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Price of slaves in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Slave market, Gustave Boulanger
The slave market, Gustav Boulanger

The price of slaves in ancient Rome varied greatly. After a victorious military campaign, in which many slaves were captured, the price was naturally low due to the multitude of goods. Plautus (c. 250 BCE – 184 BCE) mentions that the conservative Cato the Elder was willing to pay between 500 and 1500 denarii for a slave.

Cato also complained a lot about the approach of the lavish, wealthy Romans, who offered up to 2,500 denarii for a beautiful boy or girl. Hence, also called the Censor because of his office, he ordered a high tax on the luxuries of the mighty under his magistrate. According to Plautus, the two captive children and their guardians cost from 2,000 to 6,000 denarii, while the girl familiar with music cost 4,000 denarii. Two centuries later, these prices were probably lower. A trained vineyard worker in Augustus’ day cost 2,000 denarii.

Until the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, many surprising transactions had been recorded; Suetonius recalls how Quintus Catullus bought a grammar from Lutatius Daphnis for 175,000 denarii. In order to realize what costs we are talking about, we need to compare the price of the slave with the price of ordinary products. For example, Cicero spent 25,000 denarii a year on the education of his son in Athens. For his big house, in turn, he paid 875,000 denarii a year. Many poor Romans were unable to buy even a small house, which cost as much as a good slave for a patrician. Finally, it is worth noting that the slaves, being displayed at slave markets, had to be completely naked, because the buyer had the right to freely see his “goods”.

  • Frank Richard Cowell, Life in Ancient Rome

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