The Home as a Microcosm of the State: Seneca on Slavery

Earlier we posted a passage from Macrobius which generalizes about slavery. As a friend on Facebook notes, Macrobius draws heavily on Seneca

Seneca Moral Epistle 47.13–14

“Live mercifully with your slave, even in a friendly way. Invite him to a conversation, to share your plans and to live with you. At this suggestion the whole band of elites will shout at me: “Nothing is baser or fouler than this”. These very same men I often catch kissing on the hands of other men’s slaves.

Don’t you see this, at least, how our forebears tried to erase everything insidious and every kind of insult from slaveholding? They called the master a “father of the family” and slaves “family members”, a fact that endures today in mimes. They started a festival day one which it was custom and obligation for masters to eat with their servants. They also permitted slaves to earn honors in the home and to pronounce judgments so that the home was a microcosm of the state.”

Vive cum servo clementer, comiter quoque, et in sermonem illum admitte et in consilium et in convictum. Hoc loco adclamabit mihi tota manus delicatorum: “Nihil hac re humilius, nihil turpius.” Hos ego eosdem deprehendam alienorum servorum osculantes manum. Ne illud quidem videtis, quam omnem invidiam maiores nostri dominis, omnem contumeliam servis detraxerint? Dominum patrem familiae appellaverunt, servos, quod etiam in mimis adhuc durat, familiares. Instituerunt diem festum, non quo solo cum servis domini vescerentur, sed quo utique; honores illis in domo gerere, ius dicere permiserunt et domum pusillam rem publicam esse iudicaverunt.

Just before this passage, he writes to try to encourage people to treat slaves better. Unfortunately, Seneca seems to accept slavery as a condition of human life. This is part of the point of Macrobius’ post too, that we are all ‘slaves’ to something and therefore never truly free. Yet this certainly overlooks the very real difference in agency and liberty between those who are ‘slaves’ to desire and those who are literally enslaved to another human being (or to a state). 

Seneca, Moral Epistles 47.10-12

“Please remember that the person you call your slave rose from the same seeds, enjoys the same sky and equally breathes, lives and dies! You could see him just as much as a free man as a slave. Because of the slaughter in the time of Marius, fortune struck down many born to high station, taking the trail to the senate through the army—one of these it made a shepherd, another an overseer of a cottage. Despise now the fortune of a person whose place you may take even as you look down on them!

I don’t want to get involved in a big controversy and argue about the treatment of slaves toward whom we are most arrogant, cruel, and offensive. But this is the sum of my guidance: deal with your inferior the way you wish your superior would deal with you. However many times it pops in your mind to consider how much is right for you regarding your slave, let it also occur that this is permitted to your master regarding you. “But I have no master” you say. Your age is still good. Don’t you know how old Hecuba was when she began to serve, or Croesus, or Darius’ mother, or Plato and Diogenes?”

Vis tu cogitare istum, quem servum tuum vocas, ex isdem seminibus ortum eodem frui caelo, aeque spirare, aeque vivere, aeque mori! tam tu illum videre ingenuum potes quam ille te servum. Mariana clade multos splendidissime natos, senatorium per militiam auspicantes gradum, fortuna depressit, alium ex illis pastorem, alium custodem casae fecit; contemne nunc eius fortunae hominem, in quam transire, dum contemnis, potes.

Nolo in ingentem me locum inmittere et de usu servorum disputare, in quos superbissimi, crudelissimi, contumeliosissimi sumus. Haec tamen praecepti mei summa est: sic cum inferiore vivas, quemadmodum tecum superiorem velis vivere. Quotiens in mentem venerit, quantum tibi in servum liceat, veniat in mentem tantundem in te domino tuo licere. “At ego,” inquis, “nullum habeo dominum.” Bona aetas est; forsitan habebis. Nescis, qua aetate Hecuba servire coeperit, qua Croesus, qua Darei mater, qua Platon, qua Diogenes?

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