Educating slaves: a comparative approach to education in Roman slavery
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date15/03/2024
The purpose of this thesis is to explore the role of education in Roman slavery. In doing so, it seeks to establish how Roman slavers, primarily of elite status, conceptualised their willingness to educate (some of) their enslaved population and to allow them to serve in influential teaching positions in turn. While the primary focus of this thesis is on those who served as educators, especially including the famed Roman grammarians and their service to both free and unfree Roman youths, attention is also given to the education of the enslaved more generally – hence, the dual sense of this thesis’ title: Educating Slaves. ‘Education’ in this study is defined as literate education – namely, reading and writing, but also written mathematics. Chapters I and II explore the two most prominent bodies of evidence that speak to the topic: the epigraphic record of and for Roman educators; and the detailed biographies of the (in)famous educators, mainly of unfree origins, preserved in Suetonius’ De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus. While this evidence stems largely from the Imperial period, its broader discussion draws, where relevant, on sources from a wider time-span – i.e. c. 200 BC to AD 200 – in order to include other important materials worth consideration for a proper critical reflection of the topic in question. Chapter I details the apparent normality of the presence of (formerly) enslaved educators in Roman society, suggestive of a seemingly general acceptance on behalf of Roman slavers vis-à-vis educated enslaved persons as such and enslaved educators more specifically, which indicates little to no conceptual hurdles among the elite in employing such figures – providing at face value an uncomplicated explanation for their use. The ensuing analysis of Suetonius’ text in Chapter II, however, shows a significant tension surrounding this practice in the form of a textual lacuna – the almost complete absence of the term ‘servus’ when referring to enslaved and formerly enslaved grammarians. It is argued that this lacuna reveals the status dissonance experienced by elite Romans regarding these educators by attempting to mitigate a contradiction at the highest conceptual end of Roman slaving in placing enslaved individuals in charge of the education of the freeborn. This analysis thus contextualizes the epigraphic evidence by contradistinction of its middling social context vis-à-vis that of the concerns of the Roman elite. The question that arises is how elite Romans nevertheless managed to conceptually underpin servile education: this is the topic of Chapters III and IV. To contextualize more fully the noted tension in the elite Romans’ approach to slave education in general and enslaved educators in particular, Chapters III and IV draw on choice evidence from as early as fourth-century BC Greece to as late as the nineteenth-century US South. Thus, Chapter III investigates the acquisition of education for enslaved and freed persons as detailed in the Roman literary record in an attempt to unravel the noted conundrum at its core, by identifying to whose benefit such an education of the enslaved is directed – i.e. the enslaved or the slaver? Ultimately, by examining the evidence through the lens of the ‘good master’ narrative in Roman literature, a rhetorical tool by which slavers claim to act for the good of the enslaved, which we can see executed more fully in examples from the US South, it is seen that Roman masters were indeed well aware of the benefits they themselves stood to gain by having their enslaved persons educated, and thereby explains at base their willingness to allow such a practice. In light of this identification, Chapter IV then seeks to answer how elite Romans reconciled intellectually the education of their enslaved and their subsequent involvement in the education system. To contextualise the Roman example better, recourse is taken again to the fuller evidence from the contrasting (i.e. negative) approach to slave education characteristic of the Antebellum US, before both societies are viewed through the lens of an ancient theory that American slavers were only too ready to cite in support of their critical attitude – i.e. Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery. It is shown that this theory enables a fresh look at the differing intellectual approaches in ancient Rome and the US South respectively, by demonstrating contrasting views of the mental capacities of the enslaved that support or deny their education. Seen this way, slave education – its approval or denial – when viewed in the kind of comparative perspective adopted in this thesis is revealed in conclusion as a proxy for the deeper conceptual underpinnings of slavery in societies that practice it.