Reflections - Part X - Marcus and Slavery

© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017

Part X of
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Slavery is the complete mastery (dominium) of one individual over another, and was so embedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible, and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers and slave owners.
Some of the roots of slavery are to be found in the ubiquitous religious mythology of the Romans
Inequality in power, freedom and the control of resources was an accepted part of life and went right back to the mythology of Jupiter overthrowing Saturn.
For the Romans, 'freedom' was not a 'general right' but rather a 'select privilege'.
Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus - Rome
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Further, it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved.
Slavery, was, therefore, not considered an evil but rather a necessity by Roman citizens.
The fact that slaves were taken from the defeated in battle (and their subsequent offspring) was also a helpful justification, and confirmation of Rome's (perceived) cultural superiority, and Rome's right to rule over others, and exploit those persons for absolutely any purpose whatsoever.
Domus Gracchii
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This 'right' to rule and enslave derived from religious beliefs, being part of the 'contract established between Rome and their Gods' - the principal God being 'Jupiter Optimus Maximus' (Best and Greatest), whose temple was situated on the Capitoline Hill, in Rome - directly opposite the Esquiline Hill, on which stood the Domus Gracchii - the vast, palatial home of the Marcus Octavianus Gracchus.

A unique insight into slavery may be gained by viewing the institution through the eyes of Marcus Octavianus Gracchus - the main character in the 'Story of Gracchus'.
Roman Athens
Marcus was born a free Roman citizen, and spent his childhood and early adolescence in Athens, in Greece.
For Marcus the existence of slaves was simply a fact of life, as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy, and 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves.
The number and proportion of slaves in society varied over time and place, for example, in Augustan Italy the figure was as high as 30% whilst in Roman Egypt slaves made up only 10% of the total population.
Roman slavery was very much a product of the wars of conquest during the early phase of Rome's expansion.
Initially, when Rome conquered the surrounding Italic tribes, such as the Sabines and the Etruscans, the conquered people were absorbed into the Roman population, and were given Roman citizenship, however, when non-Italic races were conquered, as during the Punic Wars, and the conquest of Greece and Gaul, the conquered and defeated people were often enslaved.
It is often maintained that Roman slavery was not based on 'racial' principals, however, as time passed, it was far less likely for persons of Italic ethnicity to be enslaved, and most slaves were non-Italic - many being Greek, Celtic or from the Eastern parts of the Empire.
In the 'Story of Gracchus', most of the slaves encountered are of Greek origin - Greek slaves, on average, being better educated and often more expensive than other ethnicities.
In addition, most educated Romans spoke Greek, as well as Latin, and so communication with Greek slaves posed little of a problem.
Despite the wars in Iudæa (Judea or Palestine) under Vespasian and Titus, that occurred at the time of the 'Story of Gracchus', Jewish slaves, who had flooded the market, were unpopular as 'house slaves', because of language problems, dietary problems and religious differences - (Jews were looked upon as 'atheists', as they were not prepared to recognise Greek and Roman Gods).
In addition male Jewish slaves were circumcised, which was unacceptable to most Romans.
Although slave ownership was wider than in the Greek world, in the Empire, it remained a prerogative of  reasonably well-off  Romans.
Gaius Agrippa Aelius
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A modest Roman business owner, artisan or military veteran might own one or two slaves, whilst for the very wealthy, the number of slaves owned could run into the hundreds.
Marcus' natural father, Gaius Agrippa Aelius, living in Athens as a Roman official would probably have owned about twenty slaves, some of whom would have helped to look after Marcus when he was a boy.
However, in the 1st century CE, the Prefect L. Pedanius Secundus had 400 slaves merely for his private residence.
Slaves Performing in the Arena
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Also, on the rare occasions when Marcus attended school, his schoolmaster would have been a Greek slave, and when Marcus 'skipped' school, and hung around the Athenian gymnasia with his friends, there would have been numerous slaves attending the bathing facilities, providing massages, and generally maintaining the establishments.
Undoubtedly, as a boy, Marcus gave little thought to the situation in which slaves found themselves - and it was only when he became enslaved himself that he become more aware of the institution of slavery on which the Roman state relied.
Many slaves in the Roman Empire were treated very cruelly - such slaves being those who worked in mines, on the land (farming), in industrial enterprises and those who appeared in the arena.
There were also 'state slaves' who were used in jails, street cleaning, public baths, construction work in the cities etc.
for more detailed information see:
'Slavery in the Roman Empire'


One of the other main groups of slaves were 'domestic slaves' - slaves who worked in the home.
With regard to what were usually referred to as 'domum servorum' (domestic slaves), their treatment and conditions could vary greatly.
In the 'Story of Gracchus' we have the example of Marcus himself......

