The Role of History and the Place of Slavery in the Roman World

Livy’s masterpiece in four volumes: Ab Urbe Condita tells how the Roman Power emerged and expanded surely on a subjective basis

(I wrote this relatively short assignment for our HIST 442 (The Roman Republic & Empire) class.)

   Writing history had a prominent place in Roman civilization like many other ones. Roman historians gathered documents from older works and combined them with their memories in making their books. Nowadays, many educational institutions suggest to them as “must-read classics”. In this respect, examining the objective of historiography and the identities and intentions of historians is necessary to grasp the message of these books better. Additionally, how and why those books emphasized so much politics and warfare is crucial to realize the ideal representation of Roman history. I will discuss that the purpose of Roman historiography is to deliberatively build political, moral, and militaristic paradigms as an educational means. Besides, Roman historians who were chiefly politicians aimed to educate the future’s rulers by shaping their historical memory. That’s why they largely depicted politico-military actions under paramount leaders as models.

Hannibal's War: Books 21-30 (Oxford World's Classics) by Livy (25 ...

   Initially, the goal of Roman historiography is to construct ethical, political, and militaristic paradigms for education. Nicolai underlines that Roman historical texts offered the ruling class “analytical instruments and behavioral models” with “great personalities…as exempla…to fix the parameters of moral evaluation” (Nicolai, 14). For Nicolai, history’s moral paradigms had an “educative aim” as a “didactic tool” in Roman society (Nicolai, 19). So, moralizing history occupied a major part of Roman historiography. To illustrate, Tacitus  (56-120 AD) underlined that “the principal responsibility of history, to prevent virtues from being silenced” (Tacitus, Annals, III.65.1). Polybius (200-118 BC), Sallust (86-35 BC), Livy (64 BC?-17 AD?), and Plutarch (46-119 AD) also followed similar moralizing patterns (Grant, 82). Inventing “moral decline” is an instance of such paradigms in Roman historians. Grant indicates that Livy disputed that moral decline brought about the decline of Roman power. To eradicate this, he would like “each person to give careful attention to the way of life, the values” (Livy, I, 12.). This example demonstrates that Livy regarded history as an educational means for people. As for politico-militaristic paradigms, I claim that they stemmed from Roman historians for addressing the governing class. Hence, Grant mentions that “they created the doctrine…that history is mainly concerned with politics and military actions” (Grant, 63). For example, Polybius mentions that his book will “gain the approval of only one class of reader” (Polybius, IX, 1) due to its political-military based “composition”. In this context, Sallust constructed political paradigms about senatorial tradition. For instance, he contested that nobility’s decline led to the decline of Rome. Besides, Livy made military paradigms since he supposed that military skills were what assisted to create the Roman Empire (Grant, 74).

Julius Caesar is leading his army on horseback

Secondly, Roman historians were mainly politicians and aimed to educate Roman rulers by shaping their historical memory. Nicolai stresses that they were mostly “part of the governing class” and their failure in politics caused to ennoble them “by becoming an educator of the ruling class and creating for himself an authoritative role” (Nicolai, 24). That is, they tried to compensate their place by undertaking history-writing after they left politics like Sallust and Tacitus. Unlike Nicolai, I think that there were also successful exceptions like Caesar who simultaneously wrote history and managed the country. I argue that historians achieved this education through shaping memory. Nicolai writes that “preserving and transmitting memory” was a substantial task of historiography and this “keeps memory alive and shapes conscience” (Nicolai, 25). Explaining the reason for writing about Agricola, Tacitus underlines that “It will not be an unpleasant task to compose…the memory of our past slavery” (Tacitus, 3.3). Likewise, historians used past events like foundation narratives to construct the memory of the ruling class and constituted principle references for them (Nicolai, 15). Moreover, heroic leadership and war-making had a critical role to show role models to train the memory of rulers. Grant emphasizes that Roman historians were “preoccupied with wars…as a main central historical theme” (Grant, 72). For instance, Tacitus viewed “military leadership” as an emperor’s main quality and Livy abundantly narrated battles despite his lack of military experience. In this context, Pitcher exemplifies how historians used campaigns to “characterize” commanders (Pitcher, 106). Despite indicating his vices, Livy depicts Hannibal as “by far the best soldier for his endurance to physical and mental difficulties during the Punic Wars (Livy, 21, 4). According to Pitcher, Caesar did more “than merely painting a picture of windy troops…Caesar the historian needs the events he describes to be significant.” (Pitcher, 109). Hence, he manipulated the Gallic War by propagating himself as the farseeing role model to his readers. To exemplify, he writes that “everyone agreed what Caesar himself had already ascertained” in a military decision (Caesar, 7, 44).

In brief, Roman historiography consciously constructed various paradigms to be used as educational tools. Having political careers, Roman historians addressed the ruling cadre and shaped their historical memories via those tools. As an example, depicting military developments under the control of robust leaders as role models was a substantial tool in Roman historiography.

Spartacus has inspired current television channels to make TV series about him. But more importantly he shifted the mentality of Roman elite regarding the institution of slavery.

