The Historical Spectator

Slaves of the Baker

Slavery in the Roman Empire took many forms. Some slaves were domes­tics who were as good as part of the family, and might look for­ward to earning or being given their freedom by grate­ful masters. But many were indus­trial slaves, and their lives were miserable and short. In his comic fantasy Meta­mor­phoses, com­monly known as The Golden Ass, Apuleius describes the slaves and animals at a bakery. His hero, Lucius, has been magically turned into an ass, and has been bought by the baker to join the horses who turn the mills. This is not a little neigh­bor­hood baker’s shop. This is a huge fac­tory opera­tion, where miser­able slaves and even more miser­able horses toil in the hot smoke to make bread on an indus­trial scale. The trans­lation is in the vigorous Eliza­bethan English of William Adlington.

O good Lord what a sort of poor slaves were there, some had their skin black and blue: some had their backs striped with lashes, some were covered with rugged sacks, some had their mem­bers only hidden: some wore such ragged clothes that you might per­ceive all their naked bodies, some were marked and burned in the fore­heads with hot irons, some had their hair half clipped, some had locks on their legs, some were ugly and evil favored, that they could scarce see, their eyes & faces were so black & dim with smoke, like those which fight to­gether in the sands, & know not where they strike by reason of dust: And some had their faces all mealy, but how should I speak of the horses my com­pan­ions, how they being old & weak, thrust their heads into the manger: they had their necks all wounded and worn away: they rattled their nos­trils with a con­tin­ual cough, their sides were bare with their harness and great travail, their ribs were broken with beating, their hoofs were bat­tered broad with inces­sant labor, and their skin rugged by reason of their lankness.

From The Golden Ass, Book IX, translated by William Adlington (with modernized spelling).