Marcus for Sale
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Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus
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Marcus was very fortunate in that he was bought by a freedman Terentius, who was acting as an agent for a rather idiosyncratic and enormously wealthy slave owner and Roman senator called Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus.

Marcus' Accommodation
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Villa at Baiae
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From the start Marcus' owner had doubts that Marcus was a legitimate slave - but rather possibly a Roman citizen who had been illegally enslaved.
Because of this, he had the boy educated in Greek and Latin,  and given the lightest duties, while Marcus was accommodated in considerable luxury in Gnaeus' magnificent seaside villa at Baiae.
Eventually Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus granted Marcus his freedom, and made Marcus his heir.
Only a short time later, Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus was murdered as a result of a plot which involved not only an ex-centurion, but a number of slaves working at the villa, as well as a freedman who supervised Gracchus' villa in Rome.
It was normal Roman custom that, if a slave murdered his or her master, then all the slaves in the household would be executed.
Fortunately for the slaves at Gracchus' villa it appeared that the murder itself had been committed by the ex-centurion.
It was, however, at this point, that Marcus, even although he had previously been a slave himself, realized just how dangerous slaves could be, and he had the three slaves involved in the plot, plus the ex-centurion and the freedman all executed - (the ex-centurion with, however, the tacit agreement of Legatus Marcellus and Titus Vespasianus (Praetorian Prefect).
While the execution of slaves may seem to be extreme, particularly as they were given no trial, and were not permitted to offer any defence, it should be noted that Marcus, as 'paterfamilias' was entitled, and in fact expected, under Roman law, to take such action.
While the treatment of Marcus was unusually mild and benign while he was a slave, and ended in Marcus being freed, other slaves had more unpleasant conditions
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Aurarius (a Greek slave-boy who appears in the 'Story of Gacchus') was an example of a poorly treated slave.
He was sold into slavery (along with his older brother), because his family fell into serious debt.
His owner was an old man, and Aurarius' living conditions were very poor, with little to eat, and sleeping on a filthy, rotten mattress  in a tiny room.
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Sexually abused, Aurarius was not even given the dignity of his own name, and was always called simply 'boy', so that when Terentius, (Gracchus' freedman), eventually bought him, and asked Aurarius his name, he replied 'Αγόρι' ('Boy'), as he had forgotten his real name.
Aniketos is another example of a neglected domestic slave appearing the 'Story of Gracchus'.
Aniketos was not sexually abused, or kept in poor physical conditions, but was deprived of all human company, except that of his master.
Fortunately the boy could read, (he was kept partly as a 'reader' for his master - probably because his master's eyesight was poor), however, his only knowledge of the world came from his reading the many scrolls in his master's large library.
Slavery was dangerous in may ways.
Domestic slaves were often confined in relatively small family groups, and even in large establishments they would be allocated to a particular part of the domestic scene - for example kitchens, stables, gardens etc.
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In such situations all sorts of rivalries could flourish and, in particular, masters needed to be careful that their treatment of slaves was seen to be fair, even and equitable.
If one slave was shown any special favour, then other slaves might become envious, and in the 'hot house' atmosphere of the domus, that could escalate to murderous proportions.
Marcus, when he was a slave of Gnaeus Gracchus, was shown numerous favours by his master, which ended in his one-time friend, Glykon, making an attempt on Marcus' life.
Equally, Cleon, who felt spurned by Marcus, colluded in this plotted murder.
In addition there was a slave-gladiator involved in the plot - Petram.
All these slave-boys were subsequently executed.
It is a widely held belief that condemned slaves were automatically crucified, however, crucifixion was not a particularly common form of execution, (except when used in the aftermath of some of the slave revolts).
Execution of Petram
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Execution of Glykon
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It should be noted here that there are practically no references to crucifixion in Roman literature and, apart from some scribbled graffiti, no visual representations of crucifixion - either in sculpture, mosaics or paintings.
The very first work of art portraying a crucifixion, is an example of 'Christian' art that dates to the 5th century CE (400 years after the 'Story of Gracchus').
Most slaves guilty of serious misdemeanour's would be condemned to death in the arena.
The public executions of slaves in the arena were usually gruesome and humiliating, but being part of a fast moving program of combats, wrestling, mythological re-enactments and other diversions, were not particularly prolonged - whereas a crucifixion could take a couple of day to kill the victim.
It was important for the Roman populace to see that recalcitrant and runaway slaves were dealt efficiently, as this encouraged confidence in the ability of the Roman state to adequately control its vast slave population.

