Social Life During the Roman Republic


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In the last age of the Republic the employment of slave labour reached its high-water mark in ancient history.[306] We have already met with evidence of this in examining the life of the upper classes; in the present chapter we must try to sketch, first, the conditions under which it was possible for such a vast slave system to arise and flourish, and secondly, the economical and ethical results of it both in city and country. The subject is indeed far too large and complicated to be treated in a single short chapter, but our object throughout this book is only to give such a picture of society in general as may tempt a student to further and more exact inquiry.

We have seen that the two upper classes of society were engaged in business of various kinds, and especially in banking and carrying out public contracts, or in the work of government, and in Italian agriculture. All this business, public and private, called for a vast amount of labor, and in part, of skilled labour; the great men provided the capital, but the details of the work, as it had gradually developed since the war with Hannibal, created a demand for workmen of every kind such as had never before been known in the Graeco-Roman world. Clerks, accountants, messengers, as well as operatives, were wanted both by the Government and by private capitalists. In the households of the rich the great increase of wealth and luxury had led to a constant demand for helps of all kinds, each with a certain amount of skill in his own particular department; and on the estates in the country, which were steadily growing bigger, and were tending to be worked more and more on capitalistic lines, labour, both skilled and unskilled, was increasingly required. Thus the demand for labour was abnormally great, and had been created with abnormal rapidity, and the supply could not possibly be provided by the free population alone. The lower classes of city and country were not suited to the work wanted, either by capacity or inclination. It was not for a free Roman to be at the beck and call of an employer, like the clerks and underlings of to-day, or to act as servant in a great household; and for a great part of the necessary work he was not sufficiently well educated. Far less was it possible for him to work on the great cattle-runs. And the State wanted the best years of his life for service in the army, which, as has been well remarked, was the real industry of the Roman freeman. But luckily in one sense, and in another unluckily, for Rome, there was an endless supply of labour to be had, of every quality and capacity, for the very same abnormal circumstances which had created the demand also provided the supply. The great wars and the wealth accruing from them in various ways had produced a capitalist class in need of labour, and also created a slave-market on a scale such as the world has never known before or since.

Ever since the time of Alexander and the wars of his successors with each other and their neighbours, it is probable that the supply of captives sold as slaves had been increasing; and in the second century B.C. the little island of Delos had come to be used as a convenient centre for the slave trade. Strabo tells us in a well-known passage that 10,000 slaves might be sold there in a single day.[307] But Rome herself was in the time of Cicero the great emporium for slaves; the wars which were most productive of prisoners had been for long in the centre and the west of the Mediterranean basin. All armies sent out from Rome were accompanied by speculators in this trade, who bought the captives as they were put up to auction after a battle, and then undertook the transport to Rome of all who were suited for employment in Italy or were not bought up in the province which was the seat of war. The enormous number of slaves thus made available, even if we make allowance for the uncertainty of the numbers as they have come down to us, surpasses all belief; we may take a few examples, sufficient to give some idea of a practice which had lasting and lamentable results on Roman society.

After the campaign of Pydna and the overthrow of the Macedonian kingdom, Aemilius Paullus, one of the most humane of Romans, sold into slavery, under orders from the senate, 150,000 free inhabitants of communities in Epirus which had sided with Perseus in the war.[308] After the war with the Cimbri and Teutones, 90,000 of the latter and 60,000 of the former are said to have been sold;[309] and though the numbers may be open to suspicion, as they amount again to 150,000, the fact of an enormous capture is beyond question. Caesar, like Aemilius Paullus one of the most humane of Romans, tells us himself that on a single occasion, the capture of the Aduatuci, he sold 53,000 prisoners on the spot.[310] And of course every war, whether great or small, while it diminished the free population by slaughter, pestilence, or capture, added to the number of slaves. Cicero himself, after his campaign in Cilicia and the capture of the hill stronghold Pindonissus, did of course as all other commanders did; we catch a glimpse of the process in a letter to Atticus: "mancipia venibant Saturnalibus tertiis."[311] It is hardly necessary to point out that we should be getting our historical perspective quite wrong if we allowed ourselves to expect in these cultured Roman generals any sign of compassion for their victims; it was a part of their mental inheritance to look on men who had surrendered as simply booty, the property of the victors; Roman captives would meet with the same fate, and even for them little pity was ever felt. When Caesar in 49 within a few months dismissed two surrendered armies of Roman soldiers, once at Corfinium and again in Spain, he was doubtless acting from motives of policy, but the enslavement of Roman citizens by their fellows would, we may hope, have been repugnant to him, if not to his own soldiers.[312]

