Slavery is as old as mankind, indeed an early sign of human organization. The absence of slavery in the modern First World is a recent phenomenon. Declared illegal by an English judge in the seventeenth century, abolished in the United States and Russia in the nineteenth, slavery flourished a hundred years ago in parts of Latin America, notably Brazil (The Masters and the Slaves by Gilberto Freyre, published by Knopf in 1956, is one the most remarkable books on any subject).

Slavery still exists in Arabia, where auctions have been recorded recently, and, by extension, in Eaton Square, London SW1, where indentured Filipino girls are found sobbing in the streets, complaining about their attempted rape by the sons of their employers.

We react to revelations of slavery or of quasi-slavery – child labour in the Far East, for example – with horror, but this reaction is only as old as the existence of the motor car, say a hundred years. For the Romans in our period, from the birth of Julius Caesar to the death of Nero, the last of his clan (37BC–AD 68), slavery was a mostly unquestioned part of life. The behaviour of human beings towards each other, however inhumane, always has its justificatif. Geneticists from California were invited to Germany by the Nazis to justify the concentration camps. The institution of slavery had the most respectable apologists: Aristotle approved, subject to ‘no outrage, no familiarity’, limitations which were spectacularly ignored. Euripides, the great humanitarian, ‘could not conceive of its abolition’, a view shared by the Hellenist Jewish philosopher Philo. The Stoics considered slavery to be an external accident about which nothing could be done. Hannah Arendt, the existentialist political theorist, explains in The Human Condition: ‘The institution of slavery in antiquity . . . was not a device for cheap labour, nor an instrument of exploitation for profit, but rather an attempt to exclude labour from the conditions of a man’s life.’

Put the other way, the ancient world considered some tasks, essential to life, so disagreeable that they could and should not be performed by proper human beings, so slaves were invoked to perform them. Therefore slaves cannot be considered as completely human. They were ‘tame animals’, interested only, said Euripides, in filling their stomachs. Under Roman law, because slaves do not naturally tell the truth, their evidence in court was only allowed if obtained under torture. When a slave was freed he rejoined his ‘nature’ – i.e., was transmuted from a res to a persona.

Seneca – playwright, philosopher, tutor to Nero – was alone in disapproving of slavery and of the bloodletting of the Games, but then he was a very rare and a very rich man. Seneca’s contemporary in Rome, St Paul, with whom fifth-century Christians invented a correspondence, said easily: ‘We are all slaves before God.’ It was not until the reign of Trajan, nearly fifty years later, that the institution was thought to be ‘unnatural’, and not until the Emperors Antoninus Pius and Claudius Aurelius that a slave could complain of ill-treatment and that the power of life and death was removed from the masters.

A Roman of senatorial rank could be a soldier, an administrator or an advocate (unpaid) but never a businessman in a regular way, though speculation was, strangely, considered OK. The poorer Roman citizen, the plebeian, who had only his vote to sell, would never sell his labour. So all the work, physical and mental, was performed by slaves. They were doctors, secretaries, book-keepers, major-domos. Both sides used slaves as soldiers in the Civil Wars, Emperor Augustus as Imperial Guardsmen. Gladiators and actors almost had to be slaves, which explains the downfall of the Emperors Caligula and Nero, whose performance in these roles, though they delighted the plebs, engendered the fatal distaste of the Roman upper classes. The first was murdered by young nobs and the second outlawed by senatorial decree.

A man born into this world was weaned, coddled, taught, fed, entertained and indeed often loved by a variety of slaves from the cradle to the grave. Long-serving slaves were manumitted on his deathbed – Seneca’s was the classical example – and the rest were left as part of his estate. Slaves in Rome were completely inside society and indeed often, if a play on words is permissible, inside their owners. By the end of our period few families in Rome were not laced with slave blood, which may have diminished Romanseveritas but also made Romans more tolerant. Rich people bought handsome slaves of all sexes for pleasure and display just as randy duchesses in the eighteenth century relished a well-turned calf in a footman or a groom both for public contemplation and for private enjoyment. Marcus Aurelius, listing the austere attitudes of indifference to sensual pleasures of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius – a remarkable pair of pure Emperors – adds that he did not notice ‘the beauty of his slaves’.

The field slave or mining slave did not fare so well; one Roman matron, a big landowner, the Mrs Helmsley of her day, maintained it was cheaper to work her slaves to death and replace them than to feed them properly. If slaves wrote love poems they have not come down to us. There are moments in Latin literature describing the love and affection of masters for their slaves of which Virgil’s second Eclogue is the most famous. The desperate love of Corydon for Alexis is told at length and heart-wringingly. Alas the pampered slave boy belongs to another. Such a beauty in the open market would have cost 24,000 denarii – the cost of a Porsche today. A run-of-the-mill slave at this time, at the beginning of our millennium, cost only 500 denarii and his day’s labour half adenarius, but the poets were not interested in such fellows. The size of the Empire and the extent and variety of its conquests meant that slaves, shuffled anonymously in the markets, could have come from anywhere and be anybody. Virgil’s contemporary, Horace, writes to a friend:

Dear Phocoan Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed

Her family’s undoubtedly royal; perhaps

She’s mourning some palace’s cruel collapse.

