Slavery in the Ancient World is a topic that has been discussed and debated for centuries. Slavery in ancient Rome, for example, was not restricted to one race; rather it depended on who captured them first. Slaves were often obtained from wars or as punishment for crimes committed by the person’s owner. Slavery in ancient Rome had some benefits: slaves could sometimes buy their freedom and they were given more opportunities than other races at this time.
The content of this article will cover slavery in the Ancient World, looking at topics such as slavery in ancient Rome, Egypt, and Greece as well as how slaves were treated throughout history.
Table of Contents
The views on slavery in the ancient world based on slavery in ancient Rome.
The views on slavery in the ancient world could not have been more varied or more provocative; many people from all provinces and social classes found it difficult to come up with a universal opinion on how to treat slaves or how to define them as human beings.
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The extant texts which mentioned slavery in ancient Rome had clear and decisive patterns of thought. Some authors, like Cato the Elder, thought that slaves should be treated in a cold way. He was really mean to his slaves and everyone else who depended on him.
Other writers, such as Martial and Seneca, felt that slaves should have been treated more compassionately and pushed for better attitudes towards slavery among their contemporaries in the ancient world. Comedians in the ancient world parodied the slave-master relationship and drew comparisons to patron-client relationships that emerged as a result of changes in Roman power.
Plautus Review of Ancient Slavery
Plautus, a comedic writer in Ancient Rome, provides for us an idea of the realities and misconceptions about slavery in ancient Rome by using his plays to detail the lives of slaves in Rome. He also explains how different views led to different opinions- and changed during times of turmoil as well. Slavery in the ancient world was regulated by both local and imperial law. Slaves were considered property, but they still had certain rights- some more than others. Slaves could be punished for crimes that often led to death or loss of a body part; they had a right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care; Slaves could marry.
Cato the Elder, a great aristocrat of ancient Rome
Cato the Elder, a prominent statesman of the early Roman Republic and aristocrat with many slaves, was famous for his farming ability. His main work, De Agricultura, focused on how a responsible farm and slave owner should have treated his obligations as head of the household, and therefore, how he should have treated the many slaves who lived under his command.
He advocated a system of checks that the master could enforce on the farm in order to make sure that all work was done to his satisfaction, but even more importantly, he introduced certain rules that would ensure the continued efficiency of his workforce: “He should sell any old oxen, cattle, or sheep that are not up to standards, wool and hides, an old cart of old tools, an old slave, a sick slave…” (2.7). His comparison of slaves to common household animals and products paints a clear picture of what masters considered their slaves.
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In Plutarch’s Cato the Elder, Cato to keep his slaves in control and his farm out of the red, Cato was a master of deception and manipulation.: “Cato continually tried to arrange for his slaves to quarrel and argue, and was suspicious and frightened if they agreed among themselves” (21.4). He was rumored to highly value slaves who slept for most of their free time and to sleep with young slave girls after the death of his wife, much to the chagrin of his own children (21.2 and 24.1).
However, how should we regard Cato’s actions or his treatment of ancient slaves?
Plutarch’s report of Cato’s life is problematic at best, but his words still speak for themselves. In his own eyes, surely Cato thought of himself as a fair and equal master over a class of workers who could not be trusted, yet his comparison between animals and slaves leaves his views on slavery as entirely one-sided.
His words came from an aristocrat with something very specific to gain and everything to lose; if he did not advocate for strict, perhaps severe, treatment of slaves, he would have likely had runaway slaves or riots to deal with, which could have very well cost him extensive sums of money and time.
Cato believed it was his duty to behave cruelly toward slaves, and he is not alone in this. He adhered to the philosophy of mos maiorum (ancestral customs) and prioritised a life of rustic simplicity over all else.
Ancient Slavery and the differences between them.
As with other institutions in the ancient world, slavery was not a static institution. The most basic classification of slavery in ancient Rome put forth in Cato’s early work has been challenged by many authors who found that slaves varied considerably depending on their location, time period, legal status. Seneca, in his Epistle XLVII, stated that he “will pass over other cruel and inhuman conduct towards them [slaves]; for we maltreat them, not as if they were men, but as if they were beasts of burden.”
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In the Republic, Seneca seemed to have a more justice-based system of morality about slaves. But he still treated slaves in an unfair way. Both Cato and Seneca believed that slaves needed to be watched and monitored by the slave-owner in order to ensure their efficiency and obedience, but they differed greatly in their views on slaves as human beings; while Cato thought of slaves as just livestock. But Seneca viewed them as people who still had their humanity.
Seneca’s View of Ancient Slavery
In his eyes, they were not citizens, but not animals either. They were in the middle [between] being an animal and a citizen. He was both compassionate and forceful when he looked at people like this.: “They are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies.” Seneca argued that slaves had a better work ethic if they were treated civilly by their owners. This probably created a good relationship between the slave and the owner. They will want to stay with him longer because they saw him as a good person.
While Cato and Seneca both wrote lengthy prose works, Martial composed witty, satirical epigrams, or short poems, which often poked fun at various institutions, people, or behaviors. In Book III, Poem 94, his crude and sharp sense of humor cut to the heart of slavery in ancient Rome and made fun of the cruelty that was often associated with slavery in general:
You say, Rufus, that your rabbit was not cooked well,
And call for a whip.
You prefer to cut up your cook,
Rather than your rabbit.
