Despite all this, the substantial sums invested in trade, particularly in maritime trade, make one think that they must have come in part from the wealthiest men.[1] The view of Paul Veyne, though dating from thirty years ago, can hardly be questioned: ‘The copious income that land-holders raked in was lent to merchants; or else these owners transformed their slaves into merchants.’[2] Indeed, the most recent data on the prices of merchandise from the East actually increase the amounts required. Veyne distinguishes, however, between two different channels by which funds could flow from the estate- owner to traders: loans; and using slaves as agents. These channels are worth examining.

Appointment of Slaves as Agents and the peculium

As has been seen, the use of agents by aristocrats is a strategy often referred to by the historiographers. There can be no doubt that the documents, particularly legal texts, attest to the abundance of agents in commercial operations. Nor is it doubtful that this role was most often played by dependants, either freedmen or slaves.[3] From two texts, which are especially helpful because they are clearly independent of one another, we get an overview of the use of slaves as agents. The first is by the jurist Labeo: ‘Where anyone has appointed his slave to lend money at interest, to cultivate land, to engage in commerce, or to make contracts, then he is liable in full’ (trans. S. P. Scott). The second comes from Plutarch, who deplores the fact that people are not nearly as careful in choosing the slaves appointed to educate their children as they are in choosing those who are to be ‘farmers, masters of their ships, merchants, managers, or money-lenders’ (trans. Cole Babbitt, adapted).[4] In both texts, the three recurring activities are agriculture, money-lending, and trade.

Slaves could be used in trade in two ways. Either they could be delegated to a definite role, in which they acted on behalf of their master, or they could be granted a peculium and directed towards some autonomous commercial activity.[5] The peculium was, as it were, ‘set aside from the rest of the master’s total assets’.[6] The slave could manage this sum as he saw fit. Whatever belonged to him remained the property of the master, though it was customary for the latter not to take back the peculium, unless something untoward gave him cause to. The granting of it was something of a gamble made by a master on the success of the slave; and it was profitable only in the long term, either when the slave died (in which case, the peculium reverted to the master or to his heir, augmented by all the profits that might have accrued), or when he negotiated his freedom.[7] The advantage was that, if things turned out badly, the in solidum responsibility defined in Labeo’s text was reduced to a responsibility limited to the amount of the peculium.

Even when granted a peculium, a slave could still be delegated by his master. The legal texts, in particular the passage in Ulpian about the actio exercitoria, define a strict distinction between two levels of responsibility for the master, depending on whether he expressed his intention to appoint the slave to a particular function or whether the slave chose it without being appointed or even without the master’s knowing. In the first eventuality, the master’s responsibility was total; in the second, it was limited to the amount of the peculium. In the latter case, and generally whenever necessary, a distinction was made between the merces peculiares, purchased with the peculium and to be treated in accordance with the slave’s choices, and the ones that constitute his stock in trade under the rules of his delegated powers.[8]

From the particular instances of slaves engaging in large-scale trade that are known to us, we cannot tell whether they were working under the peculium system or the delegation system. This also applies to the two names of slaves known from stoppers of Dressel 1 amphorae,[9] as well as to the name of a shipowning slave that appears on two anchors (Nicia, a slave of L. Villius, must have lost two ships, one in Sicily, the other in Sardinia).[10] For the exercitor navis, the jurist Paul canvasses both possibilities.[11] As for the two authors already quoted, Labeo makes explicit mention of the delegation system, whereas Plutarch’s verb anoSeiKvvvai leaves more latitude for interpretation.

Jean-Jacques Aubert has summarized the range of different reciprocal relations that could exist between a principal and an agent.[12] The principal could set his agent successive tasks, one by one; and in that case his personal engagement in the activity was very close. Clearly, he was maintaining a professional activity, as a trader using an agent to develop his business. If, however, the agent’s appointment was ongoing, then there were two possible scenarios. The first possibility was that the principal remained in charge of everything, took all strategic decisions, and pocketed the profits. Here the agent was acting in lieu of the principal. But, in the other case, the agent could have carte blanche and was free to choose his own modus operandi from start to finish. Only his field of action might at times be set for him. And, in that situation, the principal’s role was not that of an entrepreneur, but rather of an investor or a bond holder.[13]

