Peter Jones

Subject or Object

The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 1, The Ancient Mediterranean World

By

Cambridge University Press 620pp £110 order from our bookshop

The Roman jurist Gaius (fl c AD 160) got it in one: ‘The principal distinction in the law of persons is this, that all human beings are either free or slaves.’ We call them ‘chattel’ slaves, as in ‘goods and chattels’, ‘chattel’ being from the same root as ‘cattle’ (property was defined in terms of quadrupeds). In his chapter on Aquilius’s law relating to unlawful killing (287 BC), Gaius begins by discussing the unlawful killing of a slave, a slave-girl or a ‘four-footed beast of the class of cattle’: for legal purposes, they are all one category (Greeks called slaves andrapoda, ‘man-footed things’). The derivation of ‘chattel’ is also cognate with ‘capital’, meaning both ‘punished with death’ and ‘trading stock, accumulated wealth’. The root is the Latin caput, meaning ‘head’ – nothing but head-count mattered.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter