"When Vidius 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. Under the republic no magistrate could have had authority enough to protect the slave, much less to punish the master."
Ever since I posted the above quote I've had some quiet misgivings. On the face of it, it is a nice quote that points something out about the nature of power and politics and it's the sort of thing you might expect from an apologist for monarchy or imperialism. It points out, quite rightly, that an unopposed power can accomplish things that cannot be accomplished when a power is not so absolute. The thing is, this can work for good or ill. Unchecked power can (and frequently does) do terrible things. But what I find most disquieting about the example Smith gives is this: you really don't know what it was that Augustine found so offensive. Smith implies (and it might be true) that his indignation arose from witnessing the master's injustice; how could a slight fault warrant such a cruel and inhumane punishment of the slave? But what if human sympathy was not the primary motivation for Augustine's reaction? Augustine, the absolute ruler of the Roman empire, watches a Roman sentence a slave to death. Doesn't that undercut Augustine's power a bit, having some Roman trying to wield the power of deciding that a slave should die under Augustine's nose? Isn't the power of deciding life and death supposed to be Augustine's prerogative? What if Augustine demanded that man free all his slaves as a way of asserting power over the master...reminding him of where he stands in the power structure?