The Roman Guide to Slave Management by Jerry Toner
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
This book is a quirky introduction to slavery in the Roman world, allegedly written by the Roman slave owner Marcus Sidonius Falx, with 'commentary' by the author Jerry Toner. The idea is to describe slavery from the viewpoint of a Roman slave owner, with the author stepping in at the end of each chapter to recommend further reading, discuss source material and occasionally to disassociate himself from Sidonius Falx's awe-inspiring lack of political correctness.
Sidonius Falx is a slave owner on a large scale. He owns slaves who work – and manage – his estates, who look after his household and whom he uses to display his wealth and prestige, much as one might do today with an expensive sports car. As a result we see how slavery permeated the Roman world, from the unfortunate wretches on the farms to the pampered slaves of the imperial household who sometimes even had slaves of their own
One thing which this book does well is to show the everyday brutality which was a standard feature of not just the Roman world, but of almost every era of the past. A slave girl might be first casually raped by her master and then later tortured to provide evidence against him in a criminal case. (the evidence of slaves was not considered credible unless it was given under torture). Another aspect which the author deals with well is to bring out the extent to which slave ownership corrupts the slave owner, making him mean, suspicious and readily inclined to believe the worst of others. This is well summed up by the contemporary Roman proverb 'A man has as many enemies as he has slaves'.
And yet … we also discover that the average period that many spent as slaves was as little as six years, after which the victims were freed, gaining the coveted status of Roman citizens in the process. We also discover that some slaves were freed for the express purpose of marriage to their former masters, while others became friends and associates. Tiro, for example became a friend of the Cicero family while enslaved to them, and once freed he survived Cicero to become his literary executor. Another well-known Roman, Cato the Younger had the ex-slave Salonia as a great-grandmother, and the father of the poet Horace was also a slave. In short, for the lucky few, slavery was merely an unpleasant stepping stone on the way to greater things. As well as being unthinkingly callous and occasionally savage, Roman society could also be amazingly open and tolerant.
The book has an introduction by well-known academic and writer Mary Beard who makes the point that many a wage-slave today is shackled by circumstance almost as comprehensively as the slaves of Sidonius Falx were bound by actual chains.
There is one unavoidable flaw in the book. Because it is an overall guide to slavery in Rome, the sources cover a period from the mid-republic of the second century BC to the third century AD. The nature of Roman slavery changed greatly over this period, and generally for the better. So Sidonius Falx finds himself describing activities legal in one era that would get him prosecuted in another. A good analogy would be a book describing 'Labour relations in the 20th century' with examples drawn non-chronologically from between 1901 and 1999.
The author does try to explain that attitudes to slavery shifted greatly over the life of the Roman empire, but the format of the book demands that he cram all these different attitudes into the person of Sidonius Falx. So we end up with a contradictory character who wishes to break a slave's legs for leaving a rake on the path in Chapter 1 and then goes on about human rights for slaves just a few chapters later. Because of this Sidonius Falx is impossible to believe in as a person. He is a vehicle to make the author's points. Indeed, in the later chapter commentaries the author increasingly abandons the conceit that Falx is real.
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Overall, this book covers much of the same ground as recent academic studies, but does so in a much more readable and approachable manner. For an introduction as to how the Romans regarded slaves and slavery a reader could hardly do better than with this book. However, the one-size-fits-all format forced by the perspective of a single slave owner fails to show how diverse slavery was and how varied were the individual experiences of masters and slaves over the thousand years and dozens of cultures that the Roman Empire encompassed.