Roman Slavery
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Both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire relied heavily on slaves. The labor of countless millions supported the empire and its citizens for hundreds of years. Yet unlike other slave-owning cultures, Rome offered a method for social advancement for a select number of slaves. The granting of citizenship to ex-slaves allowed the Romans to incorporate new members into their society.

It is estimated that in Italy, at the Roman Republic's height, there was one slave for every three free people, or about 2 million slaves. Outside Italy, the number of slaves is unknown, but it was probably much lower. A Roman slave was called a servus, the master dominus, and the mistress domina. Romans perceived slaves as foreign, untrustworthy, lazy, and somewhat ugly. The plays of Plautus in the second century BCE contain numerous slaves that generally fit those categories. The most famous, Pseudolus ("the lying slave"), engineers several deceptive schemes in an attempt to win his freedom.

Although a class system existed, there was no such thing as a native Roman slave. No matter how impoverished a Roman became, he did not become a slave. Nevertheless, slaves were a part of Roman society from the very beginning. Slaves imported at first from elsewhere in Italy and later from farther afield played an increasing role in Rome's society and economy as the empire grew. Particularly after the Roman victory in the Second Punic War, the influx of wealth into Rome improved Romans' ability to own slaves.

The consolidation of land and the reduction of the number of free landowners also increased the demand for slaves in Italy. Wealthier landowners began to buy out their less prosperous neighbors and make greater (and contested) use of ager publicus, or public land, for themselves. The creation of such large estates greatly reshaped the labor market in Italy. Although some of the former small landowners remained in the countryside as wage laborers, landless men swelled the cities in Italy. The resulting need for cheap labor on farms impelled many large landowners to turn to slaves. Although less productive than free labor, slaves were less costly. Rome's growing reliance on slaves is evident in farm manuals published during the period.

During the empire's lengthy expansion, warfare remained the chief source of slaves. Slavers followed Roman armies on their campaigns, bought prisoners of war from the Roman Army, and carted them into slavery. Kidnapping and piracy, particular problems during the first century BCE, also supplied many slaves. Merchants who specialized in the slave trade imported slaves from overseas; the island of Delos became an immense slave market during the republic. Finally, Romans obtained many slaves through reproduction. A child born to a slave woman was considered a slave, no matter who the father was.

The economic impact of slaves in the Roman Empire cannot be understated. Providing the majority of the society's manual labor, slaves worked in the home, the field, and the city. The most familiar face of Roman slavery was the household slave, who appeared in much of Roman literature. Such a slave was considered a part of the household and, in a way, part of the Roman family. Household slaves, performing a myriad of tasks, worked as maids, cooks, and valets. Educated slaves often served as tutors to their master's children. The loyalty of household slaves varied from family to family.

Most slaves, however, worked outside the household in farms, workshops, and mines. Wealthy Romans used hundreds and sometimes thousands of slaves to work their vast agricultural estates. From sowing to reaping, slave labor carried out nearly every task on a farm. The often absent master typically required a reliable overseer to manage and maintain the estate. Sometimes that overseer was himself a slave.

Slaves also filled the tanneries and ceramic and metal workshops of the empire. There, they often worked side by side with free skilled craftsmen. Those slaves might be the property of the owner of the workshop or might have been leased to the workshop by the slave's owner. Skilled slave craftsmen could often bring their owner more money by earning a wage (kept by the master) outside the home. Such slaves were in the best situation to earn their own freedom. As an incentive to work harder (and thus earn more money for the master), an owner might promise a percentage of the wage to the slave. Eventually, the slave could use that pocket money to buy his freedom, but the ability to do so depended on the master. At any point, the master could void the agreement and keep the money for himself.

Other slaves worked in dangerous mines and as gladiators. Those perilous occupations meant a short life for the slave and were used to punish difficult or dangerous slaves. Mines in the ancient world were incredibly unsafe and had a very high mortality rate. The inherent dangers were often compounded by cruel conditions that drove slaves to work until they died. In the even more dangerous profession of the gladiator, some slaves did earn their freedom in the arena, but that was an exception and not the rule.

Some slaves worked in the government. Educated slaves owned by the state staffed much of the bureaucracy in Rome. They administered the public archives, acted as assistants to magistrates, and even operated the mint. Slave attendants also ran the public baths and worked in the arena, Roman Forum, and other public facilities.

The life of a slave varied greatly depending on his or her owner and position. As previously mentioned, slaves working in a household were considered to be part of the family. However, in a society where the pater familias had the right to execute his own children if necessary, the slave's position was one of complete dependency. Punishment in the form of beatings, deprivation of food, or even the threat of sale to a mine was not uncommon. While slaves could enter into informal marriages, the arrangement depended on the permission of the master. Moreover, a slave was in no position to resist the sexual advances of his or her owner. Slaves who worked as miners or gladiators were the worst off and generally lived only a few years after entering those professions. Overseers drove them to work by the whip, and they had little to eat.

In desperation, slaves might turn to escape. Slave escapes were not uncommon but rarely successful. Recalcitrant slaves might be placed in irons, some of which were inscribed with the owner's name and a request to return the slave. During the turbulence of the first century BCE, many vying Romans recruited escaped slaves into their armies. More rarely, slaves might turn to murder or revolt. The most famous slave revolt occurred in 73 BCE under a Thracian slave named Spartacus, but it ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Unlike most other slave-owning societies, the Romans frequently freed their slaves. While the majority of slaves died slaves, wealthy Romans freed their slaves either for merit, as part of a promise, in return for wages the slave earned, or posthumously in their will. Ex-slaves became freedmen and citizens. Moreover, the children of freedmen were also considered citizens and could aspire to work their way up the Roman social ladder, albeit with great resistance. A freedman became the client of his former master in return for the patron's protection. Some freedmen even became wealthy and powerful. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, some of his closest advisers were freedmen.

Kenneth Tuite

Further Reading
Crawford, Michael, The Roman Republic, 1978; Cameron, Averil. The Later Roman Empire, AD 284–430. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993; Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, 1998; Welch, Kathryn, The Romans, 1998.


MLA Citation

"Roman Slavery." . ABC-CLIO, 2019. Web. 15 September 2019.

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