One Kidnapping Away

Tim Whitmarsh

I remember being mesmerised by a shackle displayed in Philadelphia’s Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery. It was a terrible object, the bequest of a past that is still too close. There was nothing metaphorical in the cold, heavy iron. To be ‘shackled’ by that instrument of brutality was not to be constrained or inhibited. Iron shackles survive from classical antiquity too, and they are no less menacing. At its peak in the second century CE, the Roman Empire had around sixty million inhabitants within its territories, bounded by northern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Of these, as many as one in eight may have been slaves, whether suffering in Spanish silver mines, tilling the soil on a nobleman’s Italian estate, teaching the young their letters or serving at banquets. Unfree labour was part of the Roman world.

The idea of slavery structured the language of ancient ethics. Servility was equated with moral incontinence; freedom and liberality with virtue. (How many ‘liberals’ know they are subscribing to a moral code canonised by Cicero, which defines itself by opposition to slavishness?) Many Greeks and Romans thought slaves incapable of virtue. ‘Zeus takes away half a man’s excellence when the day of slavery comes upon him,’ the swineherd Eumaeus comments in the Odyssey. It was a sentiment that persisted throughout antiquity and into the Middle Ages.

Roman slavery, however, was a paradox. The economy was driven by free peasant labour, not by the unfree. The reason the Romans began using slaves in the second century BCE has been debated since Max Weber first posed the question. Wealthy Romans had conflicted attitudes towards those fellow humans whose lives they controlled. Romans could like their slaves. They could befriend them. They could love them. Think of Cicero manumitting his amanuensis Tiro (an act that occasioned a warm letter of praise from his brother Quintus). The camaraderie between the two men seems to have been sincere and reciprocal (even after Cicero’s death, Tiro remained devoted to him, editing his works). Tiro was an exception, to be sure: for every one like him there were a hundred living corpses crawling through the Spanish mines. But the crucial point is that we fundamentally misrepresent Roman society if we think of attitudes towards slavery as uniform.

Transatlantic slavery was racialised, so that pigmentation became the sign of difference between free and unfree. Both parties were instantly recognisable. Roman slaves, by contrast, were distinguished solely by their legal status, and that could easily be changed. Manumission was common and unproblematic in the Roman world (unlike the Greek). Freedmen, who became citizens with full rights and whose children would also be free, were a significant class. There might be some sneering at their parvenu ways, as there is in Petronius’ portrait of Trimalchio, the pretentious, ostentatious but befuddled host in The Satyricon. But many rose to positions of great influence, particularly as government bureaucrats. Because Romans saw status differentiation as a matter of law rather than nature they had a more flexible attitude towards their slaves. They knew not only that slaves could become free, but also (as their comedies and romances taught them) that even the aristocracy were only one kidnapping away from a life of bondage.

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[*] Economy, Family and Society from Rome to Islam: A Critical Edition, English Translation and Study of Bryson’s ‘Management of the Estate’ by Simon Swain (Cambridge, 585 pp., £89.99, April 2013, 978 1 107 02536 3).