The thought of resistance
A Roman senator named Pupius Piso once ordered his slaves not to speak unless spoken to. He had no time for idle talk. He also arranged an elegant dinner-party at which the guest of honour was to be a dignitary named Clodius
… psychological warfare … always existed between chief and slave.
At the advisable fourth dimension all the guests arrived except Clodius. So Piso sent the slave responsible for having invited the guest of honor to see where he was – several times – merely nonetheless Clodius did not appear. In despair Piso finally questioned the slave: ‘Did you send Clodius an invitation?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And so why hasn’t he come?’ ‘Because he declined’. ‘Then why didn’t you tell me earlier? ‘Because you didn’t inquire.’
This anecdote was recorded, well-nigh Advert 100, by the Greek moralist Plutarch. Information technology is a story that presupposes a abiding tension between slave and main in the ancient Roman world, and is a hit illustration of how a lowly Roman slave could outwit his superior main.
Technically Roman slaves were the property, the chattels, of their owners, held in a state of full subjection. Only to outwit an possessor every bit Piso’southward slave did was to win a victory in the game of psychological warfare that always existed between main and slave.
For dissimilar other forms of property, slaves were human beings with minds of their own, and they didn’t always obey their owners as unthinkingly as they were supposed to. They had the capacity to resist the absolute authority their owners formally exercised, and when Piso’due south slave crushingly embarrassed his master past obeying his instructions to the alphabetic character, for a moment (at least) he placed Piso in the inferior position that he commonly occupied himself.
He institute, in other words, a mode to assert himself, to exert ability against the powerful, then that the asymmetrical roles of master and slave were of a sudden inverted.
The realities of slavery
In Plutarch’southward day Rome had been the predominant political power in the ancient Mediterranean world for roughly 500 years, and was to remain so for three centuries more. Throughout this bridge of fourth dimension Rome was a slave-owning society, acquiring its slaves through its wars of conquest and through trade beyond the borders of its empire.
In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 Advertizing, perhaps a quarter or fifty-fifty a 3rd of the population was made up of slaves. Over fourth dimension millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-being with no rights of whatever kind. They were non-persons – observe that in Plutarch’s story the slave does non fifty-fifty have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, ally, or have legitimate families.
… slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising establishment …
Their office was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, merely there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual corruption were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, fierce and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as alike to animals.
Few records take survived from Roman slaves to let modern historians to deduce from them a slave’southward perception of his or her life of servitude. Rome produced no slaves-turned-abolitionist such as the African-Americans Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs.
Instead the prove available comes overwhelmingly from people such as Plutarch, who represented the slave-owning classes. But that evidence does prove that Roman slaves managed to demonstrate their opposition to slavery in various means.
The most obvious way was through open rebellion. In 73-71 BC the gladiator Spartacus famously led an uprising of thousands of slaves in central Italian republic, formed an ground forces that defeated several Roman legions, and at ane point threatened Rome itself.
Earlier there had been similar large-scale rebellions on the isle of Sicily. Simply open rebellion was too the most dangerous form of resistance, because the stakes were enormously loftier. The greater the size of the rebellion, the greater the likelihood was of betrayal from within, and the greater the threat was of serious retaliation, re-enslavement or expiry.
… the Romans e’er feared another Spartacus
Spartacus himself died in battle, and thousands of his captured followers were crucified. The slave rebels in Sicily were besides thoroughly suppressed. It isn’t surprising that they had no successors, or that their rebellions accomplished nothing of lasting value for Roman slaves.
Still, the Romans always feared some other Spartacus. The philosopher Seneca tells of a proposal that was once made in the Roman senate requiring slaves to wearable distinctive wearable so that they could be easily recognised. Only once the senators realised that the slaves might and then become witting of their force, and make common cause confronting their masters, they abandoned the idea.
Alternatives to rebellion
Many slaves probably internalised their social inferiority, and accommodated themselves to servitude without thinking in terms of resistance. Others responded more violently, and sometimes tragically.
Those who fought confronting Rome knew that they could be sent to the slave-market if taken as a prisoner-of-war. They are often said to take killed themselves rather than face up the prospect of enslavement – a clear indictment of the horrors involved in the sudden transition from freedom to slavery. Images of the vanquished committing suicide are nonetheless visible on the Column of Trajan in Rome.
… constabulary required a homo’s slaves to come to his aid if he were attacked, under penalty of expiry.
At other times, slaves who were unable to tolerate their conditions assaulted their owners. In the mid-commencement century Advertisement an anonymous slave murdered his main, a loftier official in the imperial administration, either because the primary had reneged on a promise to prepare the slave free or considering the ii were rivals in a sexual intrigue.