(Horace, Odes, Book 11, iv, tr. James Michie, Penguin)

The reason for the Lex Aelia Sentia, which prohibited the manumission of slaves under thirty by masters under twenty, can be imagined. A slave in Rome had many routes to the ‘status’ of freedom, which gave him liberty but not citizenship. Then he could wear the conical little hat of liberty, revived in the French Revolution. He might purchase his manumission from his master with his peculium (literally ‘private property’, usually an accumulation of tips). He might earn his freedom through public service in the fire brigade or as a street cleaner. But the most common way of manumission was from the affection or deathbed gesture of the master. Cicero, whose manumitted slave Tiro edited his letters, claimed that it should only take six years for a slave to become a freedman and then, if he were shrewd and industrious, he could become a millionaire like Trimalchio – the exuberant party-giver satirized by Petronius and filmed by Fellini. Pliny records one freedman who became rich enough to leave 4,116 slaves in his will.

Members of the Roman intelligentsia were often descended from slaves. The father of Horace was a freedman who became a tax-collector or possibly an auctioneer’s assistant but in a substantial enough way to leave him the competence of a gentleman. Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, was slave as a boy to Epaphroditus, one of Nero’s courtiers.

Of course, the life of slaves, even in Rome, could be heavy with humiliation and cruelty. Ovid writes of porters being chained in Rome. Vedius Pollio, a Roman aristocrat, fed his slaves to his lampreys for ‘trivial offences’. The 400 slaves (a large enough number to have included silentarii – slaves employed to keep the others quiet) of the household of the Prefect Pedanius Secundus were led off to execution by soldiers, through a sullen crowd, after one of them had murdered him.

In the early days, the concept of slavery – of one man helping another till the soil – could be described by the historian Mommsen as ‘innocent’. But as the numbers of slaves increased so did the Romans’ fear of them. Laws relating to slavery under Nero, for instance, were both repressive, through fear, and humane, through a sense of justice. The law under which the 400 slaves of Pedanius Secundus were executed in AD 61 had been initiated by Augustus but the classical schoolmaster’s favourite, Seneca, so famous for his clemency, did not even attend the agonizing debate in the Senate deciding that the law be enforced in this case (Professor Michael Grant suggests that the slave who murdered his master may have been in love with him!). The Senate’s decision was truly Roman: the law was cruel but clear, it had to be implemented.

The supply of slaves came mainly through conquest. Men, women and children from defeated Italian towns were the earliest source. Then Rome was flooded by the entire population of Sardinia and the phrase ‘cheap as a Sardinian’ became current. As the Empire expanded, slaves were shipped in from all over the world and the flow only stopped, as Gibbon pointed out, with the completion of the Roman system of conquest. The international big business of slavery was centred on the little Cycladic island of Delos, where the turnover of 10,000 slaves a day was recorded in the time of Augustus. Before they were suppressed, kidnappers and pirates dumped slaves anonymously on to Delos. Julius Caesar was himself kidnapped and held to ransom, as a young man. As a general in Gaul he records selling (the sale of slaves was the general’s perk) 53,000 Aduatuci (defeated Gallic tribesmen) in one day. Perhaps he needed the money to repay Crassus . . .

There was no uniform for slaves in case they should realize how many they were. The system was based on force and was occasionally broken by greater force. Sicily was the first scene of effective slave revolts. In that unblessed island, chain-gangs of slaves, mainly Greeks, were used by bulk farmers to run the grain business, which supplied more than half the Roman market. In 104 BC, under the consulship of Marius, the mad young son of a Roman knight, one Titus, armed 500 slaves with weapons being auctioned off by a gladiatorial school and in no time had an army 4,000 strong. This revolt was put down and all participants executed. The second Sicilian revolt lasted longer. Two slave kings emerged – one called Salvius, an Italian freedman and snake charmer, the other a Greek called Athenio – and raised an army of 60,000 well-armed slaves and 5,000 cavalry, but enthusiasm and indignation cannot glue armies together for ever. It was not until the revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC that the Romans were seriously threatened by ‘their enormous slave population’, which outnumbered them three to one.

Spartacus and his ultimate destroyer, Crassus, were the stuff movies are made of: one noble, forgiving, heroic, the other greedy, cruel and charmless, the unacceptable face of Roman capitalism. Crassus, a slave trainer and dealer on an enormous scale, bought houses when they were on fire at a cut-down price – otherwise he refused to put them out. He financed Caesar and was the third man in the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey. After four years Crassus defeated Spartacus and lined the Appian Way with the crucified bodies of rebellious slaves.

Spartacus passed into Roman folklore as a bogeyman, like Napoleon, and was used to frighten the children. Voltaire described his struggle as ‘possibly the only just war in history’. But history belongs to the conquerors. Roman history was played against a backdrop – painted bloody and brooding, occasionally lit by charm and consideration – of innumerable slaves. They were essential to the life of their masters and their lives were not always a living death. They were also essential to the economy of the Empire and without them the roads, bridges, ports, aqueducts, amphitheatres (though some were built by soldiers), triumphal arches, markets and public baths could not have been built or maintained. Maintenance is the essence of civilization and without slavery Rome could not have been civilized.

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