The Conduct and Treatment of Slaves.
A Roman playwright, Plautus, writing about the time of the end of the Second
Punic War (201 B.C.), gives this picture of an inconsiderate master, and the kind of
treatment his slaves were likely to get. Very probably conditions grew worse rather than
better for the average slave household, for at least two centuries. As the Romans grew in
wealth and the show of culture they did not grow in humanity.
Plautus, Pseudolus, Act. I, Sc. 2.
[Ballio, a captious slave owner, is giving orders to his servants.]
Ballio: Get out, come, out with you, you rascals; kept at a
loss, and bought at a loss. Not one of you dreams minding your business, or being a bit of
use to me, unless I carry on thus! [He strikes his whip around on all of them.] Never did
I see men more like asses than you! Why, your ribs are hardened with the stripes. If one
flogs you, he hurts himself the most: [Aside.] Regular whipping posts are they all,
and all they do is to pilfer, purloin, prig, plunder, drink, eat, and abscond! Oh! they
look decent enough; but they're cheats in their conduct.
[Addressing the slaves again.] Now, unless you're all attention, unless you get
that sloth and drowsiness out of your breasts and eyes, I'll have your sides so thoroughly
marked with thongs that you'll outvie those Campanian coverlets in color, or a regular
Alexandrian tapestry, purple-broidered all over with beasts. Yesterday I gave each of you
his special job, but you're so worthless, neglectful, stubborn, that I must remind you
with a good basting. So you think, I guess, you'll get the better of this whip and of
me---by your stout hides! Zounds! But your hides won't prove harder than my good cowhide. [He
flourishes it.] Look at this, please! Give heed to this! [He flogs one slave]
Well ? Does it hurt ? . . . Now stand all of you here, you race born to be thrashed! Turn
your ears this way! Give heed to what I say. You, fellow! that's got the pitcher, fetch
the water. Take care the kettle's full instanter. You who's got the ax, look after
chopping the wood.
Slave: But this ax's edge is blunted.
Ballio: Well; be it so! And so are you blunted with stripes,
but is that any reason why you shouldn't work for me? I order that you clean up the house.
You know your business; hurry indoors. [Exit first slave]. Now you [to another
slave] smooth the couches. Clean the plate and put in proper order. Take care that
when I'm back from the Forum I find things done---all swept, sprinkled, scoured, smoothed,
cleaned and set in order. Today's my birthday. You should all set to and celebrate it.
Take care---do you hear---to lay the salted bacon, the brawn, the collared neck, and the
udder in water. I want to entertain some fine gentlemen in real style, to give the idea
that I'm rich. Get indoors, and get these things ready, so there's no delay when the cook
comes. I'm going to market to buy what fish is to be had. Boy, you go ahead [to a
special valet], I've got to take care that no one cuts off my purse.
How to Manage Farm Slaves
Cato the Elder passed as the incarnation of all worldly wisdom among Romans of
the second century B.C. The precepts here given were undoubtedly put into effect on his
own farms. During the early Republic, when the estates were small, there seems to have
been a fair amount of kindly treatment awarded the slaves; as the farms grew larger the
whole policy of the masters, by becoming more impersonal, became more brutal. Cato does
not advocate deliberate cruelty---he would simply treat the slaves according to cold
regulations, like so many expensive cattle.
Cato the Elder, Agriculture, chs. 56-59
Country slaves ought to receive in the winter, when they are at work, four modii
[Davis: One modius equals about a quarter bushel] of grain; and four modii
and a half during the summer. The superintendent, the housekeeper, the watchman, and the
shepherd get three modii; slaves in chains four pounds of bread in winter and five
pounds from the time when the work of training the vines ought to begin until the figs
Wine for the slaves. After the vintage let them drink from the sour wine for three
months. The fourth month let them have a hemina [Davis: about half a pint] per day
or two congii and a half [Davis: over seven quarts] per month. During the fifth,
sixth, seventh, and eighth months let them have a sextarius [Davis: about a pint]
per day or five congii per month. Finally, in the ninth, tenth, and the eleventh
months, let them have three hemina [Davis: three-fourths of a quart] per day, or an
amphora [Davis: about six gallons] per month. On the Saturnalia and on Compitalia
each man should have a congius [Davis: something under three quarts].
To feed the slaves. Let the olives that drop of themselves be kept so far as possible.
Keep too those harvested olives that do not yield much oil, and husband them, for they
last a long time. When the olives have been consumed, give out the brine and vinegar. You
should distribute to everyone a sextarius of oil per month. A modius of salt
apiece is enough for a year.
As for clothes, give out a tunic of three feet and a half, and a cloak once in two
years. When you give a tunic or cloak take back the old ones, to make cassocks out of.
Once in two years, good shoes should be given.
Winter wine for the slaves. Put in a wooden cask ten parts of must
(non-fermented wine) and two parts of very pungent vinegar, and add two parts of boiled
wine and fifty of sweet water. With a paddle mix all these thrice per day for five days in
succession. Add one forty-eighth of seawater drawn some time earlier. Place the lid on the
cask and let it ferment for ten days. This wine will last until the solstice. If any
remains after that time, it will make very sharp excellent vinegar.
How a Faithful Slave should Act.
What a slave of about 200 A.D. had to do in order to save himself from constant
cuffs and stripes is here set forth somewhat humorously, but with a serious undercurrent
of grim truth. There was no high motive for a slave to behave himself---simply a fear of
cruel punishment if he did not. There might be a hope of ultimate freedom, but that
depended entirely on the caprice of the master.
Plautus, Menaechmi, Act V, Sc. 4.
