History · Latin · Rome · Translation

Translation: Varro, Dē Rē Rusticā 1.17

I find this following passage to be quite illuminating to the study of slavery in Rome, and the relative loss of humanity and human body/mind that the slave endured. The slave was not a person, but rather a speaking tool.

“De fundi quattuor partibus, quae cum solo haerent, et alteris quattuor, quae extra fundum sunt et ad culturam pertinent, dixi. Nunc dicam, agri quibus rebus colantur. Quas res alii dividunt in duas partes, in homines et adminicula hominum, sine quibus rebus colere non possunt; alii in tres partes, instrumenti genus vocale et semivocale et mutum, vocale, in quo sunt servi, semivocale, in quo sunt boves, mutum, in quo sunt plaustra.”
– Varro, Dē Rē Rusticā 1.17

I have spoken about the four parts of a farm, which are connected with the soil, and about another four, which are outside of the farm and belong to agriculture. Now I will speak about those thing by means of which fields are cultivated. Some divide these things into two parts, into people and tools of people, tools without which people could not cultivate; others divide these things into three parts: a type of speaking tool, a half speaking tool, and a mute tool– the speaking tool, which are slaves; the half speaking, which are cow; and the mute tool, which are wagons.

8 thoughts on “Translation: Varro, Dē Rē Rusticā 1.17

  1. Only knowing a basic general understanding of Latin that I taught myself over winter break, I am a little hesitant to respond to this post,even with the translation of it in English at the bottom. However, I cannot resist learning something new! So if I say something completely idiotic that makes me sound like a complete moron, please have mercy 🙂

    With this passage as seeing slaves as no more than speaking tools (slaves who are barely higher than a cow in this excerpt), I can’t help but have the sinking feeling that we, as humans have even progressed. I would love to believe that humans have risen above treating others as objects, but sadly, I do not believe it. Even today.

    I’ve worked in retail for over five years now. And it is so easy for people to treat you like you are nothing but a person who is meant to serve them; a piece of trash who works for them. I tell people hello, and they just simply look at me like I’m an idiot. Like I have no amazing stories or insights I would love to share with them. Or simply how I love their outfit. Very rarely do I get a customer who is polite. And being polite can go such a loooonnnnggg way. It really can! Hahaha, maybe that’s why it’s so easy to adore you, Marius!

    If you came in the store that I work, and I complemented you on your lovely red velvet ensemble, would you respond to me? 😉 You, the ever dashing gentleman?

    What I am trying to ask you, in my typical long-winded discussion/question, is that have you ever felt hope for mankind improving towards the path to good will? Are we ever going to be able to break down the social classes? Has that ever even happened. I know that when you found Amadeo, he was being treated absolutely cruelly by men “who were against God,” to quote his book. But when you were speaking with Lestat, I remember that you had such a great deal of optimism. But then, after you made Sybelle and Benji, your outlook changed. I know that you are probably as fickle as the rest of us, but are things ever going to get better for our world? Or are we just going to be forever enslaved by superiority and social classes?

    As always, it is a pleasure

    1. You are too right in your observation. Those who are in service industries are often treated as if they do not have feelings, or that they are mindless tools of service itself. And that legitimises treating them with disrespect or even outright cruelty. In Rome, slaves lost their humanity not only in fact, but by law and custom, as well. Now, there is no such law in place that makes people absolute property or objects/tools, yet people still treat others with a shocking lack of humanity and empathy.

      I am polite to everyone, whether or not they are polite to me. When I am in the queue to pay for something and the young woman or man behind the counter is rude or disinterested in me, I take into account that they have likely had a long day and have had more than their fair share of rudeness, and so I am kind to them anyway. I always ask them how they are doing. Before I leave, I also always wish them a good evening. I do not merely say these things– I mean them. If I were in your line and you complimented my wonderful red velvet, I would be very charmed and try to engage you in a nice, friendly conversation. I would be grateful for the compliment.

  2. This indeed sounds as if slaves, animals and tools were valued about the same. Where did the Romans take legitimation to treat some people as slaves? Kings in the middle age took had the “devine right of kings” which made them something special and in mondern times some people abused Darwinism to argue that they have more rights than others. What did go on in a free Roman’s head concerning the differece between him and a slave?

    1. It is easy to strip a man or a woman of their humanity when you are convinced that it is within your rights and power to do so. We Romans understood our history and knew that the building and strength of Rome relied on slave labour, and we had very strict boundaries between social classes, and slaves were the absolute bottom of the tier. A Roman was born to privilege and power, and it was his position to rule over others. A slave was no longer a person, but was a thing to be used for whatever purpose a Master decided. Paterfamilias contributed this a lot, since the idea of household “imperium” in and of itself lends itself well to complete domination by another.

      1. Did Romans see themselves as the cause of this division in rights and power? What I mean is: Did a Roman think: “I can make another human being -which is basically the same as me- a slave because I have the power to do so.” Or did he think: “I’m a Roman and this in itself (that means a general principle) gives me the right to own slaves (who are distinctly different from me).”
        (I hope that makes any sense)
        I try to imagine this but it’s not easy. I know there are different social classes, even today and even if not officially. I experienced it first hand at school but I understood it more as different groups all based on a common concept of equality.
        The idea of a paterfamilias who is the absolute head of the family also holds its dangers I think. what if he makes wrong decisions or is incompentent? If I imagine my father’s father would be have such powers by law…no I better don’t.

        1. It would be more the second: “I’m a Roman and this in itself (that means a general principle) gives me the right to own slaves (who are distinctly different from me).” Different in that they were no longer human, so it was not a question of owning another human. Once a slave was a slave, humanity was lost and they were a tool of the Master’s authority, will, and pleasure. A Master was not, by culture, taught to look at his slaves and think, “I own a human.” It was, “I own a slave.”

          There were laws to protect a family from the abuses of their male head. And over time, the power of paterfamilias was something that was carried on in name and theory, but not truly in practise. For example, it became less acceptable for a man to put his son to death for any reason. The empire certain saw a weakening of these values, which had been strong in the republic. Yet even Republican law protected the family. Table IV of the Twelve Tables specifically refers to the rights of the father. Most of them stipulate the strength of his power, but I believe the second protects sons from sale to pay a father’s debt.

  3. Hahaha, I’m warning you—-I talk people’s ears off! No, but seriously, you sound like my dream customer. I’ve had people yell various obscenities at me, as well as throw things at me. Politeness is so refreshing! It really is! As a future journalist, I try to be interested in everyone, but I know that if you would come in to my place of work, I wouldn’t even have to try and be interested—-I would be interested! 🙂 I would probably drive you crazy with my incessant questioning, and we would probably get into a long winded discussion of some odd thing or another. And then I would probably ask you for coffee or something like that so I could keep talking to you without making the customers behind you or my boss angry. 🙂

    I’m glad that you don’t take disinterest personally. A lot of people behind the counter use it as a means of protecting themselves from the rudeness and even savagery of the customers. It’s good that you are empathetic. Not many people are. Especially the people who have thrown items at me. Hahahaha! (I have to joke about it, otherwise I might end up crying!)

    1. It is quite nice when they open up to me and are friendly and conversational back. Just tonight I met a man who told me, in the span of time that it took him to ring me up and me to pay, about his days off and his husband. A definite smile on his face when I left.

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