Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow
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.
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.
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.
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.
In both Rome and America, there were a few opportunities for a slave to become free. It was legal for an owner to give his slaves their freedom. However, this was exceedingly rare. Think about buying an appliance and then throwing it away; not many people would give a slave independence unless they had done something absolutely extraordinary. And it was always possible for an owner to promise freedom but never follow through.
Also in both civilizations, it was possible for a slave to buy their own freedom. Slaves could earn enough money to win manumission, or freedom. Keep in mind that because a slave worked for free, the chances to earn money were few and far between. It took a lot of time to squirrel away any cash at all, which could be confiscated by his master or stolen by other slaves.
One major difference between slavery in ancient Rome and in early America, however, was change. After the conclusion of the Third Servile War, the laws pertaining to slavery in the Roman Empire changed. Changes were made and upheld by emperors including Claudian (41-54 A.D.) and Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.). Eventually, a slave couldn't be executed without a just cause. Laws were put in place so that slaves could make complaints against a cruel owner. Slaves were still property, but they became respected property.
Slavery was commonplace in Rome from its first days, with many persons enslaved by warfare or piracy. A form of voluntary slavery called nexum, or debt-bondage, also existed. As in all cases of slavery, slaves in ancient Rome were considered property and held no rights. The treatment of slaves varied, though cruelty was not illegal or unusual.
Jobs held by Roman slaves fell into five categories: domestic, public, urban crafts and services, agricultural, and mining. It was possible for Roman slaves to earn manumission, or freedom, though rare. Slaves could save enough money to buy their own freedom or be gifted manumission by their owners for extraordinary deeds.
As Rome matured and endured several rebellions, Roman law changed to give slaves more rights. Slavery never died out in the Roman Empire, but it would be more bearable after the first century B.C.E.
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