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Slavery in Rome: Between Home and Public Space

By Fábio Joly, Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto.


Few moments enable us to glimpse, in such a direct and accentuated way, the political and public impact of slavery in the city of Rome as in the description, by the senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE), of an episode that occurred at the time of Emperor Nero.


In 61 CE, Pedanius Secundus, prefect of the city of Rome, was killed at home by one of his slaves (Ann. 14.42-45). There was then a lively debate in the Senate and a significant mobilization of the plebs, since, to apply a punitive law (the senatus consultum Silanianum), all slaves who were under the same roof at the time of the crime (in this case, four hundred!), should be tortured and executed. Although the application of the penalty prevailed – with the approval of Nero –, the reaction of the plebs of Rome, who armed themselves with stones and sticks to avoid the torture to the point of being contained by soldiers, draws attention. A manifestation that indicates how likely Pedanius’ slaves were immersed in the city's social fabric, sharing the urban space with the common people, through working relationships and friendship.


Although the episode is portrayed according to the interests of a senator like Tacitus (hence his emphasis only on arguments favourable to the execution of slaves), it hints at the social integration of slaves beyond relations with their masters, in communities that are broader than those domestic ones. In other words, it allows us to think about the role of slaves in the context of social relations between the city's inhabitants, whether they are citizens or non-citizens.


Painting of a banquet with four slaves in front of it, House of the Triclinum, Pompeii.

How did slave masters react to this insertion of their dependents into social circles beyond their reach? An expression of this concern can be seen in the recurring literary parallels between the domus and the res publica in order to demonstrate that the domestic sphere would suffice for slaves as a living space.


We have, in the work of the philosopher Seneca (died 65 CE), who was actually Nero's tutor at the beginning of his government, a clear example of this logic. His reflections on slavery provide us with an entry point into the way in which, in Rome, the elite sought to manage the anxieties produced by the large numbers of slaves in their homes.


Double herm of Seneca and Socrates, 3rd century, Antikensammlung Berlin.

Although he does not criticize the legitimacy of slavery, Seneca recognizes that the institution is founded on violence, to which everyone is subject. Slavery is a product of Fortune, which “did poorly distribute common goods and gave one dominion over the other, even though they were born with equal rights” (Ad Marc. 20.2). In letter 47 to Lucilius, he also ponders that “this man you call your slave was born of the same seed as you, enjoys the same sky, breathes, lives and dies just like you. You have as much right to look at him as a free man as he is to look at you as a slave” (Ep. 47.10). Therefore, what unifies men is the soul, despite legal and social distinctions. In another letter he writes that the “soul can be in a Roman knight as well as in a freedman as in a slave. What is, after all, a Roman knight or a freedman or a slave? Names born of ambition and injustice” (Ep. 31.11). However, this argument does not necessarily mean that the philosopher actually values ​​the slave (or even the freedman) as a member of a wider community than the domestic one, centered on the master. In his treatise on benefits, he argues that “the slave can be fair, he can be strong, he can have a great soul. Therefore, he can confer a benefit, which is a sign of virtue” (Ben. 3.18.3). But what benefits can slaves give their masters? The examples that Seneca lists – and staged during the civil war at the end of the Republic and in the Principate, on account of the denunciations to the emperor (which Seneca also compares to a state of civil war) – have a common point: it is above all about preservation of the master's life, even if it entails the slave's death. Moreover, it is not by chance that in the Letters slaves are shown, as examples of conduct, precisely when they end their own lives, performing the supreme display of freedom.


Seneca thus does not postulate any humanitarian treatment of slaves as an end in itself, as a step towards a more virtuous life for their masters. His main concern is to propose a model for controlling slaves that does not make them enemies of the master, putting their lives at risk, as happened in the case of Pedanius Secundus. In letter 47, he proposes precisely this in order to circumvent the negative effects of the domestic organization of slavery, arising from the hierarchization and specialization of work that demotes and constrains slaves to mere tools of the master to satisfy their desires. On the other hand, he suggests that the master talk to his slaves, share the table with them, and follow the custom of the ancestors who instituted a festive day in which slaves were assigned "honorific positions in the administration of the house or in the distribution of justice, thus doing of the house a small republic” (Ep. 47.14).


A similar metaphor is used by Columella, a contemporary of Seneca, in his treatise on agriculture, in which he advises the owner of a farm to watch over the fulfillment of orders given to slaves because "this is always observed in cities of good customs", where it is not enough to just have good laws, but you have to have their guardians (12:3:10-11). Likewise, senator Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) wrote that the “house is a small republic” for the slaves and confers on them a sort of “citizenship” (Ep. 8.16.2). In this sense, he allowed his slaves to make wills and followed the prescriptions placed in them, but everything within the limits of the house (intra domum), he makes a point of emphasizing.


In reading the sources, one must therefore pay attention so that this seigniorial ideology, which projects an isolation of slaves within the framework of the domestic sphere, is not taken as a fact, preventing us from asking questions about the performance of slaves in the larger space of the city, contrary to the master's desire to strengthen power over them.


Tags: #slavery #slaves #Seneca #AncientRome

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