• Dylan Fowler

Propria Persona: Personhood and Slavery in the Late Roman Empire

The field of human rights is inherently a forward-looking discipline, born from a desire to not only study the inherent freedoms and rights available to all, but to protect them. Nonetheless, the field has long benefited from the scholarly work of historians to provide context for the modern world. By looking to the past, the policy and precedent of the present can be better understood. Yet, I would propose that going beyond the traditional field of legal history would further aid the discipline of human rights. The study of the thoughts and values of past peoples should be of particular interest, especially as a tool to understand the complex relationship between societal views and where it agrees or clashes with the legal reality. This is particularly true when we dig into the basic questions of past philosophies, such as “what makes a person a ‘whole’ person?”

I am certainly biased in this call for increased inclusion of historic research in the field. As an intellectual historian, my focus lies in the thoughts and ideas of past peoples, particularly those thoughts which have significantly influenced the ways in which individuals have been viewed and treated. While it is imperative in my research that I attempt to avoid “presentism,” applying an inappropriate and anachronistic set of modern values to my analysis of the past, there remains much to be gained from a close reading of the conceptualisation and operationalisation of human rights in the past.


With this in mind, this piece will examine some of the complexities of slavery in the late Roman Empire before Christianization, focusing particularly on the ways in which the Roman populace viewed slaves and the degree to which these views were reflected in the legally assured rights enslaved peoples possessed. I’ve chosen this time period for two reasons. Firstly, despite the staggering number of popular histories on early Rome which have been published in recent years, few examine the pre-Christian yet post-Augustus era in any depth. Secondly, this period is of particular interest for the shifts which we observe in popular Roman values, many of which changed how enslaved peoples were viewed.

Of course, within the field of human rights studies, academic work on slavery is not uncommon. Before we properly begin, however, I would like to outline the peculiarities of Roman slavery as an institution, especially where it diverges from the sort of early modern chattel slavery. Otherwise, we risk mischaracterizing and misunderstanding the experiences of an enslaved person living in the Roman Empire.


During the reign of emperor Diocletian (r. 284 - 305 c.e.) between 10 and 15% of the Roman Empire’s approximately 39.3 million people were enslaved. If we use some general estimations, this means that of the nearly 205 million people living on the planet in 300 c.e., as many as 2.9% were enslaved within the Empire. Currently, the Global Slavery Index’s estimates would indicate that 0.52% of people are enslaved in one form or another. Further, these statistics place Rome’s ratio of enslaved to free peoples very near to that of the United States in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War.


There can certainly be no argument that the Roman Empire was indeed a slave society, then. Not only was the Roman economy built upon slave labor, much of Roman society, bureaucracy, and education also heavily relied upon the labor of enslaved people. Purpose-trained slaves frequently appeared throughout history as scribes to senators and skilled tradespeople, and while it is by no means difficult to also find examples of abysmal forced labor camps and farm plantations, Roman slavery was a system with its own social strata. The existence of the servus publicus complicates this even further, as a “public slave” had no private owner, instead being a slave “of the state” who supported the state by managing temples, serving as accountants, and a number of other basic tasks which were deemed vital enough to deserve a small salary.

The concept of a paid slave, however, was by no means unheard of. Skilled and high-ranking slaves could hold property (though it was legally owned by their master) and profit from it, potentially purchasing their own freedom if they amassed enough wealth.


While this was not the fate most Roman slaves could expect - the vast majority remained enslaved until their deaths - a slave freed either through their master’s will or through purchasing their own manumission would find themselves in possession of a number of political rights as freedmen, including the vote. Further, their children would be born fully-fledged Roman citizens, a status which came with voting rights, the right to a legal trial, and the right to life, among others. While there was a certain social stigma which came with being the descendant of slaves, many of Rome’s most prominent politicians had slaves somewhere in their lineage.

Despite this potential for upward mobility, however slim, Roman slaves possessed no legal personhood and were treated as objects. Famously, Marcell Mauss concluded from this fact that a Roman slave was not truly an individual, and in Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern, Enrico Dal Largo writes that the slave was “legally dead” because their status as a slave had stripped them of all heredity and lineage, and therefore all past and future. The testimony of a slave was not accepted in court unless tortured, as the testimony of a slave was assumed to be invariably in support of their masters unless they had the “truth” coerced from them. Indeed, bodily autonomy, the right to life, and virtually every other basic human right were not available to slaves.


