Slave ‘crime and punishment’: management, authority and discretion in Roman law and literature
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date18/01/2024
This thesis investigates elite approximations to ‘crime and punishment’ in Roman slavery. ‘Crime’ and ‘punishment’ are understood here in a malleable sense, including delicts and crimes known in Roman law (and their formal, public punishments) along with the various so-called misdeeds that slaves commit (and receive punishment for) in the household. The thesis argues that concern with servile ‘crime and punishment’ is at the forefront of the Romans’ written output – including aside from the more readily obvious legal sources also non-legal writings. Moreover, this thesis contends that an understanding of Roman juridical thinking and law enhances our appreciation of non-legal writings that deal with servile ‘crime and punishment’, providing us with a greater insight into both the texts under scrutiny (and the literary discourse more broadly) and the thought-world of Roman slave-owners at large. To advance these ideas, the first part of this thesis outlines some chief juridical characterizations of the enslaved as discussed in one of the key texts focused on ‘crime and punishment’: Digest 47–49. The Digest survey paints a nuanced and varied picture of slaves in situations pertaining to ‘crime and punishment’. Along with detailing the objectification of the enslaved in the jurists’ mind, it also demonstrates the juridical recognition of servile agency and responsibility. Slaves were not merely conceptualized as objects, but also as active and independent subjects in front of the law and this is a crucial aspect to be acknowledged in order for the juridical approach to servile ‘crime and punishment’ to be fully comprehended. Viewed against the backdrop of the analysis of Digest 47–49, the argument that ‘crime and punishment’ and their legal ramifications resonate in non-legal writings(and are thus essential for fully understanding those texts, too) is explored through three literary case studies that are roughly contemporary with the discussed legal evidence: Petronius’ satirical Cena Trimalchionis, Apuleius’ novelistic Metamorphoses, and the prescriptive and idealistic works of the agricultural writers. Close examination of these literary texts leads to two key findings: first, that the topic under scrutiny as explored in these texts depends on proper understanding of Roman law and the associated juridical discourse; second, and consequently, that ‘crime and punishment’ is indeed central to a full appreciation of these non-legal writings more generally. The broader benefit of a fuller appreciation of the legal resonances in Roman literary texts that this thesis advances is, again, two-fold: first, it cautions against the notion that, in Roman society, law is a type of specialized knowledge exclusively in the remit of lawyers; second, it advances the wider discussion in slavery studies of the relationship between law and slave-ownership, with particular regard to the role played by ‘legal thinking’ in slave-owners’ (non-legal) discourse. In its totality, moreover, this thesis suggests that servile ‘crime and punishment’ was a matter of concern for Roman slave-owners, so much so that it occupied probably every possible textual niche – whether obviously so, as in the case of the Roman legal discourse, or less patently so, as in the case of the Roman literary universe. For this reason, this thesis suggests that (slave) management led to the constant exploration of, and preoccupation with, (masterly) authority and discretion – as evidenced across Roman law and literature.