Human Fortune and Slavery

Seneca, Moral Epistles 47.10-11

“Please remember that that person you call a slave has come from the same seeds, enjoys the same sky, breathes the same, lives the same, dies the same as you. You can imagine them freeborn as easily as they can imagine you enslaved. At the time of the Marian slaughter, fortune laid low many born at the highest level, people making their way to the senatorial class through military service: one of these became  shepherd, another a guard to a country-house. Go ahead, look down on someone whose fortune you might come to share, even as you scoff at them.

I don’t want to get caught up in a large debate and complain about the treatment of enslaved people, against whom we are the most arrogant, cruel, and savage nation. But this is my highest precept: live alongside your inferior as you would want your superior to live with you.”

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.

Color photograph of a marble relief showing enslaved persons with a collar and chains led off by others
Roman collared slaves. — Marble relief, from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE.
Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.

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