While we should not diminish this dismal legal status for Roman slaves, it is worth stressing that, to the average Roman, slaves were nevertheless seen as people. In other words, an enslaved person was viewed by the average Roman as belonging to another social class rather than to a completely separate sub-human group. While many enslaved people were born into slavery, many of the Empire’s slaves were formerly free people who had been forced into slavery, such as by being conquered by the Roman military or through being sentenced to slavery as a punishment for a crime. Still others voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, especially in the case of individuals who were educated and believed that providing their services as a slave was a safe means of finding financial security. It should be noted here that Roman slavery outlined a seperate (and certainly lesser) tier of person in Roman society, but the social status of “slave” was in no way defined by ethnicity or any other specific trait. As Stefan Goodwin concisely puts it, “Roman slavery was a nonracist and fluid system.”

Here we find the central conflict: Roman slaves were not viewed as less-than human, yet they possessed almost no rights. We have some evidence that this caused some conflict and debate in Roman society, not only from enslaved peoples attempting to secure more rights, but from Romans themselves who may well have known formerly free people who had become slaves. If we look to property law, for example, we find that while slave owners had complete control over the bodies of their slaves, there were limitations placed on the types of violence which slaves could be subjected to, especially if it was viewed as being excessively cruel. By the time of Antoninus Pius(r. 138 - 161 c.e.) slave owners who had killed their slaves without “just cause” could be tried for murder. In fact, injuring or otherwise abusing a slave beyond what was expected could have legal repercussions, and though this sort of legal protection applied almost exclusively to high ranking slaves rather than to the frequently abused quarry slaves, for example, it shows some of the complexities of this system which simultaneously denied a person ownership of their own person while placing limits on what abuses were reasonable.

Scholars often point to the popularity of Stoic philosophy in later Roman society as promoting an egalitarian ethos which led to greater sympathy toward slaves from citizens. Yet we find earlier instances of the public openly opposing what was outlined in the Roman law code when its abuses of slaves were particularly eggregious. For example, in accordance with The Twelve Tables, an ancient section of the Roman legal code, if a master was killed by one of their slaves but the perpetrator was unknown, all of the slaves in the household were to be executed. This was widely held by Roman citizens as an exceptionally cruel punishment which was rarely put into practice.Yet in 61 c.e. we find a notable exception after the death of Lucius Pedanius Secundus, a senator who was murdered by one of his slaves. The senate determined that in accordance with the law, the household’s 400 slaves - including the women and children who were almost certainly not responsible for the murder - were to be killed. This sparked large riots as the public attempted to prevent the sentence from being executed prompting Emperor Nero to mobilize the army to ensure that the executions could occur without interruption.

If we jump ahead several centuries to a 5th-century Roman comedy titled Querolus (“the Grumpy Old Man”) we find the slave Pantomalus (in translation, literally “every evil”) say the following:

“That all masters are wicked is a true and undeniably obvious fact. Yet I know – and all too well – that my master is the very worst. Oh, he isn’t such a dangerous fellow, but he sure is a nasty ingrate.”

By the time this passage had been written, many Romans had begun to believe that slavery was an inherently immoral practice (due in part to the increasing prevalence of Christian philosophy in the Empire) but it highlights what I believe is a sentiment which we can see expressed among earlier Romans as well. The expansion of Roman citizenship (and the rights which came with it) as part of the 212 c.e. Edict of Caracalla, for example, worked in combination with the growing belief that all of Rome’s peoples should be exempt from certain abuses to foster greater sympathies toward slaves.

Despite this, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Roman slavery was its persistence in the face of moral outrage. As early as the 1st-century C.E. we find Paul the Apostle write about the immoral way in which slavery dehumanizes, yet he never actually calls for the system to be abolished, perhaps because, as some scholars have written, removing such a critical institution form Roman society was unthinkable. Indeed, the actual end of Roman slavery came in the form of a gradual transition in which slaves and laborers alike became legally tied to plots of land as part of a system which laid the groundwork for medieval feudal serfdom. The rights of these serfs gradually expanded, and much like in the earlier system of slavery, a handful of individuals were capable of freeing themselves while others were forced to till the soil in chains.

The primary goal of this piece is to complicate the assumption that the statuses of “person” and “object” cannot be held simultaneously in a legal or societal sense. While certain enslaved peoples possessed more privileged positions in society due to their abilities or the households to which they belonged, Roman slaves were nevertheless seen as people. Roman citizens seem to have possessed some form of moral compass that indicated which abuses against slaves were viewed as extraordinary, for while enslaved peoples were certainly expected be treated differently to the free, slaves were ultimately still people.

Human rights scholars and activists should note such complex and counterintuitive scenarios if only so that their understandings of past human rights abuses can be expanded, to say nothing of the extent to which systems such as Roman law have provided scaffolding for much of the world’s modern legal codes. However, there is an unfortunate trend in writings on Roman slavery in which writers tend to characterize the system as a “better” or “less cruel” form of slavery. It is of course a pointless and detrimental exercise to engage with these arguments, but this demonstrates precisely how a knowledge of history can allow us to compare and contrast past cultures, not to assess who was better or less cruel, but to inform our current decisions and actions.


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