I guess the Greco-Romans weren’t all bad: slavery

On a topic for which they usually come off pretty badly, some anti-slavery (or anti-mistreating slaves) quotes, and at the end, a brief summary of the changing condition of slaves in the Roman Empire.


Alcidamas (4th cent. BC)
“God has set everyone free. No one is made a slave by nature.”


Antiphon (5th-4th cent. BC)
“We revere and honour those born of noble fathers, but those who are not born of noble houses we neither revere nor honour. In this we are, in our relations with one another, like barbarians, since we are all by nature born the same in every way, both barbarians and Hellenes. And it is open to all men to observe the laws of nature, which are compulsory. Similarly all of these things can be acquired by all, and in none of these things is any of us distinguished as barbarian or Hellene. We all breathe into the air through mouth and nostrils, and we all eat with hands. . .”


Philemon (4th-3rd cent. BC)
“Though a man be a slave he is made of the same flesh as you. For no one was ever made a slave by nature; but chance has enslaved a man’s body.”


Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)
There are two extended passages in which Seneca rails against the mistreatment of slaves and their humanity: ‘Epistle 47’ and ‘On Benefits (3.18), they are fairly lengthy, so I’ll just quote a few pieces:

Epistle 47:
“They are slaves,” people declare.” Nay, rather they are men.

“He is a slave.” His soul, however, may be that of a freeman.

On Benefits (3.18):
What, then, is the case? Does a master receive a benefit from a slave? No, but a human being from a human being.


Musonius Rufus (1st century – born circa 20-30 AD)
So no one with any self-control would think of having relations with a courtesan or a free women apart from marriage, no, nor even with his own maid servant. The fact that those relationships are not lawful or seemly makes them a disgrace and a reproach to those seeking them; whence it is that no one dares to do any of these things openly, not even if he has all but lost the ability to blush, and those who are not completely degenerate dare to do these things only in hiding and in secret…. In this category belongs the man who has relations with his own slave-maid, a thing which some people quite without blame, since every master is held to have it in his power to use his slave as he wishes. In reply to this I have just one thing to say: if it seems neither shameful nor out of place for a master to have relations with his own slave, particularly if she happens to be unmarried, let him consider how he would like it if his wife had relations with a male slave. Would it not seem completely intolerable not only if the women who had a lawful husband had relations with a slave, but even if a woman without a husband should have? … What need is there to say that it is an act of licentiousness and nothing less for a master to have relations with a slave? Everyone knows that.


As an aside, I like this poem of Martial (circa 38 – 104 AD)
This poem was written after the death a six year old slave girl, named Erotion:

Thou Mother dear and thou my Father’s shade,
To you I now commit the gentle maid,
Erotion, my little love, my sweet;
Let not her shuddering spirit fear to meet
The ghosts, but soothe her lest she be afraid.
How should a baby heart be undismayed
To pass the lair where Cerberus is laid?
The little six-year maiden gently greet.
Dear reverend spirits, give her kindly aid
And let her play in some Elysian glade,
Lisping my name sometimes – and I entreat,
Lie softly on her, kindly earth; her feet,
Such tiny feet, on thee were lightly laid.


Dio Chrysostom (circa 40 – 120 AD) – Discourse 7.133 – After reciting the enjoyable story ‘Hunter of Euboea’ he launches into a denunciation of prostitution, which I’ll quote in its entirety:

