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Slavery in “The Satyricon” Novel by Petronius


In ancient Rome, slavery was common, and it was highly significant for the growth of Roman society and its economy. Apart from participating in manual labor, slaves were also tasked with several other domestic services, with others engaging in skilled professions. However, slaves from Greek were highly educated. The slaves led a form of life under brutal conditions. Under Roman law, it was commonly considered that slaves were the property of their masters and thus they could be treated as the masters deemed right (Jennings 21). Their lives were full of summary execution, torture, sexual exploitation, and, above all, corporal punishment. Considering such treatment, one wonders whether slaves are worth a life like any normal person. Does the kind of torture that slaves receive imply that they are less human? The excellent Roman novel, Satyricon, by Gaius Petronius, offers modern readers a different way to delve into the class structure in the twilight of Roman society by depicting characters from all levels of social class (Petronius 14). This novel is a suitable platform, from which the subject of slavery gets a different approach. It offers a platform in support of the assertion that “slaves are not inferior to free people, but it poses humanity.”

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Considering that slaves work in the same way as any other human being, they are in no way inferior to the free people and hence deserve equal treatment just like anybody else. Just as the eponymous Freedman in Petronius Banquet of Trimalchio points out, slaves are men too. They do not have anything different from the free people (Oldfield 30). For example, the Freedman says, “…the milk they have drunk is just the same regardless of their oppression by an evil fate.” Such an assertion seeks to offer support that slaves are people who have humanity just like any other person and thus are not inferior as many people tend to view them. From ancient literature, it is evident that the subject of slavery was avoided because there was a shared thought that slavery was not a moral dilemma. However, considering the modern approach of humanity, it is evident that all people have equal rights to humanity, whether slaves or not. For this reason, slaves, regardless of the reason for their slavery, are human beings.

Petronius’ approach of the concept of slavery in the light of a freedman seeks to offer insight that slaves are human too. The writer considers a freed slave and his master as having a particular patronage network. Even though the freed slaves were not eligible to hold any positions in government, their children were not restricted in any way. Considering such scenarios, one wonders what differentiates a slave from a free man. According to Petronius (12), slaves and free people share a common feature that they all possess humanity (Petronius 13). This character is what explains that slaves are not inferior to free men. However, the Dinner with Trimalchio offers a kind of ridicule considering that Petronius was in the category of the upper class. The rise of Trimalchio from a low level to gain top position implies that anybody whether they were slaves or not has the potential to develop. Humanity governs such development.

In the view of Trimachio, Petronius (14) presents proof that slaves have the potential to succeed and live lives just as the people. In every religion in the present-day world, be it Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, there exist the golden divine rule of equality (Jennings 23). The law states that the creation of human beings was in the same manner and likeness. They have attributes and abilities. Thus, all people are equal. It is absurd for an individual to claim authority over another person in the form of slavery.

Trimilachio is a human being just like his masters (Oldfield 34). They were both created in God’s image. As a slave and his master, they are both answerable to the same God. Trimalchio was demeaned to be inferior, yet, in him, was humanity with potentials and feelings like his masters. Anthony Benezet argues that not in any single time are slaves inferior to their masters (Jennings 30). Benezet was a teacher. His considerable experience with slave children as a teacher prompted him to come up with the above fact. He had gained enough knowledge about how slaves thought and acted. According to Jennings (31), Captain Thomas Phillips, in his writings, agrees that some traders of slaves admitted that they were not superior (Jennings 31). It is all about getting to know the make-up and the character of a person instead of holding belittling notions against the individual. Adopting such attitudes can be a starting ground for understanding the potential of people in slavery.


From the above, it suffices that slaves are not inferior to free people and that they poses humanity just like any other being.

Works Cited

Jennings, Judith. The Business of Eliminating The British Slave Trade, 1783-1807. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

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Oldfield, Redon. Popular Politics, and British Anti-Slavery: The mobilization of public opinion against the slave trade 1787-1807. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Petronius, Gaius. The Satyrion. London: Gutenberg, 2006. Print.

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