One of the oddest exhibits – to modern eyes, at least – at last year's Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum was a picture of two lovers on a bed. The naked back of a woman faces us, the viewer, while her lover lies on the bed beside her. Behind both, slightly fainter, an almost ghostly presence, is a female slave. It is a powerful visual reminder of just how different the Romans were from us. To the couple in the bed, the slave is no more inhibiting than a wardrobe would be to us. She is a possession, an object, irrelevant.
Yet the Romans knew that slaves were people, because slavery wasn't an abstract concept to them. They enslaved citizens of countries they conquered, they themselves could be enslaved if they fell too far into debt. The sons and daughters of freedmen (former slaves) were citizens, which meant that millions of Romans had slaves in their recent ancestry. As Jerry Toner reminds us, perhaps one in eight people in the Roman empire were slaves.
Although it's not quite Toner who tells us this, but his alter ego, Marcus Sidonius Falx. This book – introduced by Mary Beard –is split between the distilled wisdom of Roman thinkers on the subject of slave-owning – through the mouthpiece of every (Ro)man Falx – and a chapter-by-chapter commentary from modern-day classicist and all-round decent chap Toner.
Falx is a quantum Roman, existing across time and place in ancient Rome: he mentions Julius Caesar, from the 1st century BC, and a few pages later, Septimius Severus, emperor at the end of the 2nd century AD. He operates in a hinterland between fact and fiction too, quoting Cato one minute, before claiming friendship with Trimalchio, the creation of the satirist Petronius.
He also doesn't seem entirely sure who he's writing for. In the opening pages Falx explains that his wisdom will be valuable to anyone "whose heart is set on pursuing a leadership role". As the book's title suggests, this advice from ancient Roman slave-owners could be of practical use to managers today. However much our time differs from his, Falx believes that we should learn from him. And plenty of households still have staff, after all: cleaners, au pairs and so on.
But then Falx goes on to explain the best ways to check you're buying healthy slaves. Suffice it to say that were you to try and check that your next cleaner has both testicles intact, you might well be cleaning up after yourself. The problem only increases when Falx begins to discuss sex between masters and slaves, a common feature of ancient life. Other than the grimiest people traffickers, it's hard to know which modern reader would benefit from Falx's advice on the best locations to purchase women and children for sex. At one point, he references Trimalchio's speech in The Satyricon, where the freedman tells his dinner guests that, aged 14, he was his master's favourite. "What's wrong with doing what your master wants?" he asks, rhetorically.
Toner's commentary on this section is excellent: did slaves see themselves as victims of abuse, or was degradation so ingrained that their whole sense of self was eroded?
This book is at its best when Toner analyses Roman attitudes to slavery, and how little they changed even when Christianity began to take hold in the ancient world. There are, as the final page reminds us, more slaves alive today than at any time during the Roman Empire. And although this book is packed with fascinating references to the earliest writings about slavery, its light-hearted tone can't quite match its often-harrowing topic.
Natalie Haynes's debut novel is 'The Amber Fury' (Corvus)