War then was the principal source of the supply of slaves, but it was not the only one. When a slave-trade is in full swing, it will be fostered in all possible ways. Brigandage and kidnapping were rife all over the Empire and in the countries beyond its borders in the disturbed times with which we are dealing. The pirates of Cilicia, until they were suppressed by Pompeius in 66, swarmed all over the Mediterranean, and snapped up victims by raids even on the coasts of Italy, selling them in the market at Delos without hindrance. Cicero, in his speech in support of the appointment of Pompey, mentions that well-born children had been carried off from Misenum under the very eyes of a Roman praetor.[313] Caesar himself was taken by them when a young man, and only escaped with difficulty. In Italy itself, where there was no police protection until Augustus took the matter in hand, kidnapping was by no means unknown; the grassatores, as they were called, often slaves escaped from the prisons of the great estates, haunted the public roads, and many a traveller disappeared in this way and passed the rest of his life in a slave-prison.[314] Varro, in describing the sort of slaves best suited for work on the great sheep-runs, says that they should be such as are strong enough to defend the flocks from wild beasts and brigands--the latter doubtless quite as ready to seize human beings as sheep and cattle. And slave-merchants seem to have been constantly carrying on their trade in regions where no war was going on, and where desirable slaves could be procured; the kingdoms of Asia Minor were ransacked by them, and when Marius asked Nicomedes king of Bithynia for soldiers during the struggle with the Cimbri, the answer he got was that there were none to send--the slave-dealers had been at work there.[315] Every one will remember the line of Horace in which he calls one of these wretches a "king of Cappadocia."[316]

There were two other sources of the slave supply of which however little need be said here, as the contribution they made was comparatively small. First, slaves were bred from slaves, and on rural estates this was frequently done as a matter of business.[317] Varro recommends the practice in the large sheep-farms,[318] under certain conditions; and some well-known lines of Horace suggest that on smaller farms, where a better class of slaves would be required, these home-bred ones were looked on as the mark of a rich house, "ditis examen domus."[319] Secondly, a certain number of slaves had become such under the law of debt. This was a common source of slavery in the early periods of Roman history, but in Cicero's day we cannot speak of it with confidence. We have noticed the cry of the distressed freemen of the city in the conspiracy of Catiline, which looks as though the old law were still put in force; and in the country there are signs that small owners who had borrowed from large ones were in Varro's time in some modified condition of slavery,[320] surrendering their labour in lieu of payment. But all these internal sources of slavery are as nothing compared with the supply created by war and the slave-trade.

This supply being thus practically unlimited, prices ran comparatively low, and no Roman of any considerable means at all need be, or was, entirely without slaves. He had only to go, or to send his agent, to one of the city slave-markets, such as the temple of Castor,[321] where the slave-agents (mangones) exhibited their "goods" under the supervision of the aediles; there he could pick out exactly the kind of slave he wanted at any price from the equivalent of £10 upwards. The unfortunate human being was exhibited exactly as horses are now, and could be stripped, handled, trotted about, and treated with every kind of indignity, and of course the same sort of trickery went on in these human sales as is familiar to all horse-dealers of the present day.[322] The buyer, if he wanted a valuable article, a Greek, for example, who could act as secretary or librarian, like Cicero's beloved Tiro, or even a household slave with a special character for skill in cooking or other specialised work of a luxurious family, would have to give a high price; even as long ago as the time of the elder Cato a very large sum might be given for a single choice slave, and Cato as censor in 184 attempted to check such high prices by increasing the duties payable on the sales.[323] Towards the close of the Republican period we have little explicit evidence of prices; Cicero constantly mentions his slaves, but not their values. Doubtless for fancy articles huge prices might be demanded; Pliny tells us that Antony when triumvir bought two boys as twins for more than £800 apiece, who were no doubt intended for handsome pages, perhaps to please Cleopatra.[324] But there can be no doubt that ordinary slaves capable of performing only menial offices in town or country were to be had at this time quite cheap, and the number in the city alone must have been very great.

