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.

Ancient historians tend to be very good at explaining the political, legal, economic and social history of slavery. They are less good at capturing the mindset that sustained it, from the casually brutal assumptions about slaves’ inferiority to the erotic fantasies projected onto gladiators. This is in part because we don’t have the evidence: not a single treatise survives from antiquity that deals centrally with the experience of slavery, from either point of view. The closest is the marvellous Life of Aesop, a boisterous pseudo-biography of the author of the Fables, imagined as a potbellied, hunched Phrygian slave. Aesop’s cunning and wit allow him to run rings around his master, Xanthus. At one point, the master asks for ‘lentil’ for supper, and Aesop duly cooks him a single lentil. Microaggressions of this kind, if not quite on that scale, must have fortified many resentful slaves. But the Life of Aesop is a fiction set in the distant past, and aimed (probably) at a free readership: however much a historian can mine from it, it is refracted through the prism of literary fabulation.

Jerry Toner’s engaging, witty and learned little book plugs this gap. How to Manage Your Slaves masquerades as a newly discovered tract by one Marcus Sidonius Falx. Each of the 11 chapters consists of a short essay in which ‘Marcus’ offers the benefits of his experience, along with some fortifying anecdotes, and a brief commentary by Toner himself discussing the context and parallels from genuine ancient sources.

Much fun is had with the pseudepigraphic game. Marcus describes Toner in cutting terms: ‘a man so soft I have never encountered outside the servile class: he has not once fought in battle, can scarce drink a small amphora of watered wine, and even stoops so low that he himself will clean his baby’s backside.’ The cognomen Falx (literally ‘sickle’) suggests the English ‘false’ and the Latin falsus/fallax. Playful anachronisms (references to amuse-bouches, for example, and allusions to Orlando Patterson’s 1982 study Slavery and Social Death) offer still more leavening. It is perfectly plausible, though, that a tract along these lines might have existed. Greeks and Romans were fond of ‘how to’ manuals, and household management was a favourite topic from Xenophon onwards. Simon Swain of Warwick University recently reconstructed one such text, Bryson’s Management of the Estate, from Arabic and other sources (it was published too late for Toner to take it into account).[*] Bryson, who wrote in Greek in the first century CE, incorporated a substantial discussion of the selection and treatment of slaves.

Though its learning is worn lightly, How to Manage Your Slaves is an admirably well-researched book. Marcus is a composite figure welded together from multiple sources that span half a millennium. There are some clues that might locate him more precisely. Since he refers to the emperor Septimius Severus (who ruled from 193 to 211 CE), and treats the idea of a Christian emperor as an absurdity (Constantine fought the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312), he probably belongs somewhere in the third century CE. He is clearly a nobleman from a traditional Roman family (though his nomen Sidonius may suggest ancient connections with Sidon in what is now called Lebanon) and owns country estates in Italy. Ultimately, however, he is intended to be a timeless every(ro)man, an embodiment of attitudes that persisted throughout antiquity. ‘I have never come across Marcus Sidonius Falx before,’ Mary Beard comments in her foreword, ‘but I know his type.’

Toner nicely captures the moral ambivalence of the master-slave relationship. On the one hand, Marcus’ attitude is unabashedly exploitative: slaves exist to enrich the household, so the aim should be to get the most out of them for the minimum investment. There’s no room for sentiment. Toner enjoys shocking his readers with Marcus’ apparent callousness. For example, when speaking of the children he has fathered on female slaves Marcus notes, ‘if when born they look sickly, or if I already have a sufficient number of them in the household, I order the mothers to expose the infants by leaving them at the dump. Which reminds me, I heard a very amusing joke about this the other day …’ Violence and cruelty are justified by a warped pragmatism. What explains the Roman (and Greek) practice of admitting slaves’ testimony in court only if it has been extracted by torture? For Marcus, the reason is ‘obvious. Slaves are habitual liars and it is only when they suffer pain that they can be expected to reveal the truth.’

Although Marcus usually adopts a hard-headed approach, he can be disarmingly humane. He is keen to present himself as a generous master, and advises slave-owners not to let others ‘stop you from fraternising with your slaves and treating them pleasantly, and not as their arrogant superior’. Human society works best, he continues, when based on mutual respect rather than fear. Marcus often counsels gentle treatment: feed and clothe your slaves well, allow them to socialise with one another, let them marry. Above all, they should be urged on by the promise of freedom. A whole chapter is devoted to manumission, which is treated as the rightful expectation of every slave, or at least those within the city. Another chapter addresses the rare phenomenon (despite Spartacus) of slave insurrections: these only occur, Marcus writes, ‘when we masters fail in our duty of care.’

