The ancient Romans enslaved millions of people. They used leg cuffs to avoid escapees and punished them with appalling methods of torture, such as crucifixion and flogging. But is it possible that within this grim reality Roman slaveholders expressed any emotions of care for people in slavery?  


Roman Slavery

Why reflect on what slaveholders did or did not feel for the people they enslaved? Emotions act as agents of history, influencing people’s decisions on what or not to do. Unfortunately, scholarship has only considered the practical aspects of slavery such as the literary, economic and legal aspects. Thus, studying Roman slavery through an emotional perspective allows us to consider and reconsider what we know of its practical side. But it especially teaches us more about what slaveholders felt or pretended to feel towards enslaved people.


Can you image being enslaved? To have no freedom and to be in chains? And can you imagine being a slaveholder? To own people in a way that dehumanises them, denies them their freedom and erases their family ties. To buy people as you would a table or a vase, because you live in a world where these people are legally characterised as a thing. Imagine that a slave in Rome could even be cheaper than a table or a vase. In the ruthless world of ancient Rome, free and unfree people were punished for their behaviour, but the unfree, enslaved people, experienced the worst forms of castigations. They dealt with crucifixion, rape, torture, being killed or eaten by wild beasts, and being whipped until their backs started to bleed or until they lost consciousness. Nevertheless, some ancient sources suggest that some slaveholders may have expressed, consciously and truthfully or not, emotional care for those they enslaved.



First of all, what is an emotion? Linguistically speaking, emotion is a relatively recent word that appeared in the French language in the 17th century as a substitute for more ancient words such as passions, affections and motions.[1] There is not a single definition for emotion; there is no simple way to define the feelings we have when experiencing a certain situation. Furthermore, neuroscientists and historians argue that regardless of how we define emotions, they are historical and not universal. That means that emotions like anger, fear or love were not always experienced in the same way throughout history. They may not even have existed in ancient societies like Rome. Besides, some emotions that we know today, like anger, had different connotations and different social expectations regarding their expression than today.


The emotions ancient Roman slaveholders experienced and knew were not necessarily the emotions we experience and know today.


This view on emotions is known as social constructivism and it argues that emotions are cultural products. Our external world has an enormous diversity of laws, morals, religions and social classes we belong to and so on. Those that are applicable to someone, play an enormous role on the way in which they emote to circumstances such as death, the purchase of a certain product, poverty, failing a course at university or urban crimes.


How can we identify the place and meaning certain emotions have within a group or a specific society, like Roman slaveholders of the upper classes? One way is to understand their habitus and doxa. Briefly, these are terms developed by Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologist renowned for his works on social structure and power dynamics. Bourdieu explains that, on the one hand, the habitus are our daily practices. These are constructed by our external world and are attached to us, passing from generation to generation. On the other hand, the doxa is the set of believes that we unconsciously take as the truth.[2] When we understand a group’s habitus and doxa we can then identify what the historian and anthropologist Monique Scheer refers to as a groups emotional style, meaning emotional etiquette.[3]


Therefore, the emotions ancient Roman slaveholders experienced and knew were not necessarily the emotions we experience and know today. Fortunately, we can identify their emotional style in written sources. This includes the definitions they gave for certain emotions and the way in which they were expressed.


To love a ‘slave’?

‘My only concern is for you to get well’.[4] This is what Marcus Cicero, a rich slaveholder of the 1st century BCE, wrote to his very ill enslaved man, Tiro. During the time Tiro was ill, Cicero exchanged some letters with him where he shows concern for the slave’s well-being.[5] Not much is known about Tiro, except that he was educated and close to Cicero.


In these aforementioned letters, Cicero urges Tiro to rest and focus on his health. It also informs Tiro that his illness makes Cicero very anxious. Cicero also affectionately refers to Tiro as mi Tiro (my Tiro), apparently not using mi as a possessive pronoun with slave ownership intentions. He uses it affectively, since that is how Cicero also refers to his best friend, an upper-class man, Atticus (mi Atticae) in letters to him.[6] Even Cicero’s brother, Quintus Cicero, shows great affection for the enslaved man in his letters to Tiro.[7]


The emotional vocabulary Cicero uses in the letters to Tiro contains the words valde sollicitat. Valde translates to very (valde) and sollicitat to distress, anxiety, make uneasy, excite, uneasiness.[8] To Cicero, aegritudo is ‘a newly formed belief of present evil, the subject of which thinks it right to feel depression and shrinking of soul’.[9] Angor aegritudo is an oppressive distress (sollicitat).[10] Cicero was anxious about Tiro’s wellbeing.


