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Slavery in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Slave market, Gustave Boulanger
Slave market, Gustave Boulanger

Slavery in ancient Rome (servitudo) was a widespread issue. You could become a slave (servi) by birth, as a prisoner of war or prey, when you were caught by slave traders or sold by your own family, or if you could not repay your debts.

Beginnings of slavery in ancient Rome

The beginnings of slavery are certainly related to the reign of monarchs. However, the first certified sources date from the early republic period. With the economic development of Rome, the number of slaves supplied by continuous wars began to increase. The growing number of slaves led to the fact that their role in the economic life of the state began to increase. What is worth noting, however, the slave initially had a guaranteed position in the family, and even the right to participate in its cults and traditions.

Slaves serving wine.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Intensive conquest created ideal conditions for the development of slavery. It was associated with the creation of larger agricultural assets, focused on the labour-intensive economy of vines and olives. The average plot required almost a few dozen slaves to work. The benefits of employing unpaid slaves encouraged the senatorial aristocracy to pursue further expansion and profit from it. For example, the main Caton Elder charged its slaves for each intercourse with slaves.

Conquest changes perception of slave

The turning point in the concept of slavery turned out to be the turn of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. So far, the main source of the influx of slaves was war. Over time, however, the slave became a commodity, a thing (nullius) that could be bought on the market. The huge demand for this social layer has led to the creation of a new profession, engaged in the hunt for people. This activity was mainly carried out by privateers in the Mediterranean, and sometimes even Romans. Such a huge demand for slaves was mainly caused by the development of the latifundial economy and the creation of huge landed estates. As I mentioned, the benefits of having a slave in plots of land began to be noticed. First, it did not have to be paid unlike small-scale peasants, moreover, you did not have to answer for his death. According to the Romans, the slave was simply an insignificant object that could be replaced if necessary. Former patriarchal slavery evolved into productive slavery, in which the profit from the slave’s work became significant. Cato the Elder was to claim: “A slave of his was expected either to be busy about the house, or to be asleep, and he was very partial to the sleepy ones”1.

Slaves ran shops or small craft workshops. The income that they generated in this way flowed to the treasury of the city, which was the owner of these slaves.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In the “slave society” there was a clear difference in life, depending on the profession they were engaged in. Athenian slaves, who run, for example, a craft workshop, had some freedom, provided that they gave the owner a certain sum of money from all the influence. A good position for a slave was also enjoyed by those employed in the homes of the rich (familia urbana), such as chefs, hairdressers and educators. The latter were mostly Greeks. Usually they were employed as carers and tutors of their masters’ sons, teachers and secretaries. It also happened that they were entrusted with more responsible positions. And so, for example, they ran libraries or rewrote books. An extremely talented grammar teacher could cost up to 700,000 sesterces. For comparison, slaves employed in agriculture, especially cattle (familia rustica) were the worst offenders.

A slave’s family was relatively difficult, but sometimes the aristocrats agreed if they knew the slave was a trusted employee. However, these were rare situations. In general, slave owners treated them, you could say as talking tools, not like ordinary people. The slave, wholly dependent on the master, could be punished with the greatest severity. In the most serious offences, he was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Sometimes the owner handed the culprit to the officials involved in the organization of the games, and then the poor man was thrown to the circus arena by wild animals to be eaten. At the same time, however, the owners took care of their health, taking into account the costs of another subordinate.

Slave uprisings

At the end of the 2nd century BCE, the situation began to aggravate in Roman society. Agricultural slaves, especially patera, were the worst-treated category of the stratum. They did not receive any supplies from the owner, as a result of which their flocks supplied them with meat and clothing. This situation existed not only in Italy but also in other provinces in which the slave trade was clearly developed (Hellenistic East or Sicily). Living in primitive conditions, they began to organize themselves into small armed groups invading nearby settlements. It is likely that the first slave uprising broke out in Sicily among shepherd slaves in 136 BCE. The rebels were commanded by two Greeks: Eunus and Kleon. The insurgents formed a kingdom in parts of Sicily, in which Eunus became the king. The rural poor also joined the rebellion unexpectedly, which allowed the insurgents to take over most of the island. The stronghold Enna was chosen as the capital of the country, perfectly located, mainly due to its defensive qualities. This unexpected surge of the lowest social strata in Rome alarmed senators. At various points in Italy, slaves began preparing an uprising, which threatened to completely paralyze the state. The situation was aggravated by a failed operation to suppress the rebellion in Sicily. Following this, the uprising expanded. Within the Aegean Sea, a second great outbreak of rebellion was created. Slaves working in Attica in the silver mines in the Laurion Mountains also broke up there. In another region of the empire, Asia Minor also came into being. The rural population and slaves under the leadership of Aristonic opposed the rule of the Romans. The same was done on the island of Delos.

