Slavery in Ancient Rome and the United States of America: Natural Rights and their Role in the Brutality of Slavery in America and its Abolition

  • David J. Wiebe


This essay looks at the legal framework of slavery in ancient Rome and America, leading up to the Civil War and emancipation. By taking account of legal documents from these two time periods and placing them in relation to each other, the philosophic underpinnings of the law emerge more clearly. Where American perceptions of justice revolve around natural law and natural justice, Roman ones take a more practical approach to justice. This leads to three positions: American pro-slavery, American abolitionist, and Roman pro-slavery. The American pro-slavery arguments posit slavery as a positive good, some texts going so far as to say that anti-slavery arguments are against God. The abolitionist position roots in the same natural justice and natural law philosophic position as their pro-slavery opponents, only the abolitionist position views all humans regardless of race as equal under the law. The Roman position, on the other hand, views slavery as a necessary evil, and as such, has more protections, and a more humane legal position than the American legal system allows for slaves. These three legal positions and their philosophic underpinnings are discussed.