The Public and Private Side of Emotions

Still, considering that Roman law regarded enslaved people as res, meaning a thing, it is likely that Cicero’s anxiety resulted from the fear of material loss. After all, what did a slaveowner obtain from slavery other than profit? On top of that, when considering Cicero’s De Amiticia, a treatise on friendship he wrote around 44 BCE (dedicated to his friend Atticus) Cicero’s anxiety for Tiro’s illness may have been related to a monetary loss. That is because in De Amiticia Cicero defines amiticia, meaning friendship, as a bond between people founded on amor (love). To him, friendship is constituted from an emotion (amor), rather than forged out of necessity or interest and, thus, there was no friendship when one wants to profit from the relationship. Cicero does not mention Tiro in De Amiticia. It does not even contain a reference to enslaved people. Cicero only bestows his amor to his upper-class friends.[11] If Cicero truly had an affection, possibly amor, for Tiro, why did he not mention Tiro in De Amiticia?


The emotion of amor is born from virtue. From Cicero’s perspective, it was not possible for the free to befriend enslaved people. In order to exist, friendship needs the emotion of amor and amor can only exist if both friends are virtuous. On top of that, according to the Roman upper-class doxa, enslaved people did not have virtue.  Therefore, there can be no friendship, no amor, between slaveholders and those enslaved by them.


The study of emotions invites us to re-evaluate what we think to we know of the Roman world, including slavery.


Be that as it may, compared to his far richer peers, Cicero did not own many people in slavery and Tiro occupied several functions in his household. The low number of enslaved people, the proximity between Cicero and Tiro, and Tiro’s skills (that Cicero actually praised in his letters to him) may have raised Cicero’s affection for him. Even though Roman slaveholders avoided harsh treatment towards enslaved people to prevent them to rebel through assassination, running away or stealing, there was no need for Cicero to constantly demonstrate his affection to Tiro as he does in his letters. So, there is reason to believe that the affection, possibly love, that Cicero shows for Tiro was genuine. Not all emotions slaveholders expressed or truly felt for enslaved people were negative.


Cicero’s behaviour suggests that the reason he did not mention Tiro in De Amiticia but did show affection in private letters had to do with his position as an upper-class man. To behave according to the morality of the day was the norm for upper-class members who boasted of their virtues and tried hard to create an image of virtue to themselves.[12] It was acceptable and even recommended to not be violent with enslaved people. Still, to express amor to them and to use phrases like ‘I really do beg of you’, like Quintus did in his letter to Tiro, could raise eyebrows.[13] Thus, Cicero’s affection for Tiro as shown in private letters and the lack of mention of Tiro in De Amiticia, likely had to do with Cicero’s self-representation as an upper-class man. Therefore, if Cicero loved Tiro, meaning that he considered him a friend, it would not be strange for a man of his position to be cautious to publicly show too much affection to an enslaved man. For that reason, letter-writing provided Cicero and his brother the privacy to display affection to Tiro without facing the possibility of being mocked by their equals.


It is hard for us to believe that slaveholders could experience emotions of care for enslaved people. Nevertheless, in a world where slavery was normal and abolitionism or any close equivalent never existed, it was possible, although rare, for slaveholders to express care to enslaved people. That being said, since emotions are not expressed, understood, or defined in a universal way, they illustrate the social settings of societies, in other words: a group’s habitus and doxas. Therefore, the study of emotions invites us to re-evaluate what we think to we know of the Roman world, including slavery.


Editor: Paula van Voorthuizen



Only volones, enslaved people who voluntarily joined the Roman military, could have their virtus recognised by Romans


[1] Barbara Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani, What is the History of Emotions? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 18-19.

[2] David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 104.

[3] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice? (And is that What Makes Them Have a History? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotions’, History and Theory 51, no.2 (May 2012): 216.

[4]  Cicero. Letters to Atticus, Volume I. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library 7. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 123.

[5] Ibid, 43, 186, 123.

[6] Ibid, 15.20.2;12.25.2.

[7] Ibidem, 351.

[8] Cicero, Letters, 123.

[9] Cicero. Tusculan Disputations. Translated by J. E. King. Loeb Classical Library 141. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927), 7

[10] Ibid, 14. 8.

[11] Cicero. De Amicitia. Translated by W.A. Falconer. Loeb Classical Library 154. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923), 1.3; 9. 31.

[12] Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 12-15.

[13] Cicero, Letters, 351.

Larissa Lemos (born in 1991) has worked as a researcher at the department of Modern Languages and Cultures at Radboud University where she focused on the contemporary reception of “classical” monstrous women. In September 2022, she has begun her PhD at Radboud University on the emotional language of Roman slave ownership and its emotional shifts. Lemos based this article on her master thesis The Emotional Side of Roman Slavery. It was part of the Historical, Literary and Cultural Studies Research Master’s programme at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. This thesis was nominated for the Volkskrant IISG Scriptieprijs 2022 and won the Universitaire Studieprijzen 2022 (Radboud University).