   Slavery was an essential component of the Roman civilization from its beginning. Along with the Roman expansion, this institution became widespread and these developments constituted a multi-faceted relationship between slaves and their owners. In this regard, it is necessary to examine literary works, in which elites reflected their opinions regarding slaves and household lives in understanding features of this relationship better. I will observe that elites silenced their agency and justified this by constructing stereotypes in literature. Besides, I will argue that despite this attitude, slaveholders variously rewarded their slaves because of their achievements and economic benefits. This consolidated social bonds between them particularly with the domestic practices of urban areas. Slave-owners emphasized their centrality and superiority over slaves by writing literary works and granting several rights.

As this mosaic displays, Roman slaves were doing their usual household works in both urban areas and the countryside.

Firstly, the Roman authors as slave-owners did not recognize the agency of slaves because of their anxieties towards them. This is because they thought that the growing number of slaves in the Roman expansion could threaten their position. Siculus argues that the cruelty of slaveholders in Sicily caused servile disaffection and this entailed major revolts (Bradley, 247). Two servile rebellions carried the fears of slave-owners to a higher point in the 2nd century BC. At last, Spartacus’s insurrection also known as the Third Servile War (73-71 BC) culminated these apprehensions. Bradley argues that slaves were defeated “but the significance of what had happened…was never forgotten”. This breakdown caused “owners could no longer trust slaves” (Bradley, 253) and they underlined their dissatisfaction. To exemplify, Varro classified slaves as “instrumentum vocale” (speaking tools) (On Agriculture, 1.17.1) not humans and these items just function agricultural production. Cicero (106-43 BC) merely considered their cash value and Livy regarded them as property (Joshel, 216).

Livy’s way of writing caused Machiavelli to write a book concerning him.

In this context, Joshel claims that servile “agency shaped only by the concerns, interests and anxieties of masters” (Joshel, 215). Authors categorized slaves as good and bad but narrated highly bad slaves whom disloyalty triggered violence against masters in plays. Besides being disloyal, “gluttonous, bibulous and over-sexed” were their other stereotypes (Joshel, 220). Plautus portrayed them as “lazy, worthless guys” to emphasize their irresponsibility (Menaechmi, 976). However, writers avoided mentioning servile sufferings under slaveholders but frequently confined them to criminality and penalty. Even Seneca and Pliny who wished a better treatment offered paternalism to solidify slavery in “a steeply hierarchical and deeply patriarchal society” (Bradley, 242). While Seneca (54 BC-39 AD) was recommending that “they should be judged by their character” (Letters, 47.13), Pliny (61 AD-113 AD) recognized their personhood (Joshel, 238). But, their goal was not equality but highlighting their “superiority”. Seneca like a craftsman disputed that slaves need “shaping” and Pliny mentioned how he generously fulfilled the desires of his dying slaves (Joshel, 228). Using active voices for themselves and passive ones for slaves, they put them into a subjugated category that depleted servile agency.

Complete Letters (Oxford World's Classics): Pliny ...   Secondly, despite this negative perception, there were strong social and familial ties between two groups in many households for various reasons. For instance, having several talents was a crucial cause in my view. While Bradley notes that such talented slaves “were used as domestic servants in the households of the rich, as labourers on their farms” (Bradley, 345), Edmondson stresses they were “essential in managing family property” (Edmondson, 341). Slaveholders would grant awards if they appreciate servile service and performance. These incentives ranged from being citizen with freedom to quasi-marital unions and having assistances. Other than this, economic concerns were another major point. Bradley indicates that slave-owners could grant freedom if “the slave paid an agreed price…” and this let them obtain more slaves (Bradley, 355). Besides, urban slaves were more advantageous than rural ones in establishing bonds. This is because tasks in “familia urbana” were much easier and the closeness of urban slaves to their owners assisted “to build up personal relationships…They could more easily get noticed and be rewarded” (Edmonson, 340-341). In this respect, domestic rituals had a central role. To illustrate, the household’s father included slaves in celebrating the festival of the Compitalia in which families presented their offerings to a cult (Edmonson, 338). So, slaves and slaveholders participated in communal celebrations which exhibited the importance of slaves (Edmonson, 345). But, slaveholders displayed their centrality and superiority over slaves. For instance, after manumission slaves had to add their names “the names of their former owners” (Bradley, 356). Slaveholders as the household’s head (pater familias) was also the leader of rituals which was a reminder of their centrality.

Dialogues and Essays (Oxford World's Classics): ...

   Briefly, the anxieties of servile wars led many Roman elites to envisage disparaging stereotypes for slaves in literature. Some authors rejected this but silenced servile agency for their interests. However, slaveholders also rewarded their slaves for various concerns after their success. Miscellaneous awards consolidated familial bonds between two groups especially alongside the domestic rituals of households. Overall, slaveholders emphasized their superiority over slaves in literature and family.


Joshel, Sandra R. Slavery in the Roman World (Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization). Cambridge University Press. 2010

Livy. Hannibal’s War: Book 21-30 (Oxford World Classics). Oxford University Press. 2006.

Marincola, John (ed). A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Blackwell Publishing. 2007.

Pliny the Younger. Complete Letters (Oxford World Classics). Oxford University Press. 2006.*.html (Varro’s On Agriculture)


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