The aftermath was disastrous. Roman law required a man’s slaves to come up to his aid if he were attacked, under penalty of death. The law was enforced against those slaves who had non come to the victim’southward aid in this case, and all the slaves in the household – allegedly 400 of them – were executed, even though well-nigh of them could not possibly take known anything nearly the murder.
There were other means to convalesce the burdens of slavery. One was to attempt to escape, either to return to an original homeland or just to find safe refuge somewhere. Romans labelled runaway slaves ‘fugitives’, and as the greatest modern historian of aboriginal slavery, Moses Finley, has remarked, ‘fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources’. This suggests that the incidence of running away was always high.
To bargain with the problem, the Romans hired professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and posted advertisements in public places giving precise descriptions of fugitives and offering rewards for their capture. Around the necks of slaves who were recovered they also fastened atomic number 26 collars, giving instructions on what to do with the slaves who wore them if they happened to escape once again. Examples can yet exist seen in museums.
There is no mode of knowing how many Roman slaves successfully escaped slavery by running abroad. Merely information technology was possible. And information technology helped that skin colour was no impediment.
The corking orator Cicero can be heard grumbling in his correspondence well-nigh a slave named Dionysius, who was well-educated plenty to have supervised Cicero’due south personal library and who must have been relatively well-treated. He ran away anyhow. Cicero used all his considerable influence to find the man, but to no avail: Dionysius slipped away beyond the Adriatic and is last heard of well out of Cicero’s attain – somewhere in the Balkans.
Day-to twenty-four hours resistance
Running away was less dangerous than rebellion, but it was still a chancy enterprise. Slave-catchers apart, Roman police force forbade the harbouring of fugitives, so slaves on the run were always in danger and if caught could be savagely punished. To many therefore it must have fabricated sense not to risk life and limb by running away, but to carry out acts of wilful obstruction or demolition that harmed slave-owners’ interests at minimal take chances to themselves.
Slaves, for example, might steal food or other supplies from the household. Those in positions of responsibleness might falsify record books, and embezzle money from their owners, or arrange for their own manumission (setting free). Ordinary subcontract labourers might deliberately get tedious on the job, or hurt the animals they worked with to avoid work – or they might pretend to exist sick, destroy equipment, or damage buildings. If your chore was to brand vino and you had to produce a certain quota, why not add in some sea-water to aid things along? Virtually any slave could play truant or just waste matter time.
… desultory acts of defiance created a permanent undercurrent of low-level resistance to slavery …
All these niggling forms of day-to-day resistance appealed to Roman slaves. They immune slaves to frustrate and annoy their owners, and offered the satisfaction of knowing that their owners’ powers were not absolute – that even the almost apprehensive of human beings could accept action to empower themselves.
Owners complained that their slaves were lazy and troublesome – instead of working they were always pilfering food or clothing or valuables (even the silverware), setting burn to property (villas included), or wandering around the urban center’southward art galleries and public entertainments.
Only it was in the decisions they made to crusade vexation that slaves most forcefully expressed their humanity, and their opposition to the institution that oppressed them. Their sporadic acts of disobedience created a permanent undercurrent of low-level resistance to slavery that was securely embedded in Roman society.
The slaves were motivated non by a sense of grade solidarity – Rome’s slave population was far too heterogeneous for that – but past the want to find ways in which, as individuals, they could discover relief from their subject field status, if just temporarily.
The human relationship betwixt slaves and masters at Rome was a contest fought in the arena of the mind. Masters could draw on all the weapons of police, status and established authority – there was never in Roman history any movement to abolish slavery – whereas slaves had niggling more than to fight with than their wits.
But every bit Plutarch’s story symbolically shows, the lines of battle had to be constantly redrawn, as slaves matched their will against the will of those who owned them. And it was not ever the masters who won.
Find out more
Slavery in the Roman Empre
by RH Barrow (Barnes & Noble, 1998)
Suetonius’ Life of Nero: An Historical Commentary
edited by KR Bradley (Drove Latomus, Brussels, 1978)
Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control
by KR Bradley (Oxford University Press, 1987)
Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 BC – 70 BC
by KR Bradley (Batsford, 1989; reprint 1998)
Ancient Slavery and Modern Credo
by MI Finley (Chatto and Windus, 1980)
Slavery and Society at Rome
by KR Bradley (Cambridge University Printing, 1994; Spanish translation 1998)
edited and translated by JC Rolfe; revised edition with a new introduction by KR Bradley (Harvard University Press, 1998)
Conquerors and Slaves
by Yard Hopkins (Cambridge, 1978)
Spartacus and the Slave Wars
by BD Shaw (Boston, 2001)
About the writer
Keith Bradley is the Eli J Shaheen Professor of Classics, Concurrent Professor of History, and Chair of the Department of Classics at the Academy of Notre Dame, Indiana. His special interests are in Roman social and cultural history, peculiarly the history of slavery and of the family.
Which Statement Best Describes Slavery in Ancient Rome