Spartacus. He was attributed to Thracian nationality because as a gladiator he was trained in Thracian combat style. However, he was probably a deserter from the Roman army, then a robber. Captured again by the Romans, he was sold to a school of gladiators in Capua.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The revolts that reached East and Sicily were aimed not at the political system but at the aristocracy. However, having a huge influence in the country, she did not agree to social reforms, which would certainly significantly limit their power. It was decided to suppress the uprisings at all costs. The isolation of insurgent outbreaks enabled overwhelming Roman forces led by consul Publius Rupilius to succeed gradually in Sicily and ultimately suppress the rebellion in this region in 132 BC. The longest fighting lasted in Asia Minor. There, the uprising collapsed only in 129 BCE. Internal peace, which was achieved with a great effort, however, proved to be illusory.

The events of the second half of the second century BCE did not teach the Romans, especially the senatorial aristocracy, anything. The expansion of slave latifundes continued and slaves were treated as things. This led to another uprising in 73 BCE, called the rise of Spartacus. It was undoubtedly the largest slave spurt in the history of ancient Rome. This uprising was a sign of the emerging crisis of slavery as a social form associated with Rome. Terrified by danger, the Roman authorities reduced the role of slavery in the economy, trying to eliminate similar events in the future. In the later period of the empire, the importance of slaves in the economy decreased significantly, which was mainly due to the massive liberation of slaves and the end of expansive politics.

In the era of civil wars the once clear boundary between free and slaves was shaken. We can mention, for example, the activities of Sextus Pompey, who accepted mass slaves who had escaped from Italy and incorporated them into his fleet of rowers. In this matter, he tried to counteract Octavian Augustus, who wanted to restore the former social order, which has gained many followers among aristocrats. His steps, however, did not have much influence on social relations in the state. In the group of slaves themselves, the division began to take shape. In addition to the particularly handicapped, there were also those living in good conditions. The number of slaves released has also increased significantly. August tried to counteract the changes, which adopted two laws: lex Canina in the 2nd year BCE and lex Aelia Sentia in the 4th year CE He was not able to stop this process, which it intensified and was to lead in the first century CE to the reduction of the role of slavery in the economy. There were also common situations when a slave dominated over the ordinary plebeian estate, and in addition, had his own slaves.

Many owners, trying to avoid spending on new slaves, tried to raise them from childhood. They were so-called vernae. This system of “producing” slaves was most beneficial for the owners, because it gave a regular supply of labor, especially in peacetime.

Slaves had it good too

Slavery in ancient Rome was naturally widespread and a negative sphere of the social life of the state. The problem is that it was given to us in a simplified way. There is a perception that every slave had a hard life, and for every insubordination he could even be killed without legal consequences. There have often been extreme cases of slave exploitation. This cannot be denied, but Roman reality varied. How do you explain the fact that, for example, in Ostia you can still see the tombs of wealthy Romans that they built for themselves, their loved ones and … slaves, which they classified as familia and wanted them to be close to them even after death because they were treated as part of the family during their lifetime? It should be remembered, of course, that social injustice was widespread in Rome, but there were certainly acts of humanitarianism and human behavior.

We know the messages proving the attachment of the owner to the slave. Cicero, for example, highly valued the work and faithfulness of his slave Tiro. In one of her letters, she writes to him: “Though I miss your ever-ready help at every turn yet it is not for my sake so much as for yours that I grieve at your illness. But now that the violence of your disease has abated so far as to become a quartan fever—for so Curius writes me word—I hope that with care you will soon become stronger. Only be sure-as becomes a man of your good sense—to think of nothing for the present except how to get well in the best possible way. I know how your regret at being absent worries you, but all difficulties will disappear, if you get well. I would not have you hurry, for fear of your suffering from sea-sickness in your weak state, and finding a winter voyage dangerous”2.

Imperial times

Emperor Claudius. He valued the work of former slaves, especially those of Greek descent. Many of them were his personal advisers.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The period of the early empire was a time of bringing slaves to the state, not of Oriental origin (as so far), but of Germanic and Celtic origin. The beginnings of a new era were of great importance for the fate of slaves. Raising slaves at the owner’s home, paying for his maintenance and educating him in the relevant field, rather than buying a subordinate already prepared for work, has become more and more common. Thus, the life of this group clearly improved, the fates of which were also taken care of by the emperors themselves. Several edicts were issued to protect slaves from the masters’ arbitrariness (one of the first emperors interested in the slave contribution was Claudius). Such a change in the position of the imperial authority probably resulted from concern for humanitarianism.

