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A.D. 79
August 22, 2010 12:38 PM   Subscribe

AD 79: Destruction and Re-discovery is full of information about the Roman cities wiped out by Vesuvius in Titus' reign.
posted by moonbiter (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
One of the things that always interested me about ancient slavery is how apparently expensive it was. This page suggests that an average slave would have cost 630 denarii or roughly 25 gold pieces by my reckoning (about six times the cost of a mule).

IANARomanHistorian but from my cursory knowledge of antiquity 25 gold pieces would have been a fairly significant sum in those days, perhaps not unlike buying a very expensive car in our time, or perhaps a small house.

So the question is: why would you put so much money down on a slave (whom you would have to feed and care for) when you could just pay an employee a much smaller regular wage and not worry about if they ever get sick or need medical care and just hire a new one when the old one wore out?

It makes me wonder if the Roman impulse to own slaves was, shall we say, psychological rather than economic. They owned slaves not because it made financial or economic sense, but because it made them feel better about themselves and their place in the Empire?
posted by Azazel Fel at 12:55 PM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


And without censoring the porn! NSFW Fresco.

Azazel Fel - to carry on your car analogy, an employee is a rental car and a slave is a bought car. Even though some people might save money by renting a car instead of buying, they still prefer to buy.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:06 PM on August 22, 2010


Graffiti on the wall:

Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye. [Severus]

===

Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking. [Answer by Successus]

===

I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you. [Answer by Severus]



It's kind of heartwarming, in a way, to see that people's relationships haven't changed at all in 2000 years.
posted by Azazel Fel at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do not wish this on anyone currently living or living in the future, but this event has a bit of extra resonance for me, in that it would eventually become my birthday!

Yeah, no one in RL gives a rip either.
posted by Danf at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2010


Graffiti here (sorry I didn't link the first time).

Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion. - on the walls of the Gladiator Barracks

===

Love dictates to me as I write and Cupid shows me the way, but may I die if god should wish me to go on without you.

===

If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii.

===

Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!

===

Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.
posted by Azazel Fel at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lava bread, anyone? Pompeii snack bar rises from the ashes after 2,000 years

Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus
posted by homunculus at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2010


Sebastienbailardus says hello to his friends.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:16 PM on August 22, 2010


...why would you put so much money down on a slave...when you could just pay an employee a much smaller regular wage...and just hire a new one when the old one wore out...

This was at the core of the South's moral argument for slavery in preference to northern industrialism. The North won a war, thus skirting the question.
posted by clarknova at 2:26 PM on August 22, 2010


The middle of downtown Naples is about the same distance from Vesuvius as Pompeii was, though Naples is much larger, completely surrounding the mountain and extending up the sides. And of course the Neapolitans (or some of them) decided to taunt the gods not long ago (previously).

We have pretty good visual descriptions of what previous eruptions were like from Turner and Wright of Derby. I think if I had a love letter or anything else important to write on a bathroom wall there today I'd probably want to get busy.
posted by jfuller at 2:31 PM on August 22, 2010


Thank you for this! When I was a youngster, one of my favorite "books" was the National Geographic issue on Vesuvius. This is a great find. Thanks!
posted by pointystick at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2010


It makes me wonder if the Roman impulse to own slaves was, shall we say, psychological rather than economic. They owned slaves not because it made financial or economic sense, but because it made them feel better about themselves and their place in the Empire?
posted by Azazel Fel


I was listening to the Tavis Smiley show on NPR a few years ago when he and a guest were discussing the fad some years ago among African-Americans of finding their actual ethnic and geographical roots in Africa by using DNA tests.

Tavis, as I remember clearly, stated in passing that a rather unexpected finding emerging from the data this relatively short-lived fashion generated was that one third of Y chromosomes borne by African-American men were contributed by white men, among whom slave owners are presumably well represented.