Messenio, a slave, soliloquizes: Well, this is the proof of a good
servant: he must take care of his master's business, look after it, arrange it, think
about it; when his master is away, take care of it diligently just as much as if his
master were present, or be even more careful. He must take more care of his back than his
appetite, his legs than his stomach---if he's got a good heart. Just let him think what
those good-for-nothings get from their masters---lazy, worthless fellows that they are.
Stripes, fetters, the mill, weariness, hunger, bitter cold---fine pay for idleness. That's
what I'm mightily afraid of. Surely, then, it's much better to be good than to be bad. I
don't mind tongue lashings, but I do hate real floggings. I'd rather eat meal somebody
else grinds, than eat what I grind myself. So I just obey what my master bids me; and I
execute orders carefully and diligently. My obedience, I think, is such as is most for the
profit of my back. And it surely does pay! Let others do just as they think it worth
while. I'll be just where I ought to be. If I stick to that, I'll avoid blunders; and I
needn't be much afraid if I'm ready for my master, come what may. The time's pretty close
when for this service of mine, my master will give his reward.
The Last Great Slave Revolt.
In 73 B.C. the "Speaking Tools" - as the Romans called their slaves,
especially those upon the great estates of Southern Italy--burst loose in a terrible
insurrection [Arkenberg: the third such in fifty years], to quell which taxed the
whole power of the government. Despite the sympathy one must have for these slaves and
their gallant leader, their success would have been a calamity to civilization. An army of
such brutalized wretches could only destroy; they could never have erected a firm and
tolerable government. After these outbreaks and the havoc and terror spread by them, the
Romans out of sheer fear seem to have begun to treat their slaves less harshly than
Plutarch, Life of Crassus, viii-xi:
The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the
war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiates trained up a great many
gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them
committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for
the object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but
their plot being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate
their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping knives and spits, and
made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were
carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And
seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a
Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in
understanding, also, and in gentleness, superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian
than the people of his country usually are.
First, then, routing those that came out of Capua against them, and thus procuring a
quantity of proper soldiers' arms, they gladly threw away their own as barbarous and
dishonorable. [Davis: Two praetors who were sent against them with small armies were
defeated, while a third general's army was routed and he himself slain.] After many
successful skirmishes with Varinus, the praetor himself, in one of which Spartacus took
his lictors and his own horse, he began to be great and terrible; but wisely considering
that he was not to expect to match the force of the empire, he marched his army towards
the Alps, intending, when he had passed them, that every man should go to his own home,
some to Thrace, some to Gaul. But they, grown confident in their numbers, and puffed up
with their success, would give no obedience to him, but went about and ravaged Italy; so
that now the Senate was not only moved at the indignity and baseness, both of the enemy
and of the insurrection, but, looking upon it as a matter of alarm and of dangerous
consequence, sent out both the consuls to it, as to a great and difficult enterprise. The
consul Gellius, falling suddenly upon a party of Germans, who through contempt and
confidence had straggled from Spartacus, cut them all to pieces. But when Lentulus with a
large army besieged Spartacus, he sallied out upon him, and, joining battle, defeated his
chief officers, and captured all his baggage. As he made towards the Alps, Cassius, who
was praetor of that part of Gaul that lies about the Po, met him with ten thousand men,
but being overcome in battle, he had much ado to escape himself, with the loss of a great
many of his men.
[Davis: The Senate in disgust now sent Crassus against the rebels. Spartacus, however,
defeated Mummius, Crassus's lieutenant, and the general had to restore discipline among
the demoralized Romans by executing fifty who had begun the flight; later he advanced
again] . . . but Spartacus retreated through Lucania toward the sea, and in the straits,
meeting with some Cilician pirate ships, he had thoughts of attempting Sicily, where, by
landing two thousand men, he hoped to kindle anew the war of the slaves, which was but
lately extinguished, and seemed to need but a little fuel to set it burning again. But
after the pirates had struck a bargain with him, and received his earnest, they deceived
him and sailed away. He thereupon retired again from the sea, and established his army in
the peninsula of Rhegium. [Davis: Here Crassus tried to blockade him. Spartacus escaped
with part of his army to Lucania, but some of Spartacus' followers mutinied, and left him.
This division of malcontents was soon destroyed by Crassus.]
Spartacus, after this discomfiture, retired to the mountains of Petelia, but Quintius,
one of Crassus's officers, and Scrofula, the quaestor, pursued and overtook him. But when
Spartacus rallied and faced them, they were utterly routed and fled, and had much ado to
carry off their quaestor, who was wounded. This success, however, ruined Spartacus,
because it encouraged the slaves, who now disdained any longer to avoid fighting, or to
obey their officers, but as they were upon their march, they came to them with their
swords in their hand, and compelled them to lead them back again through Lucania, against
the Romans, the very thing which Crassus was eager for. For news was already brought that
Pompey [Davis: Crassus' rival for military glory] was at hand; and people began to talk
openly that the honor of this war was reserved for him, who would come and at once oblige
the enemy to fight and put an end to the war. Crassus, therefore, eager to fight a
decisive battle, encamped very near the enemy, and began to make lines of circumvallation;
but the slaves made a sally, and attacked the pioneers. As fresh supplies came in on
either side, Spartacus, seeing there was no avoiding it, set all his army in array, and
when his horse was brought him, he drew out his sword and killed him, saying, if he got
the day, he should have a great many better horses of the enemies, and if he lost it, he
should have no need of this. And so making directly towards Crassus himself, through the
midst of arms and wounds, he missed him, but slew two centurions that fell upon him
together. At last, being deserted by those that were about him, he himself stood his
ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, bravely defending himself, was cut to pieces.