Surrogate Bodies

By abrading or striking a slave, one could effect an insult against the slaveholder, and in this sense slaves served as body doubles for their owners. Slaves served in another sense as surrogate bodies for their owners: as stunt men, doubling the physical force their owners could exert. Slaveholders relied on slaves as agents of vicarious violence in order to accomplish disreputable ends. Ramsay MacMullen notes that the absence of a police force would have made it difficult to restrain slaveholders whose slaves constituted private armies.28 Roman law equivocated on the liability of an owner for a slave's criminal activity. A free person who believed that a slaveholder ordered a slave to mount an assault could sue the slaveholder.29 In many circumstances, however, it would have been difficult to establish that a slave had committed a criminal action as part of a work assignment. The law distinguished between a situation in which the owner was present when a slave committed an affront and a situation in which the owner was absent. The law authorized proceedings against the slaveholder who was present for the slave's assault but specified that the slave should be taken to the governor to be scourged if the slaveholder was absent.30

Legal petitions and letters preserved in the papyri suggest that such assaults were common.31 As we read the petitions, we should keep in mind that the petitioners narrated events in order to minimize or obscure their own responsibility for whatever took place. We rarely have access to the version of events presented by other parties in the case or to the decision that was handed down.32 In some cases, petitioners alleged that slaves joined slaveholders in skirmishes. In a late fourth-century petition, a creditor asserted that when he tried to collect a particular debt, the debtor and his household slaves joined forces to attack the creditor and his wife.33 In a document dated 326 C.E., a petitioner claimed that his wife was at home when she was assaulted by a woman named Tapesis and her slave Victoria. The petitioner requested that a midwife examine his wife so that she could later testify regarding the extent of the damages sustained.34 In these two cases, slaves served as body doubles, reinforcing the physical capabilities of their owners—or at least this is how the petitioners told their stories. Ulpian held that "the outrage is enhanced by the station of the person responsible."35 By emphasizing that slaves were involved in an attack, petitioners emphasized the degree of indignity suffered and tried to heighten the sympathies of those who read the petitions.

In other cases, slaves participated in attacks in the absence of their owners. In 7 C.E., Stilbon wrote to Athenodoros (we have already encountered Athenodoros, whose negligence in paying a fine had landed several slaves in jail) informing Athenodoros that he had suffered an attack by man named Skaliphos, who was accompanied by a slave of Chrysippos. He explained the attack by saying that Skaliphos had grown impatient awaiting word from Athenodoros on some matter.36 Stilbon offered no explanation for the involvement of the slave of Chrysippos in the attack. Perhaps the slave was there to support Skaliphos; perhaps the slave had his own grudge against Stilbon or Athenodoros; or perhaps Chrysippos ordered the slave to harass Stilbon in a way that could not be traced back to him. Although slaveholders had some limited liability for their slaves' actions, relying on slaves to perform disreputable actions allowed owners to accomplish their less-savory ends while protecting their reputations, livelihoods, and physical integ rity. Slaveholders relied on slaves as surrogate bodies to do their dirty work when they wanted to keep their own hands clean.

We read in the Digest that "a slave should not obey his owner who orders him to commit a crime."37 The jurist Alfenus addresses the situation at greater length: "A slave does not usually in all cases obey the orders of his master with impunity, for instance, where the master had ordered his slave to kill a man or to commit theft against someone. Consequently, even though a slave had committed piracy on the orders of his master, an action must be taken against him after he is freed."38 Whether slaves or slaveholders would have been aware of such limitations on the obligations of slaves to obey their owners is unclear. The elite jurists whose opinions the Digest preserves evinced no interest in the difficulties that slaves would encounter should they try to pursue legitimate avenues when their owners ordered them to engage in illegitimate activities. In order to avoid possible beatings at the hands of authorities, slaves would have endured certain beatings at the hands of their owners. Nonetheless, when literary sources depict slaves aiding their owners in criminal activity, they rely on the stereotype of the servile person, naturally prone to antisocial actions. In one of Apuleius's seemingly endless tales of faithless women in The Golden Ass, a matron whose honorable stepson rejected her as a sexual partner turns against him and seeks to poison him. She relies on one of her slaves, part of her dowry, as an accomplice and sends him for the poison. In Apuleius's prose, the slave is as guilty as the matron. Apuleius represents the slave's obedience not as faithfulness but as the flowering of his own criminal nature. Apuleius even describes the slave's willingness to endure torture to protect his mistress as a sign of obstinacy rather than as a token of fidelity.39

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