1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Rome: Reforms.

(Part 9)


Slavery in Ancient Rome: Reforms.

In the 2nd century of the Christian era we find a marked change with respect to the institution of slavery, both in the region of thought and in that of law. Already the principles of reason and humanity had been applied to the subject by Seneca who, whatever we may think of him as a man, deserves our gratitude for the just and liberal sentiments he expressed respecting the slaves, who, he says, should be treated as "humble friends," and especially for his energetic reprobation of gladiatorial combats and of the brutality of the public who enjoyed those sanguinary shows. But it was in the 2d century, as we have said, that "the victory of moral ideas" in this, as in other departments of life became "decisive. . . Dio Chrysostom, the adviser of Trajan, is the first Greek writer who has pronounced the principle of slavery to be contrary to the law of nature (Mark Pattison). And a parallel change is found in the practical policy of the state. The military vocation of Rome was now felt to have reached its normal limits; and the emperors, understanding that, in the future, industrial activity must prevail, prepared the abolition of slavery as far as was then possible, by honouring the freedmen, by protecting the slave against his master, and by facilitating manumissions. The jurists who, in the absence of a recognized spiritual power, provisionally discharged in their own way the office of systematizing practical morals, modified, by means of the useful fiction of the jus naturale, the presumptions of law and the interpretation of doubtful instruments. ("Quod ad jus naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt" —Ulpian. "Servitus est constitutio juris gentium, qua quis dominio alieno contra naturam subjicitur"—Florentinus.) The general tendency both of the imperial constitutions and of the maxims of the legists is in favour of liberty. ("Nec ignotum est quod multa contra juris rigorem pro libertate sint constituta" —Ulpian.) The practices of exposure and sale of children, and of giving them in pledge for debt, are forbidden. An edict of Diocletian forbade a free man to sell himself. Manstealers or kidnappers (plagiarii) were punished with death. The insolvent debtor was withdrawn from the yoke of his creditor. While the slave trade was permitted, the atrocious mutilation of boys and young men, too often practised, was punished with exile and even with death. In redhibitory actions (for the annulment of sales), if a slave were returned to the seller, so must also be his parents, brothers, and personae contubernio conjunctae. In the interpretation of testaments it was to be assumed that members of the same family were not to be separated by the division of the succession. The law also favoured in special cases the security of the peculium, though in general principle it still remained the property of the master. The state granted to public slaves the right of bequeathing half their possessions; and private persons sometimes permitted similar dispositions even to a greater extent, though only within the familia. Hadrian took from masters the power of life and death and abolished the subterranean prisons. Antoninus Pius punished him who killed his own slave as if he had killed another’s. Already in the time of Nero the magistrates had been ordered to receive the slave’s complaint of ill-treatment; and the lex Petronia, belonging to the same earlier period, forbade masters to hand over their slaves treated to combats with wild beasts. Antoninus directed that slaves treated with excessive cruelty, who had taken refuge at an altar or imperial image, should be sold; and this provision was extended to cases in which the master had employed a slave in a way degrading to him or beneath his character. M. Aurelius gave to masters an action against their slaves for any cause of complaint, thus bringing their relation more directly under the surveillance of law and public opinion. A slave’s oath could still not be taken in a court of law ; he was interrogated by the "question" ; but the emperors and jurists limited in various ways the application of torture, adding, however, as we have mentioned, to the cases in which it could previously be appealed to that of the crime of majestas. For certain alleged offences of the master the slave could bring an action, being represented for the purpose by an adsertor. Emancipation was facilitated; some of the old formalities were dispensed with; obstacles to it were removed, and legal difficulties solved in such a way as to further it. The power of imposing conditions on testamentary manumissions was restricted, and these conditions interpreted in the sense most favourable to freedom. The emperor could confer liberty by presenting a gold ring to a slave with the consent of the master, and the legal process called restitutio natalium made him a full citizen. It was decided that liberty could not be forfeited even by a prescription of sixty years’ duration.

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