Working Bodies Occupations of Slaves

Slaves could be found in every occupation in Greco-Roman cities.18 The men who maintained the furnaces in the baths were often slaves. The women who served beer in beer shops were often slaves and, for that matter, often prostitutes. Slaves worked in pottery factories and on farms, in mines and as shepherds. In smaller establishments a slave might have multiple jobs. Slaveholders provided official notifications of the deaths of slaves in order to avoid capitation taxes. These death notices typically referred to the slave's trade. They sometimes stated the deceased slave was not skilled in any particular trade.19 The staffs of larger households included slaves who managed the accounts and oversaw other slaves as well as slaves who carried household waste to public dump sites.

Evidence is extensive for the involvement of slaves in the production of commodities, where they typically worked alongside free laborers. For example, during the early Empire, Arezzo was a center for the manufacture of red-glazed pottery. In workshops ranging in size from a dozen to sixty workers, slaves crafted pottery, which they marked with their own names.20 Slaves were ubiquitous in all ranks of garment workers, from weavers to dyers to seamstresses. Papyri that listed the occupations of slaves often cited weaving as a trade. An early third-century guardian's account of the financial status of his wards, two minor boys, listed the wages earned by a female slave employed as a weaver. The text's modern editor notes that the slave's wages were sufficient to lift the account into the profitable range.21 A sheaf of apprenticeship contracts suggests that slaveholders often sent female slaves, less often male slaves, to learn the trade of weaving.22 Such contracts delineated responsibilities for feeding and clothing the enslaved apprentice and specified the holidays the slave would enjoy while working under the weaver. Benefits to the slaveholder were multiple. The slaveholder received remuneration for the slave's labor during the time of the apprenticeship. At the same time, the slave became more valuable to the slaveholder as she became more skillful in the designated craft.

Along with labor in workshops, fields, and markets, slaves advanced their owners' financial ends through serving as financial agents and managers of all kinds. Ostraca document the activities of slaves who served as financial agents, often with some autonomy. At least in Egypt, Roman families living abroad, including members of the imperial family, were most likely to rely on slaves as agents.23 Jesus alluded in the parables to slaves who managed other slaves, some serving their owners more faithfully than others.24 As overseers, slaves could exercise considerable power over other slaves within the household, but even outside the structure of the household a slave could manage a slaveholder's fortune. A well-documented example of a slave heavily involved in financial management comes from a villa in the vicinity of Pompeii. Wax tablets excavated there record the activities of a slave named Hesychus, who acted as his owner's agent in loaning 10,000 sesterces to an importer of foodstuffs named C. Novius Eunus. Hesychus also coordinated the rental of extensive food storage facilities. Moreover, this trove of tablets reveals some of the material benefits that could accrue to a slave entrusted with financial affairs. Within months of expediting his master's loan in 37 C.E., Hesychus became a creditor in his own right through a loan of3,000 sesterces to C. Novius Eunus.25 Only a minority of slaves had such lucrative opportunities. The overseer parables, for example, call attention to the (praiseworthy or culpable) activities of the slave entrusted with affairs of the household. The parables allude to a greater number of other household slaves, under the supervision of the overseer, who held less-responsible positions. The ascendancy of a Hesychus was thus neither a norm for slaves nor an anomaly. (Chapter four, which analyzes the parabolic figure of the slave, examines at greater length the evidence regarding managerial slaves.)

It is difficult to assign a single job title to capture the work obligations of a slave in a small slaveholding establishment. A second-century contract from Oxyrhynchus gives an idea of the range of duties a slave who belonged to a more humble master or mistress might have to perform. Glaukos leased his slave Tapontos, a weaver, to Achillas for a period of a year. The lease specified that Achillas would be responsible for Tapontos day and night. However, Glaukos retained the right to send for Tapontos during the night to make bread.26 Clearly, Glaukos's establishment was not large enough to include a full-time baker, as one would expect to find in a wealthy household.