Martial’s criticism was not of the institution of slavery in ancient Rome but rather on the treatment of slaves themselves; through his eyes, a slave is seen as being no different than himself.
He talked about a slave girl he knew when he was growing up. She died when she was very young. (Epigram 34 and 37). This perspective is reflected in his descriptions of slaves, which are sympathetic and sometimes admiring.
Without the slave girl Erotion, Martial may never have written the sad poems about slavery in ancient Rome. These poems helped scholars understand his thoughts on slavery and what he thought about slaves being good for Roman citizens: “Let no rude turf cover her tender bones. Press not heavy on her, oh earth—she pressed lightly on thee” (34). His words showed consideration and kindness that scholars didn’t see in either Cato or Seneca. This is likely because Martial saw this slave girl as more than just a worker in his household.
While Cato and Seneca needed a lot of rules for how to keep slaves in line, Martial just wanted to show that there is no one way to think about slavery in ancient Rome. There are different ways. He showed them satire and what can happen when things get bad for the slave.
Plautus master of comedy about ancient slavery
Plautus was a playwright whose comedies mocked the institution of slavery in ancient Rome. These were likely modeled off those from Hellenistic Greece and written in everyday Latin for spoken idioms, with a great capacity for wit and coarse humor. With this genius understanding of the situation at hand, Plautus’ comedies achieved a sterling reputation.
Plautus’s plays had many funny characters. The slave in the play is very interesting because he becomes a central figure and Plautus describes him with specific, often hilarious things. (Duckworth 124):
Detail from the “Death of Seneca” by Rubens.
” Pleusicles: Why don’t you choose? For ‘tis a delightful thing to be the father of children.
Periplecomenus: Troth, ‘tis very much sweeter by far to be free yourself. For a good wife, if it is possible for her to be married anywhere on earth, where can I find her? But am I to take one home who is never to say this to me, “Buy me some wool, my dear, with which a soft and warm cloak may be made, and good winter under-clothes. that you mayn’t catch cold this winter-weather;” such an expression as this you can never hear from a wife, but, before the cocks crow, she awakes me from my sleep, and says, “Give me some money, my dear, with which to make my mother a present on the Calends.
Give me some money to make preserves; give me something to give to the sorceress, to the woman who interprets the dreams, to the prophetess, and to the female diviner; besides, ‘tis impossible for me, in civility, not to fee the expiating woman; for long has the mattress-maker been grumbling, because she has received nothing; besides, the midwife found fault with me, that too little had been sent for her. What! Aren’t you going to send something to the nurse that brings up the young slaves? It’s a shame if nothing’s sent her; with what a brow she does look at me.” These and many other expenses of the women like to these frighten me from a wife, to be uttering speeches to me like to this. “
Pericles acted as an instigator in Miles Gloriosus; he brought out the thoughts and natures of the people around him in often humorous ways. Here he was able to draw out the complaining Periplecomenus in an artistic way by simply commiserating with him, while at the same time, he was able to get him to say incredibly funny things.
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Plautus’ comedy is a kind of comedy with a clever slave outwitting his master. In Plautus’ Casina, the slaves Olympio and Chalinus scheme to get a young slave girl for themselves (technically for the mistress’ son), while their master desires to sleep with her himself. Chalinus ends up disguising himself as the slave girl and enters the master’s bedroom at night, only to be discovered as a man in a most humiliating fashion for the master:
Cleostrata: Proceed boldly. After you went to bed, I want you to tell me what took place after that.
Olympia: But it’s a disgraceful matter.
Cleostrata: I’ll take care that those who hear it shall be on their guard as to mention it.
Olympio: That’s the principal thing.
Cleostrata: You kill me with weariness. Why don’t you proceed?
Olympio: Oh it was great. I feared she had a sword, and by golly she did. But it wasn’t really a sword…it wasn’t cold (Act V, line 905-910).
Plautus could make his humor lewd and hilarious
His audience would have both felt bad for the embarrassed master and excited and amused for the triumphant slaves. Plato used comedy in his plays to make people less afraid of the consequences of slavery, like rebellions and lost control. Plautus was able to not only make fun of slavery as a foolish institution, but he was also able to make his audience see the lighter side of slavery in ancient Rome and the foolish side of those people who were typically regarded as masters of their households.
In the last scene of Plautus’ Epidicus, a slave again used his cunning and ingenuity to barter for his freedom. Instead of simply asking for it, he forced his master to beg him:
Periphanes: I do beg you, Epidicus, to forgive me if I have unwillingly been to blame and have injured you. But in recompense, you are free.
Epidicus: I am unwilling to pardon you but I am compelled by necessity. Okay, if it pleases you, you may free me.
For the Romans, this was a funny play. It showed how slaves can outsmart their masters. This type of play would have seemed very funny and entertaining to them. Plautus took the idea of slaves and turned it into a way for every story to have a happy ending.
Slaves needed to be obedient. Cato and Seneca wrote about how to keep slaves obedient. They often talked about how slaves should act. Martial wrote a satire that made fun of the slave-owner for not taking care of his slaves well and for making them do silly things.
Conclusion about slavery in ancient Rome
The Romans loved Slavery in the Ancient World. Slaves needed to be obedient and were often made to do silly things by slave owners who did not take care of them well. There are stories Plautus about how slaves can outsmart their masters, which makes it seem like they have a happy ending.