My name is Niall McKeown and I work in Greek and Roman slavery.
Now, rather than try to give a feel for what fifteen-hundred years of slavery was like, I thought I'd give an example of just one text that I'm working on. And that text was written by a man called Pliny the Younger. Now Pliny the Younger earned a reputation as a rather kind and generous roman, unless you were a Christian being persecuted... and he's perhaps mostly famous for his description of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum and also killed his uncle.
But the text I want to talk about today is a letter he wrote to a friend called Acilius in around AD 100. And in that letter he describes the murder of a man called Larkius Macedo. Now the interesting thing about this letter for me is that Larkius Macedo was a praetor. That's one of the chief magistrates in Rome. And he was murdered in his own bath-house by his own slaves. And Pliny describes this murder and it’s pretty viscous and Pliny goes into fairly gory detail about it. It’s fairly nasty in that he's beaten to death and at one point to ensure that he's dead what the slaves do is that they drag him to the hot part of the baths and they throw him onto the scalding floor to see whether he moves. He doesn't move, so they disappear, they think they’ve done the deed. He recovers just enough to survive for a couple of days, and in those days he revenges himself by killing the slaves. And at the end of the story, Pliny says to Acilius, don't you see that all of us, even the kindest, gentlest masters of slaves are in danger from those slaves? And most historians of slavery or many historians of slavery have taken this text and said well, you can see from this that Roman slave owners live in fear of their slaves.
Now I'd like to think that, but my difficulty with this text is I think there are a number of other possible interpretations and that's why it interests me. We can if we want take the letter straightforwardly as proof that slave owners feared their slaves, but there are other ways of reading it. And one of the ways of reading it is reading it as ironic. What we have to do is look at what Pliny says, both before the story and after the story. Now before the story he introduces Larkius Macedo by saying he's a cruel master. And he says, this is despite the fact, or because of the fact Larkius Macedo’s mother had herself been a slave. Now that's a bit odd because it cuts across the moral that Pliny the Younger draws that all masters, even the gentlest ones should be in fear of their slaves.
After he describes the murder, Pliny is at a bit of a loss. He says to Acilius in the letter, ‘well, what other news have I got for you...’ and he says ‘well actually I've got none...’ So he goes back and tells us another story about Larkius Macedo. Now remember he's begun this letter by saying that this whole story is unfit for a letter but he can't help himself but come back to it. And the second story he tells about Larkius Macedo is also a very odd one. He says that before his death, a while before his death, Larkius Macedo had been in Rome, and he'd gone to the public baths with some of his slaves. And one of those slaves had accidentally brushed up against a rich Roman. And the rich Roman had turned round and he hit - not the slave - but Larkius Macedo himself. And this is very odd because in Rome, whilst you're allowed to hit somebody else's slaves, you're really not supposed to hit a fellow Roman. So Pliny ends the letter by saying, ‘... isn't it odd, that Larkius Macedo first was insulted in a bath house, and then he was murdered in a bath house?’
We need to look at the letter as a whole rather than bits of the letter. Remember Pliny has begun the letter by making certain that we know that Larkius Macedo is the son of a slave. Now, for a wealthy aristocratic Roman like Pliny, that would be rather shameful social origins. And it’s also probably that Pliny is none too keen on the fact that Larkius Macedo had risen to the level of being a praetor in Rome as well. After that, he describes in pretty embarrassing terns how Larkius Macedo dies, and after that he tells us a story about how Larkius Macedo was himself once mistaken - in effect - for a slave.
So, what do we do with the letter? Is it a straightforward story telling us we should be frightened of our slaves, or is it a piece of snobbery, where wealthy Romans looking down their nose at the son of an ex-slave say, ‘look, he wasn't a proper gentleman; he didn't know how to behave, and look what happened to him’? Now my difficulty with this letter is that I don't actually know how we can try and decide between those two different interpretations. And what strikes me as interesting is that I think that most people when they're trying to interpret the letter actually interpret it in the way that fits with their overall interpretation of Roman slavery.
And I think that's interesting not just in the study of slavery, and not just for the study of history, but much more generally. Because I think it's symptomatic of the way that we as human beings think. That rather than build up a picture with pieces of evidence, quite often we work the other way round. That we fit the evidence into our pre-existing picture - though that's a much bigger story and I think it’s a story for another day.