Jerry Toner in Aeon (photo by Paolo Cipriani/Getty):
The Romans thought deeply about slavery. They saw the household as the cornerstone of civilised society. Similarly, the modern corporation is the bedrock of the industrial world, without which no kind of modern lifestyle, with all its material comforts, would be possible.
And just as a household needed slaves, so companies need staff. Permanent employees, like slaves, are far more desirable than outsourcing to outsiders. The Romans thought external contractors could never be relied on like members of the primary social group. They failed to turn up when instructed to, took liberties with their fees and, taking little pride in their work, carried out their tasks shoddily. With slaves, however, who were stakeholders in the system, the Romans could be sure that work would be carried out as they wanted it.
So it was vital that the master took the utmost care over whom he admitted to his household. Buying any old slave risked contaminating the morale of the whole household. The prospective slave-owner tried to ascertain all the facts before committing to buy: whether the slave was likely to try to run away, or loiter about aimlessly, or was a drinker.
The law gave some protection here: your money back if the slave turned out to be a gambler, but not if the slave just turned out to be lazy. The philosopher Seneca records how much notice buyers took over where slaves came from, believing that their origin frequently determined whether they would become good slaves. A Roman would not have considered using a nasty little Briton as a personal servant because of his rough manners and appearance. By contrast, young Egyptian boys were thought to make excellent pets.
Slave-dealers were known to conceal the defects of their wares by hiding wounds with make-up or knock knees with fine clothing; modern employers must beware the usual tricks used to smarten up a résumé. Like a slave-buyer, they ask questions and dig beneath the surface, all the time assuming that everything they hear is manipulated in some way.
The Romans thought clever slaves were troublesome and a threat. Better to have the loyalty of slaves promoted above their ability than to risk the betrayal of someone with ambition and talent.