'Slavery and the Family'

Slaves' lives were lived, by and large, outside normal family structures.
Most slaves, on being enslaved, were wrenched from their families.
In the story of Gracchus, Aurarius and Petronius are sold by their family to cover their debts, and the boys are separated.
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Most slaves were not permitted to marry - although a few masters did allow this.
Some masters used certain male slaves as 'studs', to impregnate their female slaves - and the children resulting were automatically slaves, and the property of their master.
Petronius and  Adonios
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Such children, however, would not know who their father was, and were usually separated from their mother at an early age, to be sent to another establishment belonging to their master.
Having no family made for a very unnatural and lonely life for most slaves.
Because of this, some domestic slaves, who had frequent contact with their master, or members of his family, became emotionally attached to those who were responsible for their enslavement.
Marcus and Aurarius
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This was more likely to happen where there was a sexual bond between the slave and their master - and it was common for attractive 'house slaves' to be used sexually by members of the family who owned them.
Examples of this are to be found in the Story of Gracchus where Marcus' slave-boy, Aurarius, through an intense sexual relationship, becomes emotionally attached to his master.
A similar situation also arises between Petronius and Adonios.
Such sexual relationships between slaves and masters, however, are almost always predicated on the master taking the dominant (penetrative) role, while the slave takes on the submissive role.
Such attachments were not always of a sexual nature, and so Adonios is equally emotionally attached to Marcus, simply through prolonged association.


Marcus, like almost all Romans at the time, accepts slavery as part of the natural order.
There are concepts of 'freedom' in the ancient world, but but not as we understand the concept, for these concepts of  'freedom' and 'equality' were limited to 'citizens' - either of the 'polis' (city state), in ancient Greece, or citizens of the Republic, in ancient Rome.
Octavian - Augustus
For Romans, with the ending of the Republic, when Augustus (Octavian) became Princeps, the concept of the 'free citizen' became very narrow, despite Augustus assumed title of Princeps - derived from the concept of 'first among equals' - his 'equals', in this case, being his fellow Senators, all Roman citizens, who were a highly privileged group.
While Roman citizenship remained an established institution, the development of the Principate and Imperial rule tended to highlight the authority not only of the state, but also the 'paterfamilias' - who was, in most situations, the individual responsible for slaves.
The pater familias was the head of a Roman family. The pater familias was the oldest living male in a household, and exercised autocratic authority over his extended family. The term is Latin for "father of the family" or the "owner of the family estate". The pater familias always had to be a Roman citizen. Roman law and tradition (mos maiorum) established the power of the pater familias within the community of his own extended familia. He held legal privilege over the property of the familia, and varying levels of authority over his dependents: these included his wife and children, certain other relatives through blood or adoption, clients, freedmen and slaves. The same mos maiorum moderated his authority and determined his responsibilities to his own familia and to the broader community. He had a duty to maintain the moral propriety and well-being of his household, to honour his clan and ancestral gods and to dutifully participate, and if possible, serve in Rome's political, religious and social life. In effect, the 'pater familias' was expected to be a good 'citizen'. Under Roman Law he held powers of life and death over every member of his extended 'familia' through ancient right.
One of the ways in which Romans justified the system of slavery was by an appeal to religious belief.
Belief in the Gods was almost universal at the time of the 'Story of Gracchus', although such belief was held in various degrees of sophistication by different social classes, as a result of differing level of education.
Cilician Pirates
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Goddess Foruna
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Significantly, in the case of Marcus, he felt, (and it should be remembered that he was just a teenager), that his sudden enslavement by pirates was 'just' punishment for his 'wayward' behaviour.
Not having obeyed or respected his father, and not having followed the traditions of the ancestors meant, to Marcus, that the Gods, and particularly 'Fortuna', had singled him out for punishment.
Fortūna, equivalent to the Greek goddess Tyche) was the goddess of fortune and personification of luck in Roman religion. She might bring good or bad luck: she could be represented as veiled and blind, and came to represent life's capriciousness. She was also a goddess of fate. Her father was said to be Jupiter and like him, she could also be bountiful (Copia). Fortuna's identity as personification of 'chance events' was closely tied to virtus (strength of character). Individuals who lacked virtues invited ill-fortune on themselves. Sallust uses the infamous Catiline as illustration – "Truly, when in the place of work, idleness, in place of the spirit of measure and equity, caprice and pride invade, fortune is changed just as with morality". Hence Marcus belief that he had brought his enslavement upon himself.
The Death of Marcus' Father
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As a result of this belief, Marcus accepted his enslavement (and also the deaths of his parents) - but also, significantly, he believed that if he became a dutiful and hard-working slave, then Fortuna, or some other God, might relent, and give him back his freedom.
This attitude was undoubtedly common among many slaves, and helps to explain why so many slaves were remarkably pliant, and accepted, to a great extent, their position.
Marcus, of course, was eventually freed from slavery and, unusually, was not only reinstated as a Roman Citizen, but also found himself peculiarly free, as he was not, as most 'free' Romans were, the 'client' of another free citizen, but rather became a 'patron', inheriting (as the adopted heir of Gnaeus Gracchus) the numerous 'clients' of his previous - and by then deceased - master and adoptive 'father'.


