Book review: The Roman Guide to Slave Management lays bare painful realities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx
by Jerry Toner
Overlook Press

Want to buy a pet boy? Go to the slave dealers and ask if they have any Egyptians. Don't want to dirty your hands punishing your slaves? Hire a contractor who will provide floggings, hot pitch for torture sessions and a crucifixion service, all for modest fees. Need to know what to feed your slaves that will cost the least and provide the most in return? Try a diet of bread, salt, grapes, olive oil, olive mash and dried fruit.

The Roman Guide to Slave Management by Jerry Toner gives as complete a picture as we have of the indignities and cruelties of slavery in ancient Rome. It is presented as an advice manual by fictional aristocrat Marcus Sidonius Falx, who sees nothing wrong with his treatment of his slaves, viewing himself as a stern but fair master.

Toner reveals the painful reality, best summarised in an anecdote in which a slave smirks when Falx is hit in the shin with a hoe. "This slave thinks that injuries to the leg are amusing. Let us break his legs and see how much he laughs," Falx says. But his guest, a barbarian who has never owned slaves, cries, "No!", so Falx lets the slave off with a "light beating with rods. I know, I know, I am too soft."

Falx then goes on to explain how to exploit slaves to the maximum while viewing oneself as virtuous. Commentaries at the end of each chapter explain the historical sources for his statements.

The narrative sags a bit towards the end, in which the character of Fax is not so sharply or amusingly drawn. Still, a frightening picture of the Roman master emerges: he is dedicated to his own power, wealth and amusement, caring nothing for slaves' feelings, health or well-being. On beating slaves with one's own hand, Falx advises caution - not that the slave not be maimed but that the master not bruise himself. He clucks his tongue at the way some of his friends punish their slaves, such as beating one for coughing while serving soup: Falx doesn't mind the slaves suffering beatings; he minds his own relaxation being disturbed.

Lest one congratulate oneself on having superior morals, Falx includes a section on ancient Christian views on slavery. The Christians approved of the practice, according to Falx, but believed that slaves should be freed after six years.

In addition, Christians frowned on sexual intercourse with one's slaves, although Falx remarks snidely, "You would be very naive if, in reality, you believed that wealthy Christian slave owners did not also behave like that [bedding their slaves]. And why shouldn't they?

"After all, was there any whose slave girls did not enjoy their master's visits?"

This short book is worth the little time it takes to read it.