• A Master’s Carrot and Stick

Readers of Rubies of the Viper often ask: How accurate is the picture of Roman slavery that emerges in it? Could a slave like Alexander really interact so easily and openly with his owner? Were slaves ever that well educated? That smart? That moral? That loyal?

The answer is: In many cases, yes.

Certainly, there were many slaves who were uneducated, disloyal, conniving, and self-serving. (My character Lucilla comes to mind.) Many never met their owners, much less built a personal relationship with them. (My characters Nicanor and Etrusca are rare examples of farm slaves who leap the barrier in that regard.) Many adults and children were abused—sexually, physically, and psychologically—on a regular basis. (My characters Lycos and Marcipor are unfortunate examples.) Many spent their entire lives in conditions that we today simply cannot imagine or believe. (My description of the Varro family’s latifundium, or large farm/plantation—horrific as it is—is spot-on accurate. See Gigantic Estates.)

But the image of Roman slaves that emerges from the characters of Alexander and Stefan is also historically accurate. Many managed their masters’ estates competently and honestly. Many were true companions to their masters, often from childhood. Many served the same master loyally from birth to death.

But they were still property… and that fact was never far from their minds.

Every aspect of a Roman slave’s life was 100% under the control of another person. The master or—as in Rubies of the Viper—mistress determined what they ate and wore. What work they did, when, and how. What kinds of sexual relationships they could have.

A master’s understanding of what he wanted from his slaves—total obedience and loyalty, in most cases—and his methods of getting what he wanted were perfected long before the first century A.D. They consisted primarily of what we would call the carrot and the stick.

The carrots: a tolerable life, decent food and living conditions, a semblance of family life, a chance to have their own savings and property (peculium), and a hope of manumisson

The sticks: corporal punishment, threats of being sold or sent to labor on a plantation, and even the possibility of death at the master’s sole discretion

Manumission was common in the first century, and many Roman slaves who were freed rose to positions of great power and wealth. But they never escaped the stigma of the social position they began with.

I found Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control to be a tremendous resource for accurately building the relationships between the slave and free characters in Rubies of the Viper. Anybody who is interested in this subject will find this book useful.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—