Ancient/Classical History/ancient Roman law

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Hi Maria,

I'm trying to find out more information about the ancient Roman law which stated that, if a slave murdered his master, every slave in that household was to be executed.

I read an example of how it was enforced in AD 61 (Tacitus Annals, Book XIV, 42-45), but I would like to know if the law had a specific name and approximately what date it was implemented. Tacitus calls it "an old custom," but the footnote alludes to a date around AD 57.

Any information you have on the subject would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

Answer
Hello,

first of all I have to tell you that the ancient Roman law which stated that, if a slave murdered his master, every slave in that household was to be executed, has no specific name, unless we want to mention what is not a law, but a Senate decree, i.e. the Senatus consultum Silanianum (10 AD), concerning the interrogation and execution of household slaves “under the same roof” (“sub eodem tecto “. See Tacitus  Annals, Book XIV, Chapter 42) as a prematurely dead master and therefore implicated in his death.

Such a Senatus consultum Silanianum, probably passed in the time of Augustus in the consulship of P. Cornelius Dolabella and C. Junius SILANUS A.D. 10, contained various enactments. It gave freedom to a slave who discovered the murderer of his master. If a master was murdered, all the slaves who were under the roof at the time, if the murder was committed under a roof, or who were with him in any place at the time of the murder, were put to the torture, and, if they had not done their best to defend him, were put to death.
Tacitus (Ann. XIV.42) refers to this provision of the Senatusconsultum, and he uses the phrase "vetere ex more"  just meaning "according to an ancient custom".



Just as we read in Tacitus Annals, Book XIV,  42-45, concerning the city-prefect Pedanius Secundus who in 61 AD was murdered by one of his own slaves, and so, according to an ancient custom (vetere ex more),  every slave in that household was to be executed, such an ancient custom is also mentioned in Tacitus Annals, Book XIII,  31-32, where Tacitus says that in 57 AD (“Nerone iterum L. Pisone consulibus”, i.e. during Nero's second consulship with Lucius Piso as his colleague, i.e. in the year 57 AD)  there was a Senate decree (“Factum est senatus consultum”) just providing that, if a master were murdered by his slaves, all those who were enfranchised by his will and lived under the same roof, were to suffer the capital punishment with his other slaves.

Also, for the Republican period,  we can quote Cicero,  Epistulae ad familiares (Letters to his friends), Book  IV, Letter 12, (written by Servius Sulpicius Rufus  in 45 B.C.) where we read that this Roman orator and jurist tells of his colleague M. Marcellus who had been killed not by one of his slaves, but  by his friend P. Magius Cilo and however his slaves had run away in terror ( “reliquos aiebant profugisse metu perterritos”) just because slaves of a murdered master were liable to be put to death.

So, as you can see, the  oldest quote regarding the fact that  all the slaves of murdered man had to be  executed, i.e. that from Cicero,  Epistulae ad familiares, Book  IV, Letter 12, dates back to 45 BC.

Anyway,  such a cruel custom was based on  the fact that, according to the spirit of the Twelve Tables [Laws of the Twelve Tables / Latin "Leges Duodecim Tabularum", the earliest written legislation of ancient Roman law], which were written in 451-450 BC,  the slave was not a subject but an object of law and a  master had the right of ownership over the slave (Ius Vitae Necisque = power of life and death ) as well as over  his household, including the members of his immediate family, his slaves, and other dependents.



So, to sum up, I have to repeat that  the ancient custom that required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution, if the master had been killed,  has no specific name, unless we want to mention what is not a law, but a Senate decree, i.e.  the Senatus consultum Silanianum (10 AD) concerning the interrogation and execution of household slaves “under the same roof” (“sub eodem tecto “,Tacitus  Annals, 14.42) as a prematurely dead master and therefore implicated in his death.



Hope this is clear enough.

Best regards,

Maria

Ancient/Classical History

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Maria

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My field of expertise is Ancient Greek and Roman History.

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Over 25 years teaching experience.

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I received my Ph.D.in Classics (summa cum laude) from Genova University (Italy).

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