Ancient History & Civilisation

The Slave

“I was no bigger than this candlestick here when I came out of Asia Minor. . . . For fourteen years I was the master’s little darling. The mistress’ too . . . . The gods were on my side - I became the head of the household, I took over from that pea-brain of a master. Need I say more? He made me co-heir in his will, and I inherited a millionaire’s estate.” The speaker is Trimalchio, the character in Petronius’s novel, The Satyricon, who made it from the rags of a slave to the riches of a billionaire.

A slave becoming a master’s heir and inheriting an estate worth millions? It seems unbelievable. Not in the Roman world of the first century A.D., when Petronius wrote. He was, to be sure, a novelist and not a historian, but his portrait of Trimalchio is based on reality. Though the slave was at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the likes of Pliny, thanks to certain Roman attitudes and ways, avenues of upward mobility bridged the gap between these extremes, and there were many slaves who made it part way across and some who, like Trimalchio, made it all the way.

Slavery is as old as war: It arose when a winning side, instead of killing off all the losers, discovered it was advantageous to take some home and make slaves of them. It existed throughout the millennia during which the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt dominated the ancient world, but within limits: The victims became nurses, maids, concubines, valets, gardeners, and the like. Then, around the beginning of the sixth century B.C., there was a fundamental change: The Greeks expanded slavery, basing their entire economy on it, and this continued for the thousand years during which first the Greeks and then the Romans ruled the Mediterranean world.

The tasks that involved sweat and drudgery inevitably fell to the lot of slaves: They labored in the damp and darkness of the mines; they hacked and chipped in the quarries; they toiled in the fields. But there also fell to them much white-collar work: They were the clerks, cashiers, and bookkeepers of ancient Greece and Rome. And they manned not only the lower levels of such work but the upper as well. Banks were owned by wealthy Greek or Roman families, but the officers who were in charge of them could be slaves or freedmen. The ships and cargoes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean belonged to wealthy Greeks or Romans, but the crews, from the lowest deckhand right up through the captain, could be slaves. Absentee landlords of great estates were able to spend their time in leisurely pursuits because the running of the holdings that supplied their income was all in the hands of slave or freedman managers backed by a staff of slaves. Romans with cash to invest often put it in city real estate; the agents who let the apartments, collected the rents, and saw to the repairs were slaves.

The white-collar work of slaves included that of governments as well as of individuals: They were the clerks, cashiers, bookkeepers of cities and states. At Athens, for example, the official in charge of the navy was a citizen elected by his fellow citizens, but the assistants who kept track of the galleys in the slips, their condition, what gear they had or lacked, whether there were shortages of rowers, and all such details, were slaves. (Incidentally, the rowers of these galleys, whether of Greek navies or Roman, were not slaves, as is so commonly thought; they were free men. Every now and then, because of some desperate emergency, the benches were opened to slaves - and those who served on them were rewarded with their freedom.)

Among the Romans, especially during the flourishing period of the Roman Empire under discussion, slaves enjoyed more and more chances to lead comfortable lives and at the same time move toward gaining their freedom. This came about because of a vast increase in these years in the size and complexity of businesses and of the government bureaucracies and with it a corresponding increase in the number of white-collar jobs. Since native Romans had no taste for trade or commerce (aside from investing in them) and took a dim view of the routine of desk work, they turned over the tasks involved to slaves, and, since they were generous in granting manumission, particularly to the slaves who worked in their offices and homes, the white-collar slave worker could be fairly sure of eventually gaining it. Moreover, manumission among the Romans brought with it a precious gift - citizenship. Thus the freedman stood politically higher than the multitudes of freeborn peoples who lived in the lands Rome had conquered and were only Roman subjects, not citizens, and hence were denied the vote, marriage with a Roman citizen, access to Roman courts, and other privileges.

Throughout the Roman Empire, slaves staffed the offices of towns and cities, and in Rome itself they staffed all the ranks of the emperor’s bureaucracy: They were the nation’s civil service. Those who demonstrated satisfactory ability could expect manumission by the age of thirty to thirty-five; after manumission, they would carry on their duties as freedmen.

The paths in the imperial administration led right to the very top, to posts that today would be held by department heads, even cabinet ministers. During Claudius’s reign, Pallas, a freedman, served as his secretary of the treasury, and Narcissus, another freedman, as his secretary of state. Both used their position to line their pockets and both became so incredibly rich that, to quote Claudius’s biographer, “Once, when Claudius was grumbling about the shortage of cash in the treasury, someone said - and it was no joke - ‘You’d have plenty if your two freedmen would take you in as a partner.’“ Pallas’s brother was the Felix who earned everlasting notoriety for throwing St. Paul into prison; he had risen from slavery to the governorship of Judaea. Though slaves, as mentioned above, were never used as rowers of galleys in the Roman navy, ex-slaves could be in charge of those galleys: Under Claudius and Nero there are three instances of them serving as commanders of fleets. Presumably the duties called for administrative rather than naval expertise.

Members of the imperial civil service did not even have to wait till they were freed to acquire riches; they were able to do so while still slaves. A particularly striking example is a certain Musicus Scurranus, who, under Tiberius, was an official in the department of disbursements for the province of Gaul based at Lyons. He died during a stay at Rome, and he had along with him at the time, as we learn from the inscription on his tombstone, no less than sixteen slaves of his own: his personal doctor, his business agent, a major-domo, a valet, two cooks, two footmen, two men in charge of his silver plate, two chamberlains, three body servants, and a woman whose duties are not specified. And these were just the ones in the entourage; there must have been an army of others at home. Even imperial slaves in far lower levels than Scurranus could live the good life. When the emperor Julian arrived at the palace in Constantinople and summoned the palace barber for a haircut, the man appeared in such gorgeous garb that Julian cracked, “I sent for a barber, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer”; when Julian asked where the money came from, “a hefty (grave) annual salary,” he was told, “plus a lot of profitable requests for favors.”

