Adam Smith, a Roman Emperor, and Slavery

Smith fabricated an anecdote from Roman history to illustrate the inhumanity of slavery.

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Adam Smith tells a story of the new Emperor Augustus and his reaction to the behavior of one of his allies, an equestrian (or “knight”) magnate named Vedius Pollio. Smith’s telling is at variance with the original story, however.

Let me start by sharing the original story. As cautionary tales go, it’s a doozy.

Pollio was well known for his excesses, yet had retained the friendship of the new emperor. One of those excesses was his love of man-eating lampreys, which he kept in pools around his villa. On one occasion, as we are told by the Stoic philosopher Seneca and later the historian Cassius Dio, the emperor was visiting when one of Pollio’s slaves smashed a cup made of crystal.

The wicked knight ordered the slave to be thrown into a pool, apparently relishing the thought of seeing the poor servant eaten alive before him. Augustus, however, intervened, and ordered all of Pollio’s crystal ware to be smashed and all his lamprey pools to be filled in.

Seneca is writing about anger, and he uses the tale to illustrate how one of superior position, like an emperor, may diffuse the ill-effects of the anger of a subordinate. Dio is an historian who chronicled the death of Pollio and uses this lurid tale, among others, to illustrate Pollio’s thoroughly unpleasant character.

I learned the original story while studying classics at Oxford. When I later turned to the study of economics, I was delighted to find reference to this memorable story in the works of Adam Smith himself. Yet what Smith does with the story is rather strange.

The earliest reference to the story in Smith is in the 1763 lectures on jurisprudence. Smith addressed his teenage students at Glasgow:

We are told that Augustus once manumitted all the slaves of V. Pollio with whom he supped. A slave bringing in a dish happened to break it. The slave fell at Augustus feet and requested him, not to get his pardon of his master, for death he thought was inevitable, but that he would request his master that after he was crucified, which was the common punishment inflicted on slaves, he should not hack his body into pieces and throw it to feed the fish in his ponds, which was it seems his common way of treating them. Augustus was so shocked at the story that he ordered him [Pollio] to manumit not only that slave but all the others he had about his house; which though it was not perhaps a punishment adequate to the crime, yet would be a very considerable fine. A man who would entertain Augustus at that time would have at least 800 or 1000 slaves, and if we estimate these at the ordinary price of a slave in the American colonies or on the coast of Africa[n], that is, about 50 or 40£ each, this would amount to a fine of £40000 or 50000.

Smith adds that slaves “were used in every shape with the greatest severity. They had nothing which could bind them to have any affection for their master, and the most severe discipline was necessary to keep them to their work.”

Read the full article on the National Review.