Oct 15, 2014
These days, PAs and nannies do what they can, but in the golden days of Rome, life required slaves. Lots of them.
How and where to buy the best gets “The Roman Guide to Slave Managements: A Treatise by Marcus Sidonius Falx” off to a captivating start. Chapter headings like “When Only Torture Will Do” keep our interest throughout.
Falx credits his father, a minor nobleman, for helping him understand the many ways slaves are beneficial to non-slaves. “Showing off” is top of the list. Slaves confer status and the more you have, the better you look.
An encounter with a visiting princeling from a German tribe motivated Falx to write this owner’s manual. He was about to break the legs of a slave for snickering as he tripped over a hoe when his guest suggested that was extreme. “Surely you would treat your slaves the same way?” asked Falx. The German said they did not have slaves. Questions raced through the flabbergasted Falx’s head. What did they do with captives acquired in wars of conquest? Who would perform the basest tasks? How would you display your wealth?
So he wrote this manual on servitude with the help of the historian Jerry Toner of Churchill College, Cambridge. In fact, Toner wrote it for him and then, exchanging his toga for the gown of a don, provides historical commentaries and context at the end of every chapter.
‘Tool That Talks’
Toner draws on Seneca, Pliny the Younger and various Roman chroniclers to create in Falx a credible portrait of the affluent slaveholder — smug, smart, sardonic.
“Wealthy Romans saw slaves as being necessary for a high standard of living, just as we view modern domestic appliances,” notes Toner. Slavery was simply a fact of life, part of the natural order.
“Think of a slave as a tool that talks,” says Falx.
By the standards of his era (the references to Christian losers suggest the first century A.D.), Falx has decent impulses and even acts on them. He is a stickler for rules and knows every decree any emperor ever passed regulating the proper owning of slaves. For instance, there were laws that forbade kidnapping people and forcing them into servitude. When a crying female slave begs him for help because she was wrongfully abducted from her native land, Falx sends her back from his estate with travel money.
Christians, he is happy to point out, despite their smug claims to moral superiority, have done little to affect the institution of slavery. Paul, the future saint, even returned a slave to his owner with a note attached to treat him kindly.
Still, he agrees that fair treatment is part of good management. Learn how to manage your slaves and you will be ready to pursue a leadership role in society, says Falx. “Breeding slaves is both expensive and time consuming. And the cost is considerable,” he adds. Let me help you. He’s well-informed about the best places to shop for whatever you need, a bailiff, a gardener, a nanny, or maybe just a playmate.
“If you wish to purchase yourself a boy as a pet, you would be well-advised to go to Saepta Julia and ask if they have any Egyptians in the back.” Judging by “The Roman Guide to Slave Management,” a lot of Romans were cheerfully bisexual. “Avoid slaves who appear melancholy,” he counsels, in what may be the manual’s funniest line.
Free at Last
Incidences of slaves turning on masters seem to have been rare enough for Falx to linger on the murder of a man so rich he owned 400 slaves. When one killed him, the others were executed because of a complicated law that gave Falx a headache (such a waste of capital) and provoked riots in the street. But what helped to keep the peace probably more than extreme punishment was that slavery was a temporary state for many.
A large percentage were freed within 10 years. Slaves who saved could buy their freedom, while others were set free for good behavior or when their owners died. “Somewhat surprisingly, Roman slavery was as much about social mobility as structural rigidity,” explains Toner. The Roman Empire lasted as long as it did because of the fluid ways it absorbed vast numbers of strangers and slaves and transformed them into citizens.
Toner of today’s Cambridge has the last words:
“No one now argues, like Falx, that slavery is acceptable or justifiable. But before we congratulate ourselves on how far we have come, we should remember that it is a tragic fact that even though slavery is illegal in every country in the world, it still exists widely. The NGO Free the Slaves estimates that there are 27 million individuals who are forced to work under threat of violence, without pay or hope of escape. There are more slaves in the world today than there were at any point in the life of the Roman empire.”
“The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Marcus Sidonius Falx” is published by Overlook.
Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.