It is unfortunately quite impossible to make even a probable estimate of the total number in Rome; the data are not forthcoming. Beloch[325] remarks aptly that though some families owned hundreds of slaves, the number of such families was not large, quoting the words of Philippus, tribune in 104 B.C., to the effect that there were not more than two thousand persons of any substance in the State.[326] The great majority of citizens living in Rome had, he thinks, no slaves. He is forced to take as a basis of calculation the proportion of bond to free in the only city of the Empire about which we have certain information on this point; at Pergamum there was one slave to two free persons.[327] Assuming the whole free population to have been about half a million in the time of Augustus, or rather more, including peregrini, he thus arrives at a slave population of something like 280,000; this may not be far off the mark, but it must be remembered that it is little more than a guess.

What has been said above will have given the reader some idea of the conditions of life which created a great demand for labour in the last two centuries B.C., and of the circumstances which produced an abundant supply of unfree labour to satisfy that demand. I propose now to treat the whole question of Roman slavery from three points of view,--the economic, the legal, and the ethical. In other words, we have to ask: (1) how the abundance of slave labour affected the social economy of the free population; (2) what was the position of the slave in the eye of the law, as regards treatment and chance of manumission;

  1. what were the ethical results of this great slave system, both on the slaves themselves and on their masters.

  1. From an economical point of view the most interesting question is whether slave labour seriously interfered with the development of free industry; and unfortunately this question is an extremely difficult one to answer. We can all guess easily that the opportunities of free labour must have been limited by the presence of enormous numbers of slaves; but to get at the facts is another matter. In regard to rural slavery we have some evidence to go upon, as we shall see directly, and this has of late been collected and utilised; but as regards labour in the city no such research has as yet been made,[328] and the material is at once less fruitful and more difficult to handle. A few words on this last point must suffice here.

We have seen in Chapter II. that there was plenty of employment at Rome for freemen. Friedländer, than whom no higher authority can be quoted for the social life of the city, goes so far as to assert that even under the early Empire a freeman could always obtain work if he wished for it;[329] and even if we take this as a somewhat exaggerated statement, it may serve to keep us from rushing to the other extreme and picturing a population of idle free paupers. In fact we are bound on general evidence to assume for our own period that he is in the main right; the poor freeman of Rome had to live somehow, and the cheap corn which he enjoyed was not given him gratis until a few years before the Republic came to an end.[330] How did he get the money to pay even the sum of six asses and a third for a modius of corn, or to pay for shelter and clothing, which were assuredly not to be had for nothing? We know again, that the gilds of trades (see above, p. 45) continued to exist in the last century of the Republic,[331] though the majority had to be suppressed owing to their misuse as political clubs. Supposing that the members of these collegia were small employers of labour, it is reasonable to assume that the labour they employed was at least largely free; for the capital needed to invest, at some risk, in a sufficient number of slaves, who would have to be housed and fed, and whose lives would be uncertain in a crowded and unhealthy city, could not, we must suppose, be easily found by such men. Here and there, no doubt, we find traces of slave labour in factories, e.g. as far back as the time of Plautus, if we can take him as writing of Rome rather than translating from the Greek:

An te ibi vis inter istas versarier Prosedas, pistorum amicas, reginas alicarias, Miseras schoeno delibutas servilicolas sordidas?[332]

Poenulus, 265 foll.

But on the whole, we may with all due caution, in default of complete investigation of the question, assume that the Roman slaves were confined for the most part to the great and rich families, and were not used by them to any great extent in productive industry, but in supplying the luxurious needs of the household[333]. In all probability research will show that free labour was far more available than we are apt to think. We hear of no outbreak of feeling against slave labour, which might suggest a rivalry between the two. Slave labour, we may think, had filled a gap, created by abnormal circumstances, and did not oust free labour entirely; but it tended constantly to cramp it, and doubtless started notions of work in general which helped to degrade it[334]. Those immense familiae urbanae, of which the historian of slavery has given a detailed account in his second volume[335], belong rather to the early Empire than to the last years of the Republic--the evidence for them is drawn chiefly from Seneca, Juvenal, Tacitus, Martial, etc.; but such evidence as we have for the age of Cicero seems to suggest that the vast palaces of the capitalists, which Sallust describes as being almost like cities[336], were already beginning to be served by a familia urbana which rendered them almost independent of any aid from without by labour or purchase. Not only the ordinary domestic helpers of all kinds, but copyists, librarians, paedagogi as tutors for the children, and even doctors might all be found in such households in a servile condition, without reckoning the great numbers who seem to have been always available as escorts when the great man was travelling in Italy or in the provinces. Valerius Maximus tells us[337] that Cato the censor as proconsul of Spain took only three slaves with him, and that his descendant Cato of Utica during the Civil Wars had twelve; as both these men were extremely frugal, we can form an idea from this passage both of the increasing supply of slaves and of the far larger escorts which accompanied the ordinary wealthy traveller.