I don't see any easy way of quantifying how much of an incentive sexual access to slave women (and certainly children, don't you think?) was in maintaining slavery in the States, but I always use the apparent fact that Sally Hemmings, Jefferson's slave mistress, by whom he had several children, was also his wife's half-sister to argue that sexual access to slaves was indeed a considerable incentive for maintaining American slavery.

The Roman graffitti reported in this thread make me think that was probably true of them too.
posted by jamjam at 3:51 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


It makes me wonder if the Roman impulse to own slaves was, shall we say, psychological rather than economic. They owned slaves not because it made financial or economic sense, but because it made them feel better about themselves and their place in the Empire?

Slaves existed far, far before there was any such thing as an empire, Roman or otherwise-- they had slaves in Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, you name it. It was just part of the way people in the ancient Mediterranean understood the world. Especially among Romans, whose worldview consisted of a series of nested hierarchies (patron/clients, patriarch/family, master/slaves), slavery was a natural part of society. It was also a convenient way to take advantage of the large numbers of prisoners of war you tend to accrue with constant warfare.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:20 PM on August 22, 2010


The agony of death at Pompeii.
posted by bwg at 5:10 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been fascinated with Pompeii since I was a kid - seeing the pictures of corpses just... frozen... "La la la, I was sitting in my kitchen, now I'm dead."

I was a weird kid.

This is awesome.
posted by sonika at 5:18 PM on August 22, 2010


Cities In Dust
posted by homunculus at 5:34 PM on August 22, 2010


25 gold pieces would have been a fairly significant sum in those days, perhaps not unlike buying a very expensive car in our time, or perhaps a small house.

The site says a slave cost 630 denarii. A loaf of bread cost one depondius, say, 4 dollars for a pretty good loaf. (Same price as a quicky, by the way.) So two depondius equals one sestercius (eight dollars) and four sesterces equal one denarius (32 dollars). At 630 denarii, that slave is going to go for a little over 20K US.

On the other hand, you can currently get a donkey for a thousand dollars US, so maybe you wnat to offer 5K for the slave.

Point is, you can't really compare prices then and now. Too many variables.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:10 PM on August 22, 2010


Going to Pompeii is one of my fondest memories. I had a picture of myself sitting on the steps of the Doric temple - pretty much exactly this shot.

If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:43 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Romans had slaves for many reasons: posted by julen at 9:50 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


The graffiti page reminds me a bit of the "white" translations of rap lyrics. Pretty sure that "Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog" is not how that piece of graffiti was intended to be read.
posted by breath at 9:56 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is wonderful... thanks so much for posting. Few things capture my imagination more than vivid, living history. It's clear that people have not changed at all.

After reading in the news of the latest on the state of the planet, and the way we're creating our own Vesuvius, it is terrifyingly clear that people have not changed at all.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:44 AM on August 23, 2010


The slaves question isn't as simple as it sounds at first - big questions regarding the cost of owning slaves were access and use. During the wars of expansion (well before the destruction of Pompeii) the cost of slaves plummeted, while by the time of the Augustan peace presumably supply was restricted to new births and perhaps some legal enslavement.

Also, expensive slaves could be worth the purchase if they were meant for mine work, or other jobs where the dangers would drive up the demands made by free workers.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:38 AM on August 23, 2010


After reading in the news of the latest on the state of the planet, and the way we're creating our own Vesuvius, it is terrifyingly clear that people have not changed at all.

Sure we have. Now we roundly condemn slavery. Progress!

You all might find Blogging Pompeii of interest. Oh, and Happy Volcano Day.

expensive slaves could be worth the purchase if they were meant for mine work, or other jobs where the dangers would drive up the demands made by free workers.

Interesting point. My knee-jerk reaction was that expensive slaves would be more prized than would mere mine fodder. Maybe not. I shall have to check this.

(I've read that 19th century America hired cheap Irish labor for dangerous work rather than put slaves at risk. So- could be true.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:38 AM on August 24, 2010


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