It is at that far end of the spectrum that we find the position of the slave with a peculium. The peculium system did not necessarily function very differently from the system of making loans to freedmen, except that, for as long as the slave held his peculium, the only benefit it afforded the master was its guarantee of proper conduct. The delegated slave, by contrast, acted always in accordance with the voluntas of his master, who had to be aware of what he was doing. However, the closeness of this surveillance was very variable, encompassing a range that might include both of Aubert’s categories.93

Trading slaves do not figure in the archives of the financial enterprise of the Sulpicii in Puteoli. What one does find, though, is money-lending slaves who belonged to great families or to the emperor. They made loans to traders or others, sometimes committing substantial sums, up to 125,000 sesterces. If these slaves were on the peculium system, they were handling large amounts of money, which is not impossible—one thinks of the inscription of Zosimus, freedman of M. Aurelius Cotta Maximus, consul in 20, who had given him sums equivalent to the property qualification of the equestrian order.94 If they were agents, in what sense could a principal like the emperor express his voluntas to such slaves? Possibly by instructing them to work with the Sulpicii;

but that is far from certain. This is a situation that has obviously caused problems for those who have looked into it closely. When Jean Andreau says ‘the emperor or the senator, for their part, had absolutely nothing to do with details of management, though of course the profit, or a part of it at least, was credited to them’, the line between the essential and the details is unclear, and the mechanism for the crediting of the profits remains to be defined.[14]

All things considered, the detailed functioning of the delegation system as used by landowners to engage in large-scale trade (that is, going beyond local trading, which was in the hands of tabernarii slaves or vilici charged with the distractio mercium) is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Andrzej bos, for example, at the end of his investigation into the inscriptions painted on amphorae at Pompeii, with the aim of discovering the names of traders who were dependants of municipal notables, concluded that it was impossible to define the degree to which the latter participated in the trade carried out by their dependants: ‘Beyond this point, further discussion on the matter would be mere speculation.’[15]

The field of action open to a delegated slave was generally narrow and strictly defined. However, two texts give some grounds for seeing the delegation system as compatible with a certain breadth and flexibility, while still involving the owner. They are the sentences in the Digest that speak of exercere negotiationes per servos ac libertos, carrying out business via slaves and freedmen. A debtor could not free his slaves, who represent capital owed to creditors. However,

men very frequently think that their property is more valuable than it really is, which often happens to those who, through the agency of slaves and freedmen, conduct commercial enterprises beyond sea, and in countries in which they do not reside, because they are often impoverished by transactions of this kind for a long time without being aware of it; and they grant their slaves freedom by manumitting them as a favour, without any intention of committing fraud.

(trans. S. P. Scott)97

This is a fine text; but the situation outlined in it is nonetheless strange. There is no question of a loan or of a peculium, since financial responsibility remains entirely the owner’s. Yet he has had no news for a long time of the bad state of the business being contracted by his delegated slaves (adtritis longo tempore), meaning that he had not even kept a regular eye on the profit accruing to himself. His conduct has been no different from what it would have been had he been in the first category. It is as though, in these transactions, the practices normally followed under the peculium or loan system had been extended to the delegation system.[16]

The largest employers of executive agents, whether slaves or not, must have been the traders themselves. When regular trading is established between two widely separated places, there has to be at least one representative at the point of departure and another at the point of arrival; and one of these will be an agent.[17] Among the traders in salted fish and oil from Baetica whose names figure on the amphorae found at Pompeii and Rome, there are, besides residents of Hispalis or Astigi, men from Narbonne and Puteoli, who of necessity made use of agents at the places of production. The best known are P. Olitius Apollonius, a shipowning freedman and sevir Augustalis at Narbonne, and his compatriot Sex. Fadius Secundus Musa, a flamen of Narbonne, whose names are on amphorae from Monte Testaccio in Rome; they needed agents at Hispalis or in Cadiz and others at Rome.[18] There is no shortage of other examples.

The grandest traders did not sail with their merchandise;[19] they despatched it in the charge of an appointed agent. If they were also the owners or charterers of the ship, this agent might be the magister navis, and as such a delegated slave, or, if not, might have a different position of equal status aboard the ship.