As regards the familia rustica, the working population of the farm, the evidence is much more definite. The old Roman farm, in which the paterfamilias lived with his wife, children, and slaves, was, no doubt, like the old English holding in a manor, for the most part self-sufficing, doing little in the way of sale or purchase, and worked by all the members of the familia, bond and free. In the middle of the second century B.C., when Cato wrote his treatise on husbandry, we find that a change has taken place; the master can only pay the farm an occasional visit, to see that it is being properly managed by the slave steward[338] (vilicus), and the business is being run upon capitalistic lines, i.e. with a view to realising the utmost possible profit from it by the sale of its products. Thus Cato is most particular in urging that a farm should be so placed as to have easy communication with market towns, where the wine and oil could be sold, which were the chief products, and where various necessaries could be bought cheap, such as pottery and metal-work of all kinds.[339] Thus the farm does not entirely depend on the labour of its own familia; nevertheless it rests still upon an economic basis of slave labour. For an olivetum of 240 jugera Cato puts the necessary hands as thirteen in number, all non-free; for a vineyard of 100 jugera at sixteen; and these figures are no doubt low, if we remember his character for parsimony and profit-making.[340] Free labour was to be had, and was occasionally needed; at the very outset of his work Cato (ch. 4) insists that the owner should be a good and friendly neighbour, in order that he may easily obtain, not only voluntary help, but hired labourers (operarii). These were needed especially at harvest time, when extra hands were wanted, as in our hop-gardens, for the gathering of olives and for the vintage. Sometimes the work was let out to a contractor, and he gives explicit directions (in chs. 144 and 145) for the choice of these and the contracts to be made with them; whether in this case the contractor (redemptor) used entirely free or slave labour does not appear distinctly, but it seems clear that a proportion at least was free.[341] What the free labourers did at other times of the year, whether or no they were small cultivators themselves, Cato does not tell us.

For the age with which we are more specially concerned, we have the evidence of Varro's three books on husbandry, written in his old age, after the fall of the Republic. Here we find the economic condition of the farm little changed since the time of Cato. The permanent labour is non-free, but in spite of the vast increase in the servile labour available in Italy, there is still a considerable employment of freemen at certain times, on all farms where the olive and vine were the chief objects of culture. In the 17th chapter of his first book, in which he gives interesting advice for the purchase of suitable slaves, he begins by telling us that all land is cultivated either by slaves or freemen, or both together, and the free are of three kinds,--either small holders (pauperculi) with their children; or labourers who live by wage (conducticii), and are especially needed in hay harvest or vintage; or debtors who give their labour as payment for what they owe (obaerati).[342] Varro too, like Cato, recognises the necessity of purchasing many things which cannot well be manufactured on a farm of moderate size, and thus the landowner may in this way also have been indirectly an employer of free labour; but so far as possible the farm should supply itself with the materials for its own working,[343] for this gives employment to the slaves throughout the year,--and they should never be allowed to be idle.[344]

Thus it is abundantly clear that even in the time of Cicero there was a certain demand for free labour in the ordinary Italian oliveyard and vineyard, and that the necessary supply was forthcoming, though the permanent industrial basis was non-free, and the tendency was to use slave-labour more exclusively. The rule that the slave cannot be allowed to be unemployed was a most important factor in the economical development, and drove the landowner, who never seems to have had any doubt about the comparative cheapness of slave-labour,[345] gradually to make his farm more and more independent of all aid from outside. In the work of Columella, written towards the end of the first century A.D., it is plain that the work of the farm is carried on more exclusively by slave-labour than was the case in the last two centuries B.C.[346]

