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It is a just though trite
observation, that victorious Rome
was herself subdued by the arts of Greece
. Those immortal
writers who still
command the admiration of modern Europe, soon became the favorite object of study and imitation in Italy and the western provinces.
But the elegant amusements of the Romans were not suffered to interfere with their sound maxim
s of policy
. Whilst they
acknowledged the charms of the Greek
, they asserted the dignity of the Latin
tongue, and the exclusive use of the latter was inflexibly
maintained in the administration
of civil as well as military
The two languages exercised at the same time their
separate jurisdiction throughout the empire: the former, as the natural idiom of science; the latter, as the legal dialect of public
transactions. Those who united letters with business were equally conversant with both; and it was almost impossible, in any
province, to find a Roman subject, of a liberal education, who was at once a stranger to the Greek
and to the Latin
Note 45: See Valerius maximus, l. ii. c. 2, n. 2. The emperor Claudius disfranchised an eminent Grecian for not understanding
Latin. He was probably in some public office. Suetonius in Claud. c. 16.
Note: Causes seem to have been pleaded, even in the senate, in both languages. Val. Max. loc. cit. Dion. l. lvii. c. 15. - M
It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people. But there still
remained, in the centre of every province and of every family, an unhappy condition of men who endured the weight, without sharing
the benefits, of society. In the free states of antiquity
, the domestic slave
s were exposed to the wanton rigor of despotism
. The perfect
settlement of the Roman empire was preceded by ages of violence and rapine. The slave
s consisted, for the most part, of Barbarian
taken in thousands by the chance of war, purchased at a vile price, 46
accustomed to a life of independence
impatient to break and to revenge their fetters. Against such internal enemies, whose desperate insurrections had more than once
reduced the republic to the brink of destruction, 47
the most severe *
and the most cruel treatment, seemed almost
justified by the great law of self-preservation. But when the principal nations of Europe, Asia, and Africa were united under the laws of
one sovereign, the source of foreign supplies flowed with much less abundance, and the Romans were reduced to the milder but more
tedious method of propagation. *
In their numerous families, and particularly in their country estates, they encouraged the marriage of
The sentiments of nature, the habits of education, and the possession of a dependent species of property
, contributed to
alleviate the hardships of servitude. 49
The existence of a slave
became an object of greater value, and though his happiness still
depended on the temper and circumstances of the master, the humanity of the latter, instead of being restrained by fear, was
encouraged by the sense of his own interest. The progress of manners was accelerated by the virtue or policy
of the emperor
s; and by
the edicts of Hadrian and the Antonines
, the protection of the laws was extended to the most abject part of mankind. The jurisdiction
of life and death over the slave
s, a power long exercised and often abused, was taken out of private hands, and reserved to the
magistrates alone. The subterraneous prisons were abolished; and, upon a just complaint of intolerable treatment, the injured slave
obtained either his deliverance, or a less cruel master. 50
Note *: It was this which rendered the wars so sanguinary, and the
battles so obstinate. The immortal Robertson, in an excellent discourse on the state of the world at the period of the establishment of
Christianity, has traced a picture of the melancholy effects of slavery, in which we find all the depth of his views and the strength of
his mind. I shall oppose successively some passages to the reflections of Gibbon. The reader will see, not without interest, the truths
which Gibbon appears to have mistaken or voluntarily neglected, developed by one of the best of modern historians. It is important to
call them to mind here, in order to establish the facts and their consequences with accuracy. I shall more than once have occasion to
employ, for this purpose, the discourse of Robertson.
"Captives taken in war were, in all probability, the first persons subjected to perpetual servitude; and, when the necessities or luxury of
mankind increased the demand for slaves, every new war recruited their number, by reducing the vanquished to that wretched
condition. Hence proceeded the fierce and desperate spirit with which wars were carried on among ancient nations. While chains and
slavery were the certain lot of the conquered, battles were fought, and towns defended with a rage and obstinacy which nothing but
horror at such a fate could have inspired; but, putting an end to the cruel institution of slavery, Christianity extended its mild influences
to the practice of war, and that barbarous art, softened by its humane spirit, ceased to be so destructive. Secure, in every event, of
personal liberty, the resistance of the vanquished became less obstinate, and the triumph of the victor less cruel. Thus humanity was
introduced into the exercise of war, with which it appears to be almost incompatible; and it is to the merciful maxims of Christianity,
much more than to any other cause, that we must ascribe the little ferocity and bloodshed which accompany modern victories." - G.
Note 46: In the camp of Lucullus, an ox sold for a drachma, and a slave for four drachmae, or about three shillings. Plutarch. in
Lucull. p. 580. Note: Above 100,000 prisoners were taken in the Jewish war. - G. Hist. of Jews, iii. 71. According to a tradition preserved by S.