Our sources typically distinguish between urban and rural slaves. The opening act of Plautus's Mostellaria, for example, features banter between a country-bumpkin slave and a scheming city slave with a superior attitude. The distinction between urban slaves, belonging to the familia urbana, and rural slaves, belonging to the familia rustica, was predicated as much on the slaves' duties as on their place of residence.27 Smaller slaveholding households would not have included sufficient staff to maintain this demarcation. The Gospel of Luke includes a parable of Jesus in which an agricultural slave doubles as a cook and domestic attendant: "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink.'"28

Jesus' parable does not evoke a vision of life on a vast estate, such as the extensive landholdings that dominated the landscape in Sicily and the Italian peninsula, but a smaller slaveholding household in which a slave's multiple and varied duties ranged from agricultural and pastoral tasks to food preparation and service. In larger slaveholding establishments, slave labor could be highly specialized. Clement of Alexandria, for example, disapproved of bloated household staffs, with some slaves "to prepare and make the pastries, others to make the honey cakes, and still others to prepare the porridges."29 Josephus mentioned that Herod the Great was especially fond of three of his eunuchs, each of whom had extremely limited duties. One eunuch did nothing but pour Herod's wine. Another served his food. A third eunuch, who shared Herod's bedchamber, helped Herod as he prepared for bed.30

Domestic slaves probably outnumbered slaves engaged in productive or managerial work.31 The horrors of life in the mines or on the vast agricultural estates of Sicily in many ways dwarfed the indignities of life as a domestic slave. Nonetheless, Keith Hopkins has argued, "Roman literature abounds with stories of incidental cruelty to individual domestic slaves. . . . Domestic slaves stood in the front line. They were more privileged and pampered than the tens of thousands of slaves who labored without hope in the fields and mines. . . . But domestic slaves also had more contact with their owners, and were more often subjected to their despotic whimsy."32

In smaller households the very slaves who contributed to the production of commodities would also have been involved in household tasks, including food preparation, cleaning, removing waste, and caring for children. Along with producing clothes for sale, a slave skilled in wool working could also produce clothing for members of the household. In larger households the tasks performed by domestic slaves would be highly specialized. Thus, on a continuum, the slave in the Lukan parable moved from work in the fields to waiting on the master at the table. Aesop not only shopped for food but also prepared and served it to his master and his master's guests. A wealthier household would have multiple slaves dedicated to particular cooking specialties. In The Golden Ass, for example, Lucius the ass eventually falls into the hands of two kitchen slaves, one specializing in sweets and the other in sauces.33

Descriptions of banquets suggest that elaborate household staffs would enhance the self-image of some slaveholders. The more frivolous a slave's task, the clearer the evidence of the owner's wealth. In the Satyricon, Encolpus describes the scene as he enters Trimalchio's banquet, where Trimalchio is playing a ball game with some boys:

If the ball hit the ground, he [Trimalchio] didn't chase it, but had a slave with a bag full of balls give the players a new one. We noticed some other novelties: there were two eunuchs stationed at different points in a circle; one was holding a silver chamber pot, the other was counting the balls. . . . While we wondered at the extravagance of this, Menelaus ran up and said, "This is the guy who's throwing the party! What you see is only the prelude to dinner." As Menelaus spoke, Trimalchio snapped his finger as a signal to the eunuch to hold out the chamber pot for him as he continued to play. After emptying his bladder, he called for water for his hands, sprinkled it lightly on his fingers and then wiped them dry on the head of a young slave.34

Trimalchio has set up this scene as a tableau for his guests so they can witness the extent of his wealth. As Menelaus pointedly observes, "This is the guy who's throwing the party!"

Jesus and his followers encountered the slaves of opulent households on those occasions when their activities came to the attention of civil or religious authorities. For example, during the events surrounding the arrest of Jesus, he and his followers had dealings with slaves belonging to the grand household of the high priest. One of the high priest's male slaves had an ear severed during the arrest of Jesus; several of the high priest's female and male slaves accosted Peter to accuse him of accompanying Jesus.35 The Pauline letters and Acts of the Apostles include references to a number of households that included slaves.36 However, on the basis of these texts, we cannot reach firm conclusions about the size of those households nor the degree to which their slaves specialized in productive, managerial, domestic, or sexual duties. We have no evidence to suggest that Paul interacted with slaves or slaveholders in households as lavish as Trimalchio's. Still, when he accepted hospitality from a slaveholder, domestic slaves would have tended to his needs, from washing his feet upon entering the household to preparing the food for communal meals.

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