To this not unpleasant picture of the conditions of Italian agricultural slavery a few words must be added about the great pastoral farms of Southern Italy. If a man invested his capital in a comparatively small estate of olives and vineyards, such as that which Cato treats of, and which seems to have been his own; or even in a latifundium of the kind which Varro more vaguely pictures, containing also parks and game and a moderate amount of pasture, he would need slaves mainly of a certain degree of skill. But on the largest areas of pasture, chiefly in the hill districts of Southern Italy, where there was little cultivation except what was necessary for the consumption of the slaves themselves, these were the roughest and wildest type of bondsmen. The work was that of the American ranche, the life harsh, and the workmen dangerous. It was in these districts and from these men that Spartacus drew the material with which he made his last stand against Roman armies in 72-71 B.C.; and it was in this direction that Caelius and Milo turned in 48 B.C. in quest of revolutionary and warlike bands. These roughs could even be used as galley-slaves; more than once in the Commentaries on the Civil War Caesar tells us that his opponents drafted them into the vessels which were sent to relieve the siege of Massilia[347]. It was here too, in the neighbourhood of Thurii, that a bloody fight took place between the slaves of two adjoining estates, strong men of courage, as Cicero describes them, of which we learn from the fragments of his lost speech pro Tullio. They were of course armed, and as we may guess from Varro's remarks on the kind of slaves suitable for shepherding,[348] this was usually the practice, in order to defend the flocks from wild beasts and robbers, particularly when they were driven up to summer pasture (as they still are) in the saltus of the Apennines. The needs of these shepherds would be small, and the latifundia of this kind were probably almost self-sufficing, no free labour being required. After their day's work the slaves were fed and locked up for the night, and kept in fetters if necessary;[349] they were in fact simply living tools, to use the expression of Aristotle, and the economy of such estates was as simple as that of a workshop. The exclusion of free labour is here complete: on the agricultural estates it was approaching a completion which it fortunately never reached. Had it reached that completion, the economic influence of slavery would have been altogether bad; as it was, the introduction of slave-labour on a large scale did valuable service to Italian agriculture in the last century B.C. by contributing the material for its revival at a time when the necessary free labour could not have been found. However lamentable its results may have been in other ways, especially on the great pastures, the economic history of Italy, when it comes to be written, will have to give it credit for an appreciable amount of benefit.

  1. The legal and political aspect of slavery. A slave was in the eye of the law not a persona, but a res, i.e. he had no rights as a human being, could not marry or hold property, but was himself simply a piece of property which could be conveyed (res mancipi)[350]. During the Republican period the law left him absolutely at the disposal of his master, who had the power of life and death (jus vitae necisque) over him, and could punish him with chastisement and bonds, and use him for any purpose he pleased, without reference to any higher authority than his own. This was the legal position of all slaves; but it naturally often happened that those who were men of knowledge or skill, as secretaries, for example, librarians, doctors, or even as body-servants, were in intimate and happy relations with their owners[351], and in the household of a humane man no well-conducted slave need fear bodily degradation. Cicero and his friend Atticus both had slaves whom they valued, not only for their useful service, but as friends. Tiro, who edited Cicero's letters after his death, and to whom we therefore owe an eternal debt of gratitude, was the object of the tenderest affection on the part of his owner, and the letters addressed to him by the latter when he was taken ill at Patrae in 50 B.C. are among the most touching writings that have come down to us from antiquity. "I miss you," he writes in one of them[352], "yes, but I also love you. Love prompts the wish to see you in good health: the other motive would make me wish to see you as soon as possible,--and the former one is the best." Atticus, too, had his Tiro, Alexis, "imago Tironis," as Cicero calls him in a letter to his friend,[353] and many others who were engaged in the work of copying and transcribing books, which was one of Atticus' many pursuits. All such slaves would sooner or later be manumitted, i.e. transmuted from a res to a persona; and in the ease with which this process of transmutation could be effected we have the one redeeming point of the whole system of bondage. According to the oldest and most efficient form (vindicta), a legal ceremony had to be gone through in the presence of a praetor; but the praetor could easily be found, and there was no other difficulty. This was the form usually adopted by an owner wishing to free a slave in his own lifetime; but great numbers were constantly manumitted more irregularly, or by the will of the master after his death.[354]

Thus the leading facts in the legal position of the Roman slave were two: (1) he was absolutely at the disposal of his owner, the law never interfering to protect him; (2) he had a fair prospect of manumission if valuable and well-behaved, and if manumitted he of course became a Roman citizen (libertus or libertinus) with full civil rights,[355] remaining, however, according to ancient custom, in a certain position of moral subordination to his late master, owing him respect, and aid if necessary. Let us apply these two leading facts to the conditions of Roman life as we have already sketched them. We shall find that they have political results of no small importance.