Jerom, after the insurrection in the time of Hadrian, they were sold as cheap as horse. Ibid. 124. Compare Blair on Roman slavery, p.
19. - M., and Dureau de la blalle, Economie Politique des Romains, l. i. c. 15. But I cannot think that this writer has made out his case
as to the common price of an agricultural slave being from 2000 to 2500 francs, (80l. to 100l.) He has overlooked the passages which
show the ordinary prices, (i. e. Hor. Sat. ii. vii. 45,) and argued from extraordinary and exceptional cases. - M. 1845.
Note 47: Diodorus Siculus in Eclog. Hist. l. xxxiv. and xxxvi. Florus, iii. 19, 20.
Note 48: See a remarkable instance of severity in Cicero in Verrem, v. 3.
Note *: An active slave-trade, which was carried on in many quarters, particularly the Euxine, the eastern provinces, the coast of
Africa, and British must be taken into the account. Blair, 23 - 32. - M.
Note !: The Romans, as well in the first ages of the republic as later, allowed to their slaves a kind of marriage, (contubernium: )
notwithstanding this, luxury made a greater number of slaves in demand. The increase in their population was not sufficient, and
recourse was had to the purchase of slaves, which was made even in the provinces of the East subject to the Romans. It is, moreover,
known that slavery is a state little favorable to population. (See Hume's Essay, and Malthus on population, i. 334. - G.) The testimony
of Appian (B.C. l. i. c. 7) is decisive in favor of the rapid multiplication of the agricultural slaves; it is confirmed by the numbers
engaged in the servile wars. Compare also Blair, p. 119; likewise Columella l. viii. - M.
Note 49: See in Gruter, and the other collectors, a great number of inscriptions addressed by slaves to their wives, children,
fellow-servants, masters, &c. They are all most probably of the Imperial age.
Note 50: See the Augustan History, and a
Dissertation of M. de Burigny, in the xxxvth volume of the Academy of Inscriptions, upon the Roman slaves.
Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition, was not denied to the Roman slave
; and if he had any opportunity of rendering
himself either useful or agreeable, he might very naturally expect that the diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with
the inestimable gift of freedom. The benevolence of the master was so frequently prompted by the meaner suggestions of vanity and
avarice, that the laws found it more necessary to restrain than to encourage a profuse and undistinguishing liberality, which might
degenerate into a very dangerous abuse. 51
It was a maxim
of ancient jurisprudence, that a slave
had not any country of his own; he
acquired with his liberty an admission into the political society of which his patron was a member. The consequences of this maxim
would have prostituted the privileges of the Roman city to a mean and promiscuous multitude. Some seasonable exceptions were
therefore provided; and the honorable distinction was confined to such slave
s only as, for just causes, and with the approbation of the
magistrate, should receive a solemn and legal manumission
. Even these chosen freedmen obtained no more than the private rights of
citizens, and were rigorously excluded from civil or military
honors. Whatever might be the merit or fortune of their sons, they
likewise were esteemed unworthy of a seat in the senate; nor were the traces of a servile origin allowed to be completely obliterated till
the third or fourth generation. 52
Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom and honors was
presented, even to those whom pride and prejudice almost disdained to number among the human species.
Note 51: See another
Dissertation of M. de Burigny, in the xxxviith volume, on the Roman freedmen.
Note 52: Spanheim, Orbis Roman. l. i. c. 16, p. 124, &c.
It was once proposed to discriminate the slave
s by a peculiar habit; but
it was justly apprehended that there might be some danger in acquainting them with their own numbers. 53
Without interpreting, in
their utmost strictness, the liberal appellations of legions and myriads, 54
we may venture to pronounce, that the proportion of slave
who were valued as property
, was more considerable than that of servants, who can be computed only as an expense. 55
of a promising genius were instructed in the arts and sciences, and their price was ascertained by the degree of their skill and talents.
Almost every profession, either liberal 57
or mechanical, might be found in the household of an opulent senator. The ministers of
pomp and sensuality were multiplied beyond the conception of modern luxury
It was more for the interest of the merchant or
manufacturer to purchase, than to hire his workmen; and in the country, slave
s were employed as the cheapest and most laborious
instruments of agriculture. To confirm the general observation, and to display the multitude of slave
s, we might allege a variety of
particular instances. It was discovered, on a very melancholy occasion, that four hundred slave
s were maintained in a single palace of
The same number of four hundred belonged to an estate which an African widow, of a very private condition, resigned to
her son, whilst she reserved for herself a much larger share of her property
A freedman, under the name of Augustus
, though his
fortune had suffered great losses in the civil wars, left behind him three thousand six hundred yoke of oxen, two hundred and fifty
thousand head of smaller cattle, and what was almost included in the description of cattle, four thousand one hundred and sixteen
Note 53: Seneca de Clementia, l. i. c. 24. The original is much stronger, "Quantum periculum immineret si servi nostri numerare
Note 54: See Pliny (Hist. Natur. l. xxxiii.) and Athenaeus (Deipnosophist. l. vi. p. 272.) The latter boldly asserts, that he knew
very many Romans who possessed, not for use, but ostentation, ten and even twenty thousand slaves.