One of the more peculiar aspects of Roman society was the relationship between a client (clientela) and his patron (patronus).
This was a complex system of interdependency which transferred some aspects of slavery into the social milieu of free citizens.
The original slave master relationship involved certain 'obligatio' (obligations) from both sides.
The master was required to feed, shelter and cloth the slave - and to a certain extent look after the slave's welfare.
The slave was required to obey, show respect for, and work for his master (but usually for no remuneration - and any monies or gifts that the slave did receive were legally the property of the master ).
Equally the institution of patronage laid certain 'obligatio' (obligations) on the 'patronus' and the 'clientela'.
The most common form of patronage existed between a patronus and any slaves that he may have freed.
In this way a freedman's freedom was, to some extent limited.
A freedman ('libertus' - freed slave) had social, economic and financial obligations to their patron, which might involve campaigning on their behalf, if the patron ran for election, doing requested work, or continuing a sexual relationship that began in servitude.
In return, the patron was expected to ensure a certain degree of material security for their client.
Allowing one's clients to become destitute or entangled in unjust legal proceedings would reflect poorly on the patron, and diminish their prestige.
When Marcus was freed, he inherited Gnaeus Ovtavian's freedmen as 'clientela', and these included Terentius, Nicander and  Menelaus, (who Marcus subsequently had executed).
Petronius - Freedman
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Nicander - Freedman
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One of Marcus' first acts as Dominus (Master), was to free Petronius, who then became not only a freedman, but also one of Marcus' clientela.
Marcus' inherited freedmen were obligated to work for Marcus (almost as if they were still enslaved), however, as freedmen they were paid for their work, and in many cases were provided with accommodation and food.
In addition freedmen were usually expected to take 'kickbacks' in the course of their duties.
These freedmen were given the status of citizens, and were usually expected to supervise the slaves owned by their patronus.
It was possible for freedmen, if they worked for a wealthy  patronus, (such as Marcus), to become very rich, own slaves of their own, and have a family, (and their wealth, in Roman Law was legally theirs - whereas any income or gifts a slave might acquire was legally actually the property of their master).
Freedmen normally addressed their patron as 'patronus' (patron) or 'domine' (sir).
In the case of Marcus, because of his immense wealth and authority he was always addressed as 'Dominus' (lord or master) by both slaves and freedmen, and even Novius, who was a freeborn Roman citizen, almost always addressed Marcus as 'Dominus', despite Marcus' youth.

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to be continued...........

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