First, we must try to realise that the city of Rome contained at least 200,000 human beings over whom the State had no direct control whatever. All such crimes, serious or petty, as are now tried and disposed of in our criminal courts, were then, if committed by a slave, punishable only by the master; and in the majority of cases, if the familia were a large one, they probably never reached his ears. The jurisdiction to which the slave was responsible was a private one, like that of the great feudal lord of the Middle Ages, who had his own prison and his own gallows. The political result was much the same in each case. Just as the feudal lord, with his private jurisdiction and his hosts of retainers, became a peril to good government and national unity until he was brought to order by a strong king like our Henry

  1. or Henry VII., so the owner of a large familia of many hundreds of slaves may almost be said to have been outside of the State; undoubtedly he became a serious peril to the good order of the capital. The part played by the slaves in the political disturbances of Cicero's time was no mean one. One or two instances will show this. Saturninus, in the year 100, when attacked by Marius under orders from the senate, had hoisted a pilleus, or cap of liberty which the emancipated slave wore, as a signal to the slaves of the city that they might expect their liberty if they supported him;[356] and Marius a few years later took the same step when himself attacked by Sulla. Catiline, in 63, Sallust assures us, believed it possible to raise the slaves of the city in aid of his revolutionary plans, and they flocked to him in great numbers; but he afterwards abandoned his intention, thinking that to mix up the cause of citizens with that of slaves would not be judicious.[357] It is here too that the gladiator slaves first meet us as a political arm; Cicero had the next spring to defend
  1. Sulla on the charge, among others, of having bought gladiators during the conspiracy with seditious views, and the senate had to direct that the bands of these dangerous men should be dispersed to Capua and other municipal towns at a distance. Later on we frequently hear of their being used as private soldiery, and the government in the last years of the Republic ceased to be able to control them.[358] Again, in defending Sestius, Cicero asserts that Clodius in his tribunate had organised a levy of slaves under the name of collegia, for purposes of violence, slaughter, and rapine; and even if this is an exaggeration, it shows that such proceedings were not deemed impossible.[359] And apart from the actual use of slaves for revolutionary objects, or as private body-guards, it is clear from Cicero's correspondence that as an important part of a great man's retinue they might indirectly have influence in elections and on other political occasions. Quintus Cicero, in his little treatise on electioneering,[360] urges his brother to make himself agreeable to his tribesmen, neighbours, clients, freedmen, and even slaves, "for nearly all the talk which affects one's public reputation emanates from domestic sources." And Marcus himself, in the last letter he wrote before he fled into exile in 58, declares that all his friends are promising him not only their own aid, but that of their clients, freedmen, and slaves,--promises which doubtless might have been kept had he stayed to take advantage of them.[361]

The mention of the freedmen in this letter may serve to remind us of the political results of manumission, the second fact in the legal aspect of Roman slavery. The most important of these is the rapid importation of foreign blood into the Roman citizen body, which long before the time of Cicero largely consisted of enfranchised slaves or their descendants; it was to this that Scipio Aemilianus alluded in his famous words to the contio he was addressing after his return from Numantia, "Silence, ye to whom Italy is but a stepmother" (Val. Max. 6. 2. 3). Had manumission been held in check or in some way superintended by the State, there would have been more good than harm in it. Many men of note, who had an influence on Roman culture, were libertini, such as Livius Andronicus and Caecilius the poets; Terence, Publilius Syrus, whose acquaintance we made in the last chapter; Tiro and Alexis, and rather later Verrius Flaccus, one of the most learned men who ever wrote in Latin. But the great increase in the number of slaves, and the absence of any real difficulty in effecting their manumission, led to the enfranchisement of crowds of rascals as compared with the few valuable men. The most striking example is the enfranchisement of 10,000 by Sulla, who according to custom took his name Cornelius, and, though destined to be a kind of military guarantee for the permanence of the Sullan institutions, only became a source of serious peril to the State at the time of Catiline's conspiracy. Caesar, who was probably more alive to this kind of social danger than his contemporaries, sent out a great number of libertini,--the majority, says Strabo, of his colonists,--to his new foundation at Corinth[362]. But Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing in the time of Augustus, when he stayed some time in Rome, draws a terrible picture of the evil effects of indiscriminate manumission, unchecked by the law[363].