Note 55: In Paris there are not more than 43,000 domestics of every sort, and not a twelfth part of the inhabitants. Messange,
Recherches sui la Population, p. 186.
Note 56: A learned slave sold for many hundred pounds sterling: Atticus always bred and taught them himself. Cornel. Nepos in
Vit. c. 13, on the prices of slaves. Blair, 149.
Note 57: Many of the Roman physicians were slaves. See Dr. Middleton's Dissertation and Defence.
Note 58: Their ranks and offices are very copiously enumerated by Pignorius de Servis.
Note 59: Tacit. Annal. xiv. 43. They were all executed for not preventing their master's murder.
Note: The remarkable speech of Cassius shows the proud feelings of the Roman aristocracy on this subject. - M
Note 60: Apuleius in Apolog. p. 548. edit. Delphin
Note 61: Plin. Hist. Natur. l. xxxiii. 47.
The number of subjects who acknowledged the laws of Rome
, of citizens, of provincials, and of slave
s, cannot now be fixed with
such a degree of accuracy, as the importance of the object would deserve. We are informed, that when the emperor Claudius
exercised the office of censor
, he took an account of six millions nine hundred and forty-five thousand Roman citizens, who, with the
proportion of women and children, must have amounted to about twenty millions of souls. The multitude of subjects of an inferior
rank was uncertain and fluctuating. But, after weighing with attention every circumstance which could influence the balance, it seems
probable that there existed, in the time of Claudius
, about twice as many provincials as there were citizens, of either sex, and of every
age; and that the slaves were at least equal in number to the free inhabitants of the Roman world
The total amount of this imperfect
calculation would rise to about one hundred and twenty millions of persons; a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of
and forms the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.
Note *: According to Robertson, there were twice as many slaves as free citizens. - G. Mr. Blair (p. 15) estimates three slaves to
one freeman, between the conquest of Greece, B.C. 146, and the reign of Alexander Severus, A. D. 222, 235. The proportion was
probably larger in Italy than in the provinces. - M. On the other hand, Zumpt, in his Dissertation quoted below, (p. 86,) asserts it to be
a gross error in Gibbon to reckon the number of slaves equal to that of the free population. The luxury and magnificence of the great,
(he observes,) at the commencement of the empire, must not be taken as the groundwork of calculations for the whole Roman world.
The agricultural laborer, and the artisan, in Spain, Gaul, Britain, Syria, and Egypt, maintained himself, as in the present day, by his own
labor and that of his household, without possessing a single slave." I do not believe that the cultivation of the soil by slaves was confined to Italy; the holders of large estates in the provinces would probably, either from choice or necessity, adopt the same mode of cultivation.
Note 62: Compute twenty millions in France, twenty-two in Germany, four in Hungary, ten in Italy with its islands, eight in Great
Britain and Ireland, eight in Spain and Portugal, ten or twelve in the European Russia, six in Poland, six in Greece and Turkey, four in
Sweden, three in Denmark and Norway, four in the Low Countries. The whole would amount to one hundred and five, or one
hundred and seven millions. See Voltaire, de l'Histoire Generale.
Note: The present population of Europe is estimated at 227,700,000. Malts Bran, Geogr. Trans edit. 1832. Zumpt examines at greater length the axiom, which he supposes to have been assumed by Gibbon as unquestionable, "that Italy and the Roman world was never so populous as in the time of the Antonines." Though this probably was Gibbon's opinion, he has not stated it so peremptorily as asserted by Mr. Zumpt. It had before been expressly laid down by Hume, and his statement was controverted by Wallace and by Malthus. Zumpt acknowledges that we have no satisfactory knowledge of the state of Italy at that early age. Zumpt, in my opinion with some reason, takes the period just before the
first Punic wars, as that in which Roman Italy (all south of the Rubicon) was most populous. From that time, the numbers began to
diminish, at first from the enormous waste of life out of the free population in the foreign, and afterwards in the civil wars; from the
cultivation of the soil by slaves; towards the close of the republic, from the repugnance to marriage, which resisted alike the dread of
legal punishment and the offer of legal immunity and privilege; and from the depravity of manners, which interfered with the
procreation, the birth, and the rearing of children. The arguments and the authorities of Zumpt are equally conclusive as to the decline
of population in Greece.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 39-43.