The grim tales of ‘modern slavery’ that are currently emerging across the UK make one wonder whether ancient Roman slavery was preferable. The fact that it was institutionalised means that it could, if you were lucky, be endurable.
There was nothing secretive about slavery in Rome. It was felt to be part of the natural order of things — some people were ‘born’ to be slaves — and that was that. As ‘property’, without any legal status, a slave could be treated in any way his or her master liked: tortured, whipped or executed. Over time, however, some degree of legal protection was permitted. Nero ruled that slaves could bring complaints against their masters in court, Antoninus Pius that a charge of homicide could be made against a master who killed a slave. That said, no one ever suggested abolishing slavery, not even ex-slaves or Christians.
At one end of the scale, for those working the equivalent of plantations or down the mines, life was barely worth living. At the other end, slaves working as confidants of the emperor, or for a wealthy man like Crassus, or in humane households, could prosper. Crassus took the view that a master’s chief task was to look after his slaves, and he personally oversaw their education. ‘The slaves do the work,’ he said. ‘I direct them.’ That was how to get the best out of them, and Crassus had vast numbers — readers, secretaries, silversmiths, stewards, waiters and so on, all (incidentally) learning a business. So there was an incentive for slaves to respond. They could be granted their freedom, and set up in business themselves. More than half of the surviving funerary monuments in Rome are those of slaves who had done just that.
It hardly needs saying that none of this justifies slavery. But what is so awful about ‘modern slavery’ is that, since it is illegal, it is secretive, and those who engage in it are, by definition, evil. There can be no question, therefore, of any even remotely ‘humane’ conduct on the part of the slave-masters. Even in ancient Rome, one stood more of a chance of decent treatment than in modern Britain.
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