"Many," he says, "are indignant when they see unworthy men manumitted, and condemn a usage which gives such men the citizenship of a sovereign state whose destiny is to govern the world. As for me, I doubt if the practice should be stopped altogether, lest greater evil should be the result; I would rather that it should be checked as far as possible, so that the state may no longer be invaded by men of such villainous character. The censors, or at least the consuls, should examine all whom it is proposed to manumit, inquiring into their origin and the reasons and mode of their enfranchisement, as in their examination of the equites. Those whom they find worthy of citizenship should have their names inscribed on tables, distributed among the tribes, with leave to reside in the city. As to the crowd of villains and criminals, they should be sent far away, under pretext of founding some colony."

These judicious remarks of a foreigner only expressed what was probably a common feeling among the best men of that time. Augustus made some attempt to limit the enfranchising power of the owner; but the Leges Aelia Sentia and Furia Caninia do not lie within the compass of this book. No great success could attend these efforts; the abnormal circumstances which had brought to Rome the great familiae of slaves reacted inevitably upon the citizen body itself through the process of manumission. Rome had to pay heavily in this, as in so many other ways, for her advancement to the sovereignty of the civilised world. I may be allowed to translate the eloquent words in which the French historian of slavery, in whose great work the history of ancient slavery is treated as only a scholar-statesman can treat it, sums up this aspect of the subject:

"Emancipation, prevalent as it might appear to be towards the beginning of the Empire, was not a step towards the suppression of slavery, but a natural and inevitable sequence of the institution itself,--an outlet for excess in an epoch overabundant in slaves: a means of renewing the mass, corrupted by the deleterious influence of its own condition, before it should be totally ruined. As water, diverted from its free course, becomes impure in the basin which imprisons it, and when released, will still retain its impurity; so it is not to be thought that instincts perverted by slavery, habits depraved from childhood, could be reformed and redressed in the slave by a tardy liberation. Thrust into the midst of a society itself vitiated by the admixture of slavery, he only became more unrestrainedly, more dangerously bad. Manumission was thus no remedy for the deterioration of the citizens: it was powerless even to better the condition of the slave."[364]

  1. The ethical aspect of Roman slavery. What were the moral effects of the system (1) on the slaves themselves; (2) on the freemen who owned them?

First, as regards the slaves themselves, there are two facts to be fully realised; when this is done, the inferences will be sufficiently obvious. Let us remember that by far the greater number of the slaves, both in the city and on the land, were brought from countries bordering on the Mediterranean, where they had been living in some kind of elementary civilisation, in which the germs of further development were present in the form of the natural ties of race and kinship and locality, of tribe or family or village community, and with their own religion, customs, and government. Permanent captivity in a foreign land and in a servile condition snapped these ties once and for all. To take a single appalling instance, the 150,000 human beings who were sold into slavery in Epirus by the conqueror of Pydna, or as many of them as were transported out of their own country--and these were probably the vast majority,--were thereby deprived for the rest of their lives of all social and family life, of their ancestral worship, in fact of everything that could act as a moral tie, as a restraining influence upon vicious instincts. With the lamentable effect of this on the regions thus depopulated we are not here concerned, but it was beyond doubt most serious, and must be taken into account in reckoning up the various causes which later on brought about the enfeeblement of the whole Roman Empire.[365] The point for us is that a large proportion of the population of Rome and of Italy was now composed of human beings destitute of all natural means of moral and social development. The ties that had been once broken could never be replaced. There is no need to dwell on the inevitable result,--the introduction into the Roman State of a poisonous element of terrible volume and power.

