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National Review
National Review
16 Dec 2023
Iain Murray


NextImg:Adam Smith, a Roman Emperor, and Slavery

{A} dam 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.”

Seneca, however, told nothing of the sort. Again, Seneca tells us that Augustus ordered Pollio’s crystal smashed and all his lamprey pools filled. As for the slave, the more natural reading of Seneca’s Latin is to understand that Augustus ordered the slave boy to be let go. One could perhaps read “mitti” as meaning that the slave was to be manumitted — that is, to be made a freeman, but that would be a stretch. In no account are we told that the emperor ordered all of Pollio’s slaves to be set free.

Smith goes on to repeat this fabrication of his in further lectures and in the Wealth of Nations itself: “When Vedius Pollio, in the presence of Augustus, ordered one of his slaves, who had committed a slight fault, to be cut into pieces and thrown into his fish-pond in order to feed his fishes, the emperor commanded him, with indignation, to emancipate immediately, not only that slave, but all the others that belonged to him.”

Smith’s telling of the Pollio story seems curious for a careful author who presumably knew his Cicero. The one scholar that I know of to have addressed Smith’s telling, namely, Thomas Africa in 1995 in the journal Greece & Rome, merely suggests that it’s a good example of Smith embellishing an anecdote to make a point. Well, yes, but I think some extra context is helpful.

Smith was writing toward the end of a period that became known as the Augustan Age. The explosion of English literature, in many forms, that took place during this period in many cases consciously mirrored the explosion of Latin literature under the emperor. Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Augustus, for instance, cast George II in the role of the optimus princeps. Praying the name of Augustus in aid of a cause was in many ways the fashionable thing to do.

And the cause, in this case, was extremely important to Smith. It is clear that Smith abhorred the institution of slavery. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, there is a harsh condemnation of slavery on moral grounds (see chapters 7 and 8 here).

Smith’s description of slavery in the lecture quoted above describes the characteristics not of Roman-era slavery, but of the severe chattel slavery such as was practiced in the Caribbean and the American colonies at the time. To Smith, it seems, the most important aspect of the Pollio story was not the irony of the smashing of all the crystal, or the destruction of the lamprey pools, but that the boy slave threw himself on the mercy of the emperor in the face of his master’s cruelty, and the emperor obliged. Smith taught that slaves fared better under an autocratic or “arbitrary” government than under a “free” or more republican government, because under the latter the slaveholders enjoy more political clout and seek to preserve their own arbitrary power over their slaves, whereas the autocrats might be swayed by humanitarian considerations.

Smith’s argument was not just that slavery was morally abhorrent — although he does regard it as such — but, and this was something that enraged his critics, that it was economically inefficient. That point is implied in his calculation of the equivalence of the fine Augustus supposedly imposed on Pollio for his cruelty.

In his other writings, Smith makes clear that the invisible hand that guides the free market is not in play when it comes to slavery. The hand does not guide the rich to share their wealth with free workers, while, as he wrote in Book III of the Wealth of Nations, “work done by slaves . . . is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.”

The size of the implied fine for Pollio’s one heinous act of cruelty was enormous. The amount would work out to roughly $15 million today. So not only is slaveholding inefficient, the cruelty involved imposes such an immense cost on our humanity that if the system were to bear these costs, it would surely collapse.

As George Mason’s David Levy has shown, it was the economists’ hard-headed calculation of the costs of slavery that led Thomas Carlyle to attack the nascent science of economics. In what can only be described as a racist tract, Carlyle condemned this reduction of the matter to “supply and demand” as “dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing . . . the dismal science.”

However, to return to the role of the emperor, Smith was pessimistic that slavery could be abolished, even in a monarchy, as such an act would upset the nobles. Perhaps in telling this tale Smith held out the hope that the best of monarchs, like the best of emperors, Augustus, could break this vicious circle. Sadly, George II’s grandson proved to be a less than ideal monarch.

Although Smith manipulates Seneca’s story of Pollio and Augustus in a way modern scholarship would frown upon, he nevertheless does it in a way of which Seneca would surely approve — to draw a moral, and to illustrate a consideration, in this case an economic one, that might not at first be apparent. In Smith’s telling, not only are the slaves preferred by the emperor to the slaveholder, but the assessment of the punishment communicates the viciousness of the slavery system.

The next time you hear the accusation leveled that market society is founded upon slavery, remember the tale of Augustus and Pollio, and that, at the very beginning of the industrial revolution, Smith pointed out not only slavery’s vanities and vices, but its economic contradictions.