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How could you recognize slave in ancient Rome?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman collar for a slave
Roman collar for a slave

With the expansion of the Roman republic in the second and first century BCE intensified slavery. Some sources say that in the first century BCE in Italy alone there were 2-3 million slaves, which constituted 35-40% of the population on the Apennine peninsula.

The inflow of a huge mass of enslaved people (most often as a result of conquest and warfare) was associated with the creation of larger agricultural assets, focused on the labour-intensive economy of vine and olives. The average plot required almost a few dozen slaves to work. The benefits of employing unpaid slaves encouraged the senatorial aristocracy to further expand and profit from it.

During 260-425 CE the number of slaves in the entire Empire was up to 5 million, which was 10-15% of the population1. Interestingly, half of the slaves were owned by great landowners and the rich who managed the mighty latifundia.

Due to the frequent escape of slaves, the idea arose to put them in one type of clothing so that they would be easily recognizable. However, due to the fact that slaves constituted a large part of Roman society, there was a fear that they would know their numbers and raise open rebellions and murder their own masters. Throughout history, the Romans have experienced several slave uprisings (including in Sicily or Spartacus), which only strengthened the Romans’ belief that they should not stand out too much from the general public.

Wandering the streets of Rome, we would rather have a problem distinguishing a free man, e.g. from the poor (so-called proletarii), from a slave. Representatives of both states may have worn tunics and loincloths. Moreover, some slaves (including private Greek teachers) were respected in the master’s house and were able to save their own savings, which translated into their appearance and attitude.

However, there are hints that could allow us to see that the observed man, child or woman is in fact a slave and has no personality (non habet personam2). It was a common practice among slave owners to mark them so that they could be recognized quickly in the event of escape. The body was tattooed, mutilated (to make the scar permanent) and special collars were put on the neck (some were on the bodies in the grave, suggesting that some were worn for life). One of the preserved collars has a plate with engraved information (visible in the attached photo): “I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin (solidus)”. It is worth mentioning that the stigmata were most often on the foreheads of slaves (the so-called frontes litterati), as Apuleius mentions in his work “Metamorphoses”.

In order to hide their true origin, the slaves wore headbands or head coverings to cover the tattoo or scar. In Ephesus, in the remains of the temple of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine), thousands of tablets were found which the fled slaves sacrificed to ask to remove the mark from the forehead.

  1. Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425
  2. The slave was thought to have no personality, no ancestors, no name, no property of his own. He was compared to a talking subject.
  • Imogen Tyler, The ancient penal history of stigma, 20.01.2020

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