The second fact that we have to grasp is this. In the old days, when such slaves as there then were came from Italy itself, and worked under the master's own eye upon the farm, they might and did share to some extent in the social life of the family, and even in its religious rites, and so might under favourable circumstances come within the range of its moral influences[366]. But towards the close of the Republican period those moral influences, as we have seen, were fast vanishing in the majority of families which possessed large numbers of slaves. The common kind of slave in the city, who was not attached to his owner as was a man of culture like Tiro, had no moral standard except implicit obedience; the highest virtue was to obey orders diligently, and fear of punishment was the only sanction of his conduct. The typical city slave, as he appears in Plautus, though by no means a miserable being without any enjoyment of life, is a liar and a thief, bent on overreaching, and destitute of a conscience[367]. We need but reflect that the slave must often have had to do vile things in the name of his one virtue, obedience, to realise that the poison was present, and ready to become active, in every Roman household. "Nec turpe est quod dominus iubet."[368]

On the latifundia in the country the master was himself seldom resident, and the slaves were under the control of one or more of their own kind, promoted for good conduct and capacity. The slaves of the great sheep and cattle farms were, as we saw, of the wildest sort, and we may judge of their morality by the story of the Sicilian slave-owner who, when his slaves complained that they were insufficiently clothed, told them that the remedy was to rob the travellers they fell in with.[369] The ergastula, where slaves were habitually chained and treated like beasts, were sowing the seeds of permanent moral contamination in Italy.[370] But on the smaller estates of olive-yard and vineyard their condition was better, and a humane owner who chose his overseers carefully might possibly reproduce something of the old feeling of participation in the life as well as the industry of the economic unit. In an interesting chapter Varro advises that the vilicus should be carefully selected, and should be conciliated by being allowed a wife and the means of accumulating a property (peculium); he even urges that he should enforce obedience rather by words than blows.[371] But of the condition of the ordinary slave on the farm this is the only hint he gives us, and it never seems to have occurred to him, or to any other Roman of his day, that the work to be done would be better performed by men not deprived by their condition of a moral sense; that slave labour is unwillingly and unintelligently rendered, because the labourer has no hope, no sense of dutiful conduct leading him to rejoice in the work of his hands. Nor did any writer recognise the fact that slaves were potentially moral beings, until Christianity gave its sanction to dutiful submission as an act of morality that might be consecrated by a Divine authority.[372]

Lastly, it is not difficult to realise the mischievous effects of such a slave system as the Roman upon the slave-owning class itself. Even those who themselves had no slaves would be affected by it; for though, as we have seen, free labour was by no means ousted by it, it must have helped to create an idle class of freemen, with all its moral worthlessness. Long ago, in his remarkable book on The Slave Power in America before the Civil War, Professor Cairnes drew a striking comparison between the "mean whites" of the Southern States, the result of slave labour on the plantations, and the idle population of the Roman capital, fed on cheap corn and ready for any kind of rowdyism.[373] But in the case of the great slave-owners the mischief was much more serious, though perhaps more difficult to detect. The master of a horde of slaves had half his moral sense paralysed, because he had no feeling of responsibility for so many of those with whom he came in contact every day and hour. When most members of a man's household or estate are absolutely at his mercy, when he has no feeling of any contractual relation with them, his sense of duty and obligation is inevitably deadened, even towards others who are not thus in his power. Can we doubt that the lack of a sense of justice and right dealing, more especially towards provincials, but also towards a man's fellow-citizens, which we have noticed in the two upper sections of society, was due in great part to the constant exercise of arbitrary power at home, to the habit of looking upon the men who ministered to his luxurious ease as absolutely without claim upon his respect or his benevolence? or that the recklessness of human life which was shown in the growing popularity of bloody gladiatorial shows, and in the incredible cruelty of the victors in the Civil Wars, was the result of this unconscious cultivation, from childhood onwards, of the despotic temper?[374] Even the best men of the age, such as Cicero, Caesar, Lucretius, show hardly a sign of any sympathy with, or interest in, that vast mass of suffering humanity, both bond and free with which the Roman dominion was populated; to disregard misery, except when they found it among the privileged classes, had become second nature to them. We can better realise this if we reflect that even at the present day, in spite of the absence of slavery and the presence of philanthropical societies, the average man of wealth gives hardly more than a passing thought to the discomfort and distress of the crowded population of our great cities. The ordinary callousness of human nature had, under the baleful influence of slavery, become absolute blindness, nor were men's eyes to be opened until Christianity began to leaven the world with the doctrine of universal love.

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Social Life in Roman Empire