Seneca on Treatment of Slaves (Letter 47) – a must-read

Seneca (the Younger) wrote a letter to Lucilius on masters and slaves. I find this fascinating reading (1) for better understanding how slaves were treated in general in the Roman world and (2) since Seneca encourages kindness, fairness, and friendship with slaves in a way that is not dissimilar to Paul (though without the religious focus).

In this “letter 47,” Seneca makes dozens of very good and even persuasive points, but some of his points are downright hilarious. For example, he talks about the gluttonous master who starves his slaves who serve him endlessly.

The master eats more than he can hold, and with monstrous greed loads his belly until it is stretched and at length ceases to do the work of a belly; so that he is at greater pains to discharge all the food than he was to stuff it down! (47.2)

In another part of the letter, he refers to a slave-turned-wealthy freedman whose former (cruel) master had become a would-be client. After the master had sold off the slave Callistus treating him as a “good-for-nothing” slave, Callistus eventually became free and prominent. But instead of welcoming his former master with open arms he had “cut his name from the list [of clients?] and in his turn has adjudged him unfit to enter his house. The master sold Callistus, but how much has Callistus made his master pay for it!” (47.9)

The last thing I found interesting was how Seneca dealt with others questioning whether he was trying to argue that all people should be treated the same. (After all, he recommended that masters be willing to dine with their slaves.) He does not go so far as to say all men are equal. He makes the case: “He is a slave” (he agrees with the interlocuter), but how do you know that his soul is a slave? What if it is free? (47.17). He explains that, in fact, there are lots of masters that appear to be free, but are slaves of another kind – slaves to lust, greed, ambition, fear…Or perhaps some are free, but under the power of an “old hag” or their own “serving-maid.” His sharpest quip is this: “No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed” (47.17).

So, no, don’t just dine with any slave (or master for that matter), but with slaves who show noble character and virtue. Your slaves should respect and love you, not fear you: “only dumb animals need the whip” (47.19).

Seneca reminds us that it is not only the Christians who saw and challenged the savage inequities in the household. I think everyone who studies the NT should read this letter.

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2 thoughts on “Seneca on Treatment of Slaves (Letter 47) – a must-read

  1. Yeah, I agree – this is an important letter. The opening is particularly striking:

    “I am made pleased, by those who come from you, to find out that you are on friendly terms with those who live as your slaves. This is fitting for a wise and educated man such as yourself. “They are slaves!” On the contrary; they are humans. “They are slaves!” On the contrary; they are comrades. “They are slaves!” On the contrary; they are lowly friends. “They are slaves!” On the contrary; they are fellow-slaves, if one considers that we are equally owned by fortune.”

    There are quite a few others who play with that image of real slavery/freedom relating to the soul, rather than outward appearance: Philo’s “Every Good Man is Free” and Dio Chrysostom’s “On Slavery and Freedom” are interesting on this point, as is Epictetus (Discourses, 4.1).

    Matt

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