500 B. C. and another in 419 B.C. ; again just before the sea-fight of Duilius and between the battles of Trasimenus and Cannae. In 198 B.C. a servile war bad almost broken out; in 196 B.C. there was a rising in Etruria and in 185 B.C. in Apulia. The growth of the latifundia made the slaves more and more numerous and formidable. Free labour was discountenanced. Cato, Varro, and Columella all agree that slave labour was to be preferred to free except in unhealthy regions and for large occasional operations, which probably transcended the capacity of the permanent familia rustica. Cicero and Livy bear testimony to the disappearance of a free plebs from the country districts and its replacement by gangs of slaves working on great estates. The policy of the Gracchi and their successors of the popular party was opposed to this reduction of the free working population, which they sought to counteract by agrarian laws and by colonization on a large scale—projects which could not be effectively carried out until civil supremacy was united with military power in the hands of a popular chief, and which, even when this condition was satisfied by the establishment of the empire, were inadequate to meet the evil. The worst form of praedial slavery existed in Sicily, whither Mommsen supposes that its peculiarly harsh features bad been brought by the Carthagin-ians. In Sicily, accordingly, the first really serious servile insurrections took place, at once provoked by the misery of the slaves and facilitated by the habits of brigandage which, it is said, the proprietors had tolerated and even encouraged as lightening the cost of subsistence of their slaves. The rising under Eunus in 133 B.C. was with some difficulty suppressed by Rupilius. Partial revolts in Italy succeeded ; and then came the second Sicilian insurrection under Trypho and Athenio, which, after a severe struggle, was put down by Aquilius. These were followed by the Servile War in Italy under Spartacus, which, occurring at an otherwise critical period, severely tested the military resources of Rome. In the subsequent civil conflicts the aid of slaves was sought by both parties, even by Marius himself, and afterwards by Catiline, though he finally rejected their services. Clodius and Milo employed bands of gladiators in their city riots, and this action.on the part of the latter was approved by Cicero. In the First Civil War they were to be found in both camps, and the murderers of Caesar were escorted to the Capitol by gladiators. Antony, Octavius, and Sextus Pompeius employed them in the Second Civil War; and it is recorded by Augustus on the Monumentum Ancyranum that he gave back to their masters for punishment about 30,000 slaves who had absconded and borne arms against the state. Under Tiberius, at the death of Caligula, and in the reign of Nero there were threatening movements of the slaves. In the wars from Otho to Vespasian they were employed, as Tacitus tells us, even by the most scrupulous generals.

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