In dealing with brothel-keepers and their trade we must certainly betray no weakness as though something were to be said on both sides, but must sternly forbid them and insist that no one, be he poor or be he rich, shall pursue such a business, thus levying a fee, which all the world condemns as shameful, upon brutality and lust. Such men bring individuals together in union without love and intercourse without affection, and all for the sake of filthy lucre. They must not take hapless women or children, captured in war or else purchased with money, and expose them for shameful ends in dirty booths which are flaunted before the eyes in every part of the city, at the doors of the houses of magistrates and in market-places, near government buildings and temples, in the midst of all that is holiest. Neither barbarian women, I say, nor Greeks – of whom the latter were in former times almost free but now live in bondage utter and complete -shall they put in such shameful constraint, doing a much more evil and unclean business than breeders of horses and of asses carry on, not mating beasts with beasts where both are willing and feel no shame, but mating human beings that do feel shame and revulsion, with lecherous and dissolute men in an ineffectual and fruitless physical union that breeds destruction rather than life. Yes, and they respect no man nor god – not Zeus, the god of family life, not Hera, the goddess of marriage, not the Fates, who bring fulfilment, not Artemis, protectress of the child-bed, not mother Rhea, not the Eileithyiae, who preside over human birth, not Aphrodite, whose name stands for the normal intercourse and union of male and female. No, we must proclaim that neither magistrate nor lawgiver shall allow such merchandising or legalize it, whether our cities are to house a people of the highest virtue or to fall into a second, third, fourth, or any other class, so long as it is in the power of any one of them to prevent such things. But if old customs and diseases that have become entrenched in the course of time fall to the care of our ruler, he shall by no means leave them without attention and correction, but, with an eye to what is practicable, he shall curb and correct them in some way or other. For evils are never wont to remain as they are; they are ever active and advancing to greater wantonness if they meet no compelling check.
It is our duty, therefore, to give some heed to this and under no condition to bear this mistreatment of outcast and enslaved creatures with calmness and indifference, not only because all humanity has been held in honour and in equal honour by God, who begat it, having the same marks and tokens to show that it deserves honour, to wit, reason and the knowledge of evil and good, but also because of the following consideration, which we must always remember: that for flagrant wrong fostered by licence it is difficult to set a limit that it will no longer, through fear of the consequences, dare to transgress. Indeed, beginning with practices and habits that seem trivial and allowable, it acquires a strength and force that are uncontrollable, and no longer stops at anything.


Amelioration of the slave condition?

From “Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II: The Empire”

“But the gradual betterment of the slave’s lot is reflected most strikingly , perhaps, in the law. Between Cato’s literal application of Aristotle’s definition of a slave as ‘a living tool’ and the legislation of the Roman Emperors, there lies a world of difference. The enactment of Augustus and his successors afforded slaves increasing protection against maltreatment. Thus, though the testimony of slaves could be taken only under torture, this practice was hedged about by a whole series of exemptions, including exemptions for women and children. Repeated legislation was directed also against various kinds of arbitrary abuse of slaves by their masters. A law of the first centur provided that only judicially condemned slaves could be sent to fight(and die) in the arena. The Emperor Claudius deprived masters of the power to kill or discard sick slaves arbitrarily. Vespasian forbade selling a slave for use as a prostitute . Domitian forbade, under severe penalty, the castration of slaves for commercial purposes. Hadrian strengthened this and similar bans on abusing slaves’ bodies, outlawed private prisons, banished a woman for five years for excessive cruelty to her slave girls, and forbade the killing of a slave without judicial sentence. Antoninus Pius gave slaves further protection against cruelty and personal outrage and made the killer of a slave liable for homicide. Thus toward the end of the second century the jurist Florentius was able to write, “Slavery is an institution of the law common to all peoples (ius gentium), by which, in violation of the law of nature, a person is subjected to the mastery of another” (Justinian Digest I.V.4). And not many years later the great Ulpian – formulating what, in a sense, the Romans had been recognizing from time immemorial by ‘freeing’ their slaves one day a year on the Saturnalia – penned the classic statement: “As far as Roman law (ius civile) is concerned, slaves are regarded as nothing, but not so in natural law as well: because as far as the law of nature is concerned, all men are equal” (Justinian Digest L.XVII.32Ó).

The paper ‘Marcus Aurelius and Slavery’ (1998), is good for giving a balanced description of the continuing brutality with with slaves were liable to be treated, and their lack of recourse, with some changes for the better in laws regarding slaves.
Here’s a pretty exhaustive, but slanted, listing of various apparent attempts at aemelioration of slaves’ conditions


Finally, on the decline of slavery in the imperial era:

From “The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity”

“The gradual quantitative decline in the slave system during the imperial period must be regarded as an outcome, rather than a cause, of the social, economic, and political changes of the time. The causes which conditioned the reduction in the use of slaves in agriculture and industry were: the cessation of war and kidnapping, which were the main sources of a large and cheap supply; the high cost of slave labor as provided by the rearing of slave children and the mortality risk involved in this method of supply; and the downward grading of the mass of the agricultural population from the position of free tenants to that of coloni or adscripticii, bound to the soil which they cultivated. Their purchasing power must have declined notably; and any ability of the coloni as a class to buy slaves of their own must have decreased slowly to the vanishing point.”

– basically, as the empire progressed towards its end, and the dark ages, the slaves and the freemen moved towards each other: into the new class of serfs.

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