Slaves in the first and second centuries CE were still an important element of the Roman economy. There was more and more liberation of slaves and their achievement of high positions and assets in the state. Initially, Roman legislation opposed this process by restricting the number of slaves that the owner could free. Ultimately, however, these decisions were abandoned, mainly due to the owners themselves. Due to the reluctant attitude of the slave to work and the destruction of tools, the owner preferred to teach the slave some craft or give him a plot of land to use (peculium). At that time, a slave who could count on profits was more interested in work and thus more efficient. By gaining adequate capital, the slave could free himself in time and even gain a position in the official hierarchy, which was very popular at that time. The border between slaves and free men began to blur more and more. The slave could already free himself and even have an influence on the policy of the state.

The treatment of slaves in ancient Rome is illustrated by the case of a high official, described by Tacitus in “Histories”. The famous story tells that for the murder of the master, committed by a slave, all other slaves owned by this aristocrat were sentenced to death. And he had 400 of them!

Roman mosaic from Dougg, in Tunisia (2nd century CE). It shows two slaves carrying jars of wine, dressed in typical slave clothing. Amulets against the eye of evil hang on their necks. On the left, the slave boy carries water and towels, and on the right is a bough and a basket of flowers.

Slave categories

Slaves deprived of any rights belonged to the category of “talking tools” (instrumenta vocalia). Slavery had been developing in Rome from the early years of its existence, but it was only the annexation of huge areas of the Mediterranean Sea, and the conquests of more and more new countries that caused a great demand for labour. Some slaves were detained by the Roman government as state slaves (servi publici), and the rest were sold as slaves for private purposes (servi privati​​).

Slaves in countryside

The village slaves were part of the master’s family (familia rustica), similarly the city slaves were included in the familia urbana, hence the slave was also called familiaris or famulus. They were subject to the orders of a master (dominus) or more often a caretaker (vilicus) chosen from zealous slaves to supervise others. Vilicus reported the work to the owner or person appointed by him (procurator), settled the expenses and income of his master.

Valued slaves were those who were able to do some craft or knew agricultural works, etc. They were: ploughing (aratores), harrowing specialists (occatores), reapers ( massores), donkey herders (asinarii), oxen (ingerii) etc. For example, auxiliary workers (operarii), collectors (leguli), oil-pressers (factores), kippers (caulatores).

Directly on the farm, for example, gardeners (hortulani), fruit-growers (arborates) were employed, birds were taken care of by bird-slaves (aviarii), of which some were concerned about pigeons (columbarii), others about hens (gallinarii) or pheasants (phasianaria). Such fate of slaves was not light, and especially burdensome for those working in the great latifunds. Sick, old or unable to work were thrown out of the house; for trivial offenses punished severely.

The epitaph on the stele says: “Here lies Eros, a Posidippus chef, a slave”.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On these same conditions 3.0.

Slaves in cities

Slaves entering the urban “family” had a lighter fate, if only because of the type of work they performed. The most important was the supervisor of the whole house, the so-called artiensis. He had cash and cared for order at home. Other slaves were subject to him: e.g. order in the rooms kept diaetarius, guests were welcomed servus ab hospitiis, the door was guarded by the gatekeeper (ianitor). Other slaves cared for furniture and all movable equipment (supellarii), others for tableware (servi ab apotheca), sculptures (servi ab statuis) or jewels (servi ab dactyliotheca). Personal servants included butlers (cubicularii), swordsmen (delicati), and maids (delicatae). ornatores took care of all the clothes, calcatores footwear, and there were also hairdressers (tonsores).

When the powerful Roman left the house, he was accompanied by a retinue of slaves. Some followed him (pedisequi), carrying items and sandals he needed. He was preceded by antembulones, among them was the nominee – a slave who was obliged to give his master the names of the citizens he met along the way. In the evening, adversitores carried torches, and when you sat in the litter, they carried it lecticaria.

You were assisted in keeping the bills by the secretaries of the “handbook” (amanuenses), during the meal or rest you were presented to you by the slave-lectors (servi a libellis, codicillis), anagnostai have you read literary works. After that, slave-scholars were employed to conduct scientific disputes and librarians (bibliothecarii), book rewriters (librarii) etc. These are obviously not all the positions and “types” of slaves in Rome, but part of it.

  1. Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 21
  2. Cicero, Fam. XVI 11
  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Łoposzko Tadeusz, Historia społeczna republikańskiego Rzymu
  • Rochala Paweł, Powstanie Spartakusa 73-71 p.n.e., Kocewia Mała 2022

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