New Season, Ancient Past

On 19th September, Dr Jerry Toner of Churchill College, Cambridge, opened the LSA CA’s brand new lecture series with a guide to Roman slavery. His eloquence and erudition enchanted the almost 300 strong audience. Classics Ambassador Liv Sample summarises the key points for us:

“In the Roman world, the possession of slaves was a fact of everyday life, and rarely questioned by either the owner or even the slave himself. Most of what is known about slavery during this time was perhaps unsurprisingly recorded by those who actually had the time to document it- the wealthy upper classes, and the occasional freedman. In contrast to the personal accounts by slaves working on the plantations in the Deep South, we don’t have a testimony from a Roman slave. But last Thursday, in a compelling and detailed lecture to the Association, Dr Toner gave us a fascinating insight into this often ignored but large section of Roman society: estimated between 10 and 30% of the population, yet regarded at the time as nothing more than “tools with voices”.

The first thing I learned was that it was rather too easy to become a Roman slave. Rome’s conquest of distant lands and setting up of trade routes meant millions of captives were brought back to Italy as part of war booty or a business deal. Even as a citizen, if you fell into debt, you had the option to sell your freedom or that of your children, and it was common for parents to cast an unwanted infant on a rubbish dump where slave dealers would forage for their next source of profit. There was definitely money to be made when it came to slavery, with healthy, young male slaves selling for as much as two years worth of food for a family of four – and the aristocrats who could afford hundreds of such slaves kept this economy very healthy indeed.

Buying slaves was pretty straightforward. Those deemed to be of poorer quality tended to be sold near the Forum, with the more expensive ones found on display near the Pantheon. With cards hung around their necks giving details of any “defects” (such as a tendency to run away, gamble or attempt suicide) this was as close to a cattle market as you could get. Once the haggling with the slave dealer was over and done with, the new slaves might be put to work on the farm or down a mine. However, as I learned to my surprise, the majority were not used to generate income through hard labour, but were based in the home, mainly as a status symbol to reflect the wealth of their master – they were, as Dr Toner put it, the equivalent of a new Mercedes parked up front or a massive plasma television in the lounge.

Yet if this a slave dared to put a foot wrong, dire consequences would follow. We all know the Romans loved public displays of brutality, whether in the amphitheatre or on a wooden cross, but in this lecture, Dr Toner gave us some extraordinary examples of the day to day, almost casual, violence shown towards slaves: regular floggings with the help of the local council, disgruntled mistresses stabbing their female servants with hair pins, and even Hadrian, considered one of the “good” emperors, blinding his secretary with a stylus because of a minor irritation. An apology from the emperor, an exceptional act at the time, was the only reason the episode was recorded and we know of it today.


Even Hadrian is said to have maltreated his slaves

A little less rough treatment towards his 400 slaves might have even saved Lucius Pedanius Secundus, a Prefect in the reign of Nero, from being murdered by one of them. But this story, like the expression of regret from an emperor, was documented because it was unusual. Even after the religion of the oppressed, Christianity, became the official religion of the Empire, and despite many of the early Christians being ex-slaves, persecution of them continued, as did the language of slavery (the words dominus and redemptio for example).

Incredibly to us, the vast majority of the enslaved population seem to have accepted their situation. Perhaps many slaves preferred a roof over their head to a worse alternative, and of course there was one glimmer of light for the fortunate ones: the possibility of a legal escape. Slaves, if they pleased their masters sufficiently, might have a chance, maybe after a decade or two, to buy their freedom. With the money regained from his ex slave, the master would probably buy another, but a strange sort of social mobility was at least possible for the freedman and his family.”


The famous baker’s tomb of Eurysaces the freedman

Fifty percent of the raffle funds from the evening were donated to Hope for Justice who highlight and campaign against the prevalence of modern slavery and trafficking. Our thanks go to Dr Toner for an enthralling talk and to AKS Lytham for hosting the event; to our excellent band of volunteers who threw themselves into their duties so enthusiastically at the start of the new season; and to everyone who visited and especially those who joined the branch for the first time. We can’t wait for the rest of the lecture programme, and of course, the imminent visit of Prof. Dame Mary Beard in just over a month!