To read a slave owner, even a fictitious one, speaking of ethics is unsettling. It also makes us think about the way moral discourse can be co-opted and used to justify the most repellent ideologies. Marcus’ manual is essentially about treating other humans as units of productivity, and maximising their performance. All of that talk of humane treatment of slaves is really to this end. It is essential, Marcus insists, to ‘reward hard work. It is very demoralising for good slaves if they see that they are doing all the hard work, but that the lazy slaves get just as much food as they do.’ You need ‘clear job roles’ and ‘accountability’; you should also generate competition. None of this, of course, comes from ancient sources. Toner’s message is that modern business adopts the same tactics as the ancient slave-owning class, concealing a rapacious pursuit of profit and an indifference towards the desires of others behind a carapace of moral elevation and self-congratulation.

There is another, less obvious anachronism. Christianity plays a strange role in writings about Roman history. Partly because of the way disciplinary specialisms work within the academy, and partly because of a residual commitment to a kind of historical supersessionism, Roman historians often finish their stories in late antiquity, which is constructed as the point of transition from the classical to the early medieval period. According to one conventional narrative, Christianity transformed Roman culture, and pointed the way towards an ethics that paid more attention to the needs of others. Yet as Toner points out, when it came to issues of human freedom there was very little change. The moral rightness of slavery remained pretty much unquestioned by Christianity for well over a millennium, even if the collapse of the Roman villa system in the early Middle Ages made it less economically practical than other forms of dependent labour, as changes to social structure began to make tenured farming more economically viable than slave ownership.

Marcus makes some mischievous comments about Christianity, a ‘wicked superstition’, stressing that for all their talk of meekness and egalitarianism wealthy Christians were just as likely to own and mistreat slaves. There is no triumphalist narrative here of the defeat of nasty old paganism, even if ‘we would like to think that Christian teachings improved the conditions of slaves,’ as Toner writes in his own voice. That complicity-seeking ‘we’ is a little troubling, but accurate enough as a description of mainstream opinion. A quick Google search reveals scores of academic and para-academic essays desperately looking for signs of abolitionism in the writings of the early Church.

For those trying to find evidence of a transformation of attitudes, Exhibit A is the fourth-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whose Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes contains an attack on the buying and selling of human lives, on the grounds that we are all made in God’s image. The passage is almost always taken out of context: it is not a polemic against slavery as an institution but against the hoarding of wealth. Gregory’s rhetorical point is that worldly goods, among which he counts slaves, are vain and an affront to God. What is more, the position he adopts derives fundamentally not from Christian teaching but from Stoic and Cynic ideas about human liberation and the life according to nature. For these philosophers, true freedom – which is to say, the soul’s freedom from the arbitrary demands of human society – is open to all, irrespective of the hand fate has dealt. To be truly ‘slavish’, by contrast, is to be in thrall to the allurements of money, fame, power. Gregory’s central concern, which is rooted in these philosophical ideas, is with the moral damage done to those in the slave-owning class who set too much store on worldly hierarchies and don’t think enough about the injustices dealt to slaves themselves.

It’s important to expose the self-serving simplifications of those who want to see late antique history in terms of the victory of Christian altruism over Rome’s heartless mercantilism. Toner’s book points in the right direction but doesn’t quite nail the case. In particular, he doesn’t do enough to show that slavery was already seen as a moral problem by some within Greco-Roman society. As a wealthy, genial but fundamentally unreflective property-owner, Marcus is constitutionally inclined to avoid worrying about ethical questions. There were many such people in antiquity, but there were plenty of others who felt and voiced disquiet. Some of these were philosophers, including but not limited to the Cynics and Stoics. Their views are occasionally glimpsed, but no more than that, in this book. When Greek philosophy is alluded to, the primary reference is to Aristotle, whose view that certain kinds of people are naturally inferior and designed for servitude was, it could be argued, already extreme and heterodox in the fourth century BCE.

Toner doesn’t discuss the way literature and popular culture treated the lot of slaves. From classical Athens onwards, drama had been testing the line that separated free men from slaves, not least in the comedies of Plautus and Terence. Nor does he consider the novel, a genre that was flourishing in Marcus’ day. Greek and Roman novels often depict the temporary enslavement of their aristocratic protagonists, using this device to bring the sufferings of the oppressed vividly to life. Although one of the book’s anecdotes is taken from Achilles Tatius’ kinky Greek romance Leucippe and Clitophon, it’s odd that no use is made of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. As William Fitzgerald showed in Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination, the story of Lucius’ adventures while transformed into an ass are an allegory of the life of a slave, burdened, beaten and abased.

Any attempt to render Roman slavery less incomprehensible must certainly involve trying to understand people like Marcus, the regular guys who just got on with exploiting their fellow humans with good-humoured pragmatism. But there were also ancients who found slavery hard to comprehend, long before Christianity came onto the scene; if we ignore their anxieties and apprehensions, the picture is only half-complete.

[*] 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).