Roman Law v. South Carolina Law

Roman Slaves Were Not Considered Inferior Human Beings

7/2/20231 min read

[T]he Roman status of slave carried with it no necessary implication that the slave was an inferior human being. While a Roman slave “might be well educated, or be profoundly ignorant, outstandingly clever or rather stupid,” the assumed inferiority of the black slave was a central tenet of the American system. [. . .] Many states went so far as to make it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. Similarly, while a Roman slave “might be expected to work as a doctor; run a business; act as a general business agent for his master [or] be an artist [or] gladiator,” the laws of American slavery severely restricted slaves from engaging in business, the professions, or commercial transactions. For example, South Carolina’s slave code of 1751 prohibited the employment of slaves in an apothecary for fear they would learn about poisons. Slaves were also prohibited from being doctors out of a fear that they would use the opportunity to convey insurrectionary plots or other “dangerous information.”


Roman Slave Law, Alan Watson (from the Forward), (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. x-xi.