Life of Ancient Roman Slaves: Facts & Treatment

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Most civilizations throughout human history have played host to the unfortunate institution of slavery. This lesson will introduce how slavery was unique in ancient Rome, including the origins of Roman slaves, how they were treated, slave rebellions, and the jobs slaves held.

Slavery in Different Civilizations

Slavery has unfortunately played a part in the history of many civilizations, including America's and Rome's. And interestingly, despite the grand span of time that separated the Roman Empire from early America, slavery in both times and places had a lot in common. In this lesson, we'll explore the lives of slaves in ancient Rome and compare how the institution of slavery in Rome was similar to and differed from that in early America.

Origins of Slaves

In early America, most individuals were enslaved through one of two ways - being captured and sold into slavery against their will or born into slavery. Similarly, in the early days of slavery in Rome, the majority of slaves were taken through warfare or piracy. But, as the Romans stopped fighting wars and the Mediterranean Sea became safer for travel, the slave trade got smaller. By the first century B.C.E, the easiest way to get a new slave was to make sure the slaves you owned had children because, like in America, children born to slaves were property, as well.

Both Rome and America also witnessed a second type of slavery, which was more or less voluntary. Americans knew the practice as indentured servitude, while in Rome, it was called nexum, or debt-bondage. Nexum was an option available to Roman citizens who owed great debts. They could voluntarily enslave themselves to their debtor, working off the debt over time. During that time, however, they had little personal freedom. Debt-bondage slaves usually were treated marginally better than individuals who had been enslaved against their will, and once the debt was paid, they regained their freedom and rights as citizens.

History

Slavery was practiced in Rome for hundreds of years, just as it was in Europe. So popular was the institution of slavery in Rome that, similar to the U.S., in some cities, slaves outnumbered citizens! In fact, some historians estimate that during the early Roman Empire, slaves accounted for as much as 25-35% of the Roman population.

Because slavery was part of Rome's history for so long and the numbers of slaves so great, it was inevitable that slaves would rise up and revolt against their masters for better living conditions. There were three main rebellions during the Roman Republic. The First Servile War (135-132 B.C.E.) and the Second Servile War (104-100 B.C.E.) took place on the island of Sicily, where especially cruel treatment of slaves led to spontaneous revolts. The Third Servile War (73-71 B.C.E.) was led by a slave named Spartacus. This third revolt was by far the most successful, but eventually, all three were put down and the people involved were killed.

Treatment

Slaves in collars
Roman Slave

The word 'slavery' brings to mind an image of African slaves in the American South early in the 19th century for many Americans. We may see in our mind's eye men who were treated as beasts of burden, to be whipped as punishment or simply for amusement. Slave women could be raped without fear of punishment and sold off if they became pregnant. Slaves were property. Unfortunately, ancient Rome was no different.

Even though race was not a factor in slavery in Rome, all slaves were property and were treated as such. They had no rights. The danger of violence varied. For some, the monetary value of a good slave ensured that they were treated with a modicum of decency, just as one might be careful not to damage any other expensive piece of property.

Some owners, however, had little regard for their slaves. Some were beaten or even killed for amusement. For female slaves, rape was an ever-present danger. Early Roman laws did not allow for slaves to give their testimonies in court against their masters. Slaves that tried to escape were hunted down and, if they weren't killed, they were branded with a FUG (fugitive) on their foreheads.

Jobs

In America, many slaves performed primarily agricultural and domestic work. In ancient Rome, however, slaves took on a much wider range of responsibilities; their jobs could divided into five main categories:

  • Domestic - Domestic service meant a life in a Roman house as a personal servant to the owners. Slaves that worked in a Roman home had the easiest lives because they ate the same foods as their masters and weren't normally put in dangerous situations.
  • Public - A public servant was owned by the government and was considered a personal servant to the royal family. Public servants could be educated people who taught Latin, mathematics, and philosophy to young Romans.
  • Urban crafts and services - Urban slaves were generally craftsmen, but they could also be prostitutes or even gladiators.
  • Agricultural - Most farms were worked purely by slaves, including the foreman. These positions meant longer hours and lots of manual labor.
  • Mining - Mining was considered the worst job. Working conditions were extremely dangerous and life expectancy was very low. Those who were sentenced to slavery by criminal law were often sent to the mines.

Massimo, A Slave Actor
Slave Actor

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