In the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, in book 4, chapter 2, there is an interesting passage on the buying and selling of slaves. Here it is:
2. On the difference between a disease and a defect, and the force of those terms in the aediles’ edict; also whether eunuchs and barren women can be returned, and the various views as to that question.
The edict of the curule aediles, in the section containing stipulations about the purchase of slaves, reads as follows: “See to it that the sale ticket of each slave be so written that it can be known exactly what disease or defect each one has, which one is a runaway or a vagabond, or is still under condemnation for some offence.”
Therefore the jurists of old raised the question of the proper meaning of a “diseased slave” and one that was “defective,” and to what degree a disease differed from a defect. Caelius Sabinus, in the book which he wrote On the Edict of the Curule Aediles, quotes Labeo, as defining a disease in these terms: “Disease is an unnatural condition of any body, which impairs its usefulness.” But he adds that disease affects sometimes the whole body and at other times a part of the body. That a disease of the whole body is, for example, consumption or fever, but of a part of the body anything like blindness or lameness. “But,” he continues, “one who stutters or stammers is defective rather than diseased, and a horse which bites or kicks has faults rather than a disease. But one who has a disease is also at the same time defective. However, the converse is not also true; for one may have defects and yet not be diseased. Therefore in the case of a man who is diseased,” says he, “it will be just and fair to state to what extent ‘the price will be less on account of that defect.’ “
With regard to a eunuch in particular it has been inquired whether he would seem to have been sold contrary to the aediles’ edict, if the purchaser did not know that he was a eunuch. They say that Labeo ruled that he could be returned as diseased; and that Labeo also wrote that if sows were sterile and had been sold, action could be brought on the basis of the edict of the aediles. But in the case of a barren woman, if the barrenness were congenital they say that Trebatius gave a ruling opposed to that of Labeo. For while Labeo thought that she could be returned as unsound, they quote Trebatius as declaring that no action could be taken on the basis of the edict, if the woman had been born barren. But if her health had failed, and in consequence such a defect had resulted that she could not conceive, in that case she appeared to be unsound and there was ground for returning her.
With regard to a short-sighted person too, one whom we call in Latin luscitiosus, there is disagreement; for some maintain that such a person should be returned in all cases, while others on the contrary hold that he can be returned only if that defect was the result of disease.
Servius indeed ruled that one who lacked a tooth could be returned, but Labeo said that such a defect was not sufficient ground for a return: “For,” says he, “many men lack some one tooth, and most of them are no more diseased on that account, and it would be altogether absurd to say that men are not born sound, because infants come into the world unprovided with teeth.”
I must not omit to say that this also is stated in the works of the early jurists, that the difference between a disease and a defect is that the latter is lasting, while the former comes and goes. But if this be so, contrary to the opinion of Labeo, which I quoted above, neither a blind man nor a eunuch is diseased.
I have added a passage from the second book of Masurius Sabinus On Civil Law: “A madman or a mute, or one who has a broken or crippled limb, or any defect which impairs his usefulness, is diseased. But one who is by nature near-sighted is as sound as one who runs more slowly than others.”
The works referred to here are all lost, of course.
There is something rather humorous in all this, as if the buyer might complain to the local council that he had been swindled by a rogue trader.
The slaves of the Roman world had two sources. The first sort of slave was one who had been abandoned as an infant by its parents, under the custom of “exposing” unwanted children. The second sort was a prisoner taken in war.
The first sort could well be a Roman by birth, of good health and even of noble blood sometimes. What sort of slave turned up in the second class would depend on the origin of the prisoner. Cicero complains in one of his letters that slaves from Britain are not likely to be much good for anything except hard labour, and certainly not skilled in various professions like Greek slaves. In another letter, written while after a battle in Asia Minor, he remarks that the prisoners are being sold as he writes and that there are so many thousand sesterces on the block. Their fates are unknown.
It is worth remembering the casual inhumanity of the ancient world; an inhumanity that ceased to exist in the western world with the fall of the Roman empire, even though serfdom then arose. The exploitation of the Africans was an abberation, driven by profit. But the ancient world took slavery for granted, and the consequences thereof.
Probably in most western cities a woman or two will be raped most weekends. In ancient cities thousands of women were degraded thus every night. It was Constantine who prohibited this evil custom, although, like nearly all edicts of late emperors, we may presume that the edict was largely not put into effect. But in that single comparison we may see one part of what Christ did for the world, even for those who did not know Him.
Postscript. After writing that post, somewhat naively I sought to find an image online to illustrate “two slave-girls for sale”. I will not trouble readers with any of the improbable images that I found.