Government service was not the only area that offered such opportunities for slaves. There were as many or more for those employed in the running of businesses or of great households, the sort of post that gave Trimalchio his start. Slaves in such positions who had managed to accumulate enough money to serve as investment capital could work not only for the master but with him: They could become his partner in trade, in the holding of real estate, and so on. Posts of this sort were so sure a way of getting ahead that free men with bleak prospects would sell themselves into slavery in order to qualify for them. The free man who was a Roman subject living in one of the conquered lands could figure that, by so doing, he would eventually earn manumission and, with it, citizenship. As Petronius has one of Trimalchio’s friends say, “My father was actually a king. Why am I only a freedman now? Because I handed myself into slavery of my own free will. I wanted to end up a Roman citizen, not a tribute paying subject.”

What of women? There were numerous female slaves in any large household serving as maids, hairdressers, masseuses, seamstresses, nurses, and the like. Many earned manumission, but upward mobility was open to them only through their husbands. The exceptions are those women whose beauty or charm or intellect won them highly placed lovers. Cytheris, for example, originally a slave dancer, after gaining her freedom became the mistress of a Roman aristocrat who held her in such regard that he included her in his banquets - much to the outrage of Cicero, a stuffy snob, when he was a fellow diner: “My god,” he wrote to a friend later, “I never thought she would be there!” She left this lover for Mark Antony, who treated her even more handsomely, assigning her his own litter with her own host of attendants. Nero as a young man was desperately in love with a freedwomen named Acte, who had come to Rome as a slave from Asia Minor, and he actually wanted to marry her. She remained his mistress throughout and was one of the very few - the others his two old nurses - who dared give his body decent burial after he was assassinated. Vespasian, when his wife died, promoted a freed-woman from mistress to concubine and “though an emperor, regarded her almost as his legal wife.”

In urban areas, the locale of most business and government offices, manumission was so common that ex-slaves came to make up a high proportion of the Roman citizenry. Their ability to get ahead was such that, as a whole, they formed the nearest thing there was to a Roman middle class, while numerous individuals, the Trimalchios and the Scurranuses, rose even higher. In Roman imperial times, the making of lavish public donations was expected of the rich. Hitherto the main contributors had been Roman aristocrats, the likes of Pliny; now they were joined by these self-made nouveaux riches, the freedmen, who spent their money openhandedly to gain public honors for themselves and public honors and offices for their sons. In a place like Ostia, a bustling commercial center and port, freedmen were at the heart of its society. A monument found there bears an inscription telling that it had been erected by a certain Lucius Fabius Eutychus and setting forth the highlights of his career and his son’s. He began as a slave in the city’s civil service, where he rose from official attendant to junior clerk to chief clerk. In the course of time, he was manumitted, and he apparently went into the construction business, judging from his election to a term as president of the builder’s association. He made enough money to set up a fund of 12,500 denarii ($200,000) “from the interest on which, at 5%, every year on July 20, his birthday, 550 will be divided among the town councilors present in the forum before the aforementioned statue, and 37½ among the chief clerks, 12½ among the junior clerks, 25 among the official attendants.” The statue is “aforementioned” in an earlier part of the inscription devoted to Eutychus’s son: The family’s money had enabled him to do very well indeed, for he served “as a coopted member of the town council, as priest of the Divinized Hadrian (during which term as priest he alone - the first to do so - out of his own pocket paid for public theatrical performances), as commissioner of markets. Him the illustrious order of the town councilors honored with a public funeral and, in recognition of all his affection and industry, decreed that an equestrian statue be erected for him in the forum at public expense.”

In but two generations, Eutychus’s family had risen from slavery to the lofty honor of a statue in the center of town.

Throughout the empire, ex-slaves like Eutychus moved steadily higher in Roman society, helping themselves upward by their money, by liberal expenditure on highly visible charity; treating the whole population to a banquet on the donor’s birthday or picking up the bill for gladiatorial games were particular favorites.

One freedman, who was not very rich, used whatever money he had for a far higher goal. This was the father of the Roman poet Horace. He had been a slave in the civil service of the town of Venusia in southern Italy, a collector of taxes or other public dues. In due course, he earned manumission, bought a small farm, and had a son. When the boy was of school age, he gave up the farm and moved to Rome because he felt that the education available at Venusia was not good enough. At Rome, he not only turned the boy over to proper teachers but watched over his upbringing with loving care. He did not live to see the spectacular result: Horace, son of an ex-slave, became the protégé of one of Augustus’s ministers, was often in the company of the emperor himself, and achieved a fame that would be, to use his own words, “a monument more enduring than bronze.” In but two generations, the family had risen from slavery to literary immortality.

There were multitudes of Greek and Roman slaves - the gangs in the mines or on the vast ranches - who lived lives as hopeless and full of hardship as the slaves on the sugar plantations of Brazil or the cotton plantations in the American south. But in the days of the Roman Empire there were also many, a great many, who were able to escape from slavery and mount the steps of the social ladder, in some cases to the very top.

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