Around the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries, a curious figure named Larcius Macedo was living a rags to riches story in ancient Rome. He, despite reportedly being the son of a slave, clawed his way up the social hierarchy to become a wealthy, villa-owning, member of the senatorial class in the Roman Empire. In particular, he was known to have once held the title of praetor. Despite his family’s own connection to slavery, Larcius Macedo curiously decided to become a prolific slave-owner, himself, and had a reputation for not treating them well. Context and explanation is slim concerning why and when Macedo became cruel to his enslaved servants. There were, however, recorded incidents of Macedo being pulled into humiliating or embarrassing situations because of the actions of his attendants. The lawyer and statesman, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), commented in an existent letter about one such instance that became the talk of Rome, stating, “He was in one of the public baths in Rome when a remarkable incident occurred which events have proved to be an omen. One of Macedo’s slaves lightly touched a Roman knight to ask him to let them pass; the man turned round and struck not the slave who had touched him, but Macedo himself such a violent blow that he nearly knocked him down” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14). While some of Macedo’s reprisals against his slaves and servants might have been caused by situations such as this, there were plenty of other times when his inhumane treatment came unprovoked. As the aforementioned Pliny the Younger bluntly stated, “Admittedly he was a cruel and overbearing master…” (Letters, 3.14). Larcius Macedo’s inhumane behavior eventually pushed his slaves into taking drastic action.
Macedo’s demise came while he was residing at an estate near Formiae, which is now approximately in the vicinity of modern Mola di Gaeta, Italy. As the story goes, Larcius Macedo was ambushed by a group of slaves as he was taking a bath. The slaves evidently were not armed with anything sharp or pointed, but whatever they were wielding could deal a deadly amount of blunt force damage. Pliny the Younger described the attack in his letter, writing, “He was taking a bath in his house at Formiae when suddenly he found himself surrounded; one slave seized him by the throat while the others struck his face and hit him in the chest and stomach and—shocking to say—in his private parts. When they thought he was dead they threw him on the hot pavement, to make sure he was not still alive” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14). Macedo’s body apparently looked convincingly dead to the slaves, so the assailants began the second phase of their plan.
Macedo’s attackers reportedly hoped that their master’s death would be interpreted to have been caused by some sort of freak accident in the bathing area. Perhaps people might have though he slipped, or maybe others would believe overheating caused a tragic medical emergency. Whatever the case, the assailants were said to have brought the body of Larcius Macedo outside and alerted other nearby slaves and servants that an incident had occurred. Innocent onlookers, naturally, began to crowd around the body of the injured man, and it was at that moment that the assailants made their bid to escape. Yet, as the attackers were making a run for it, Larcius Macedo woke up despite his grave wounds and sounded the alarm that he had been attacked.
After reporting what had happened, Macedo apparently collapsed back into unconsciousness, but he said enough to spark an immediate manhunt for the runaway slaves who had carried out the attack. The fugitives did not get far, and were quickly brought back for a trial. Larcius Marcedo’s condition was severe during the time of the manhunt and the subsequent court proceedings, but he was awake and coherent enough to ask to be brought to see the trial. On the resulting judgment and the end of the Macedo incident in general, Pliny the Younger commented, “Macedo was brought back to life with difficulty, but only for a few days; at least he died with the satisfaction of having revenged himself, for he lived to see the same punishment meted out as for murder” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14). Larcius Macedo, therefore, quickly followed his assailants into death.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Study of a Roman Banquet Scene, by Robert Smirke (c. 1752 – 1845), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Artvee, and Yale Center For British Art).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.