Posted by: constantinakatsari | January 2, 2013

Slave master relationships 2

I ended my last blog entry by suggesting that perhaps female concubines in Ancient Rome felt a sense of obligation towards their masters due to the paternalistic nature of slaves, which in turn got me thinking about how far paternalism was accepted in the minds of slaves and slave masters alike.


This semester our course has been based on slavery in both Ancient Rome and the American South and as a class we have made comparisons and contrasts, discussed primary sources, the impact of slaves on society as a whole and the scale of slavery in both eras, just to name a few topics! For my Research project I decided to argue that Paternalism was the predominant underlying ideology towards slaves in the Roman familia and in the Southern household. I’m going to use this blog as an opportunity to further develop the comparison points I made in my essay.


Although I accept the concept of paternalism I am very aware that there were significant differences in the notion of paternalism in the minds of the slaves owners. In both societies paternalism allowed slave owners to justify slavery. They argued that slaves needed ‘taking care of’. In this instance paternalism also embraces the parent/child model of paternalism. In the eyes of the owners the slaves were seen to lack the relative knowledge, or sense of responsibility to look after themselves and it was the duty of the slave owner to behave towards their slaves as guardians. The slave owner is the parent and the slave is perceived as being the child, or childlike thus slave owners believed it was in the slaves’ best interests. Essentially this argument is presenting the idea that slaves lacked the ability to run their own lives and thus they were better off in the system of slavery where their lives were run by others. It is necessary to point out however that the slaveholders were creating the situation that made their alleged paternalism necessary. Accepting that there was a conscious paternalistic ideal in the mind of the slave owners does not suggest that slavery in both societies was just and reasonable, instead it seeks to demonstrate the how slave holders justified their actions.


A stark difference in the way paternalism was administered over slaves in the Roman familia and in the Southern household can be found in the simple fact that in the American South slaves were determined by the colour of their skin. Southern slave owners believed that black people as a race were ignorant and uneducated therefore it fell on slave owners to ‘take care’ of the slaves in their household. In America in many ways paternalism was essentially the rationalization of white supremacy, and by accepting the parent/child model of paternalism we find that these two theories could be mutually reinforcing. In Ancient society paternalism was based on a class relationship. Slaves were not solely seen to require authority due to the colour of their skin or their ethnicity, but due to their low class status. Ancient Rome was a very rigid hierarchical society with slaves at the bottom of the tier. It is important at this point however, to remind ourselves that slavery was a very fluid state which anybody could fall into.


In most instance slaves embraced the paternalistic ideal. Within Ancient Rome the slave/master relationship could potentially be very similar to relationships based on patronage. A relationship that was based on mutual ties and obligations. Slaves were often very dedicated and formed strong emotional bonds with their masters, I do not seek to claim that these emotions were always reciprocated but it does demonstrate that slaves were susceptible to paternalism. Furthermore, the notion of reciprocity in paternalism allowed slaves to manipulate the ideal of paternalism to their advantage. Slaves knew that good and loyal behaviour would be rewarded. The link between paternalism and reciprocity is clear; essentially the use of reciprocity is but an extension of the paternalistic ideology underlying Ancient Roman slavery. Similarly in the American south slave owners argued that the slave would happily do what the master asked, and in return the master provided security and protection. We can see this in the notion of the ‘sambo’ personality. The existence of reciprocity allows us to determine that slaves acknowledged their inferior position, thus solidifying social cohesion. By accepting paternalism of this kind slaves themselves in Southern America and Ancient Rome legitimised this form of class and race rule.


Amrit Kaur



  1. The Roman/American slavery comparison is interesting. You are spot on with the differences lying in Roman patronage and American race. However, I would suggest that there is a key episode in Virginia history that is central to this argument: Bacon’s Rebellion. During the tobacco boom era of the early 1600’s, many of the “settlers” sent from England were indentured servants. They were treated worse than any slave that would follow them. This was because, upon completion of their contract, the tobacco farmer for which they labored was obliged to set up the indentured servant with land and tools of their own. Not wanting to lose land, livestock and hardware and most certainly because they did not want more competition, the early tobacco barons worked the indentured servants to death. This corruption of the patronage system, the old English apprentice system, disenfranchised those servants that survived their term. They were further enraged by the fact that the tobacco barons had bought up vast tracts of virgin land all along the waterways leading west, the prime growing land, virtually locking them out of joining their ranks. These men became disaffected frontiersman, prone to drifting, hunting and drinking. They openly mingled with the free blacks with whom they shared much in common. To this time, slavery was not a viable option as indentured servants were all but free as they tended to die before paying them off. So the blacks in Virginia were mostly free at this time. Enter Nathaniel Bacon, a pompous English noble so unfit he was shipped off the the new world with this mother and wife to mind him. In short order he organized the disaffected former servants and free blacks and marched them against the peaceful native allies, against the Governor and the tobacco barons and anyone else he desired. He thought he’d make himself a petty tyrant in the colony. He made such a ruckus and caused so much damage to the order of things that the House of Burgesses took action. They enacted laws that would ensure that indentured servants would receive their due upon completion of their contract as well as laws that regulated the proper treatment of servants. In effect, they made the status of servant much more respectable. They also took actions that poor blacks and poor whites should not mix, lest their interest ever coincide and another mixed rebellion occur. In the coming years new regulations were enacted making all blacks slaves. In this way they rectified the patronage issue and began the long, wretched road toward race slavery.

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