P. Granius, from Puteoli, was called by Cicero as a witness for the prosecution, because Verres had taken possession of his boat and his merchandise, after having had his freedmen executed, which means he had several agents on board.[20] Owners had fleets of several ships, as can be seen in part from the advantages available to those who had five ships of 10,000 modii built and put them at the service of the annona for five years: there had to be at least one agent on each ship.[21] This role was played by the magistri navium, who were often slaves. On the Isis as described by Lucian, when Adeimantos, carried away by the sight of this great ship blown off course and ending up at Athens, imagines that he owns her and everything in her, ‘cargo, traders, women, sailors, and everything that is most pleasant in the world’ (trans. K. Kilburn),[22] it should be noted that the traders in question are slaves appointed by the great grain merchants of Alexandria.

It is no doubt these appointed slaves who are the subject of legal texts on the actio exercitoria, and the pyramid that went from a dominus or exercitor navis or navium (the owner or user of ships in which the merchandise carried was often his own) to the magistri navium (the shipboard representatives of the exercitor as shipowner and in some cases trader) and possibly to the vicarii whom the latter appointed in their turn.[23]

  • [1] given on p. 135, n. 6). On the basis of documentary papyri, Rathbone reduces the cost ofconstruction of Roman ships, while pointing out that more often than not the cargoes wereworth more than the vessel.
  • [2] Veyne (2001: 162 (1979a: 280)).
  • [3] Free-born men were not excluded: Dig. XIV. 3,1; 3,7. On the other hand, Aubert (1994:134) notes that ‘legal texts do not say much about legally independent agents, whether freedmenor free-born’.
  • [4] Dig. XIV. 3, 5, 2-3: Labeo quoque scripsit, si quis pecuniis faenerandis, agris colendis,mercaturis redempturisque faciendis praeposuerit, in solidum eum teneri; Plutarch, De liberiseducandis 7 (4 A-B): rwv yap bovAwv twv о-поаЬашр rovs pev ye^pyovs anobeiKvvovoi, rovs bevavKAppovs, rovs b’epnopovs, rovs b oiKovopovs, rovs be baveioras. Cf. Pleket (1983: 137);Rathbone (2003: 205).
  • [5] This distinction had already been made perfectly clear by Juglar (1894: 11, 81 and passim).
  • [6] Dig. XV. 1, 5, 4.
  • [7] Hopkins (1978: 125-6); Aubert (1994: 65-70); Andreau (1999b: 105-6; 2001: 129-35, 278;2004); Andreau and Descat (2006: 133-49).
  • [8] See Ulpian’s text on the edict of the praetor who established the actio exercitoria, Dig.XIV. 1,1,1-25 (especially 19-20); and Alfenus Varus, Dig. XLVI. 3, 35. Aubert (1994: 58-70) hasclarified the texts with all the necessary nuances.
  • [9] Hesnard and Gianfrotta (1989: 422, no. B. 26); Manacorda (1989: 462, no. 78); Aubert(1994: 272).
  • [10] Hesnard and Gianfrotta (1989: 437, no. A. 24); Gianfrotta (2008: 65-6).
  • [11] Dig. IX. 4, 19, 2. 4 Aubert (1994: 4-5).
  • [12] 92 As Andreau says (1997: 21-2 (1985a)). 93 Andreau (2004: 122).
  • [13] 94 CIL XIV. 2298 = ILS 1949.
  • [14] Andreau (2001: 144). 2 Los (2005: 105).
  • [15] 97 Dig. XL. 9, 10; XXVI. 7, 58.
  • [16] On these matters, see Andreau (2004: 120-2). 2 Aubert (1999: 149).
  • [17] 100 See pp. 235 and 270-1. 4 Neither did Trimalchio (see Aubert 1999: 146).
  • [18] 102 Cicero, II Verr. V. 154.
  • [19] 103 Dig. L. 5, 3. One hopes that L. Ferranius Celer, three of whose wrecked ships have been
  • [20] found, two in Italy and one in Spain, identified by the anchors bearing his name, owned severalvessels (Hesnard and Gianfrotta 1989: 435, no. A. 15). As we have seen, Nicia, a slave of
  • [21] L. Villius, must have lost two ships. Rathbone (2003: 204) considers that, according to thepapyrological record, it was rare for several ships to be owned; but he mentions two cases in thethird century, of masters of ships transporting grain for the annona.
  • [22] See p. 132.
  • [23] Dig. XIV. 1. The magister navis maybe delegated mercibus emendis vel vendendis (XIV. 1,3).See Aubert (1999).
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