Role of Slavery in Ancient Rome

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you ever wondered how slaves fit into Roman society? Did you ever think that slaves were more than just gladiators in ancient Rome? This lesson paints a more realistic picture of the convoluted world of slavery in ancient Rome.

Roman Slaves

'All slaves are enemies.' If you were a Roman, you would've known this Roman proverb. Yet, the Roman attitude towards the slaves in their society, and the roles they played, was far more complex than a pithy statement could reveal.

Luckily, this lesson will expand upon the realities of the proverb as you learn about the ways slavery integrated itself in ancient Roman society and the actual roles slaves played in ancient Rome.

Slaves in Roman Society

The slaves in Roman society came from numerous places. Some were 'spoils' of war. Others were simply trafficked from various reaches of the Empire in much the same way African slaves were trafficked by African tribes and Europeans to numerous parts of the world. No one is sure how many slaves lived in Roman society. One estimate says that about 20% of the Roman Empire was made up of slaves around 100 BCE. But it's also estimated that some ancient cities had upwards of 80% of their male population composed of ex-slaves.

One thing we must make very clear, is that slaves were property. They were not seen as much more than that in the legal sense - although the morality of this was debated even back in the day. Exceptions to the 'property' view did exist in ancient Rome as, somewhat astoundingly for the time and the notion of slavery in general, some slaves could actually bring forth lawsuits and have a formal judicial review.

The Roman attitude towards their slaves was even more complex. Some were sadistic and disdainful of slaves. Others feared slaves, for they might rise up (and they did). Some wanted to clearly distinguish slaves from other Roman citizens by having them wear uniforms. Others thought the latter idea was dangerous. Not on moral grounds but because it would let the slaves see how numerous they were and how powerful they could be as a result.

While some feared slaves, other times slaves and Roman citizens intermingled, worked together and confided in one another in various workshops much like colleagues do today. In fact, the Latin word familia actually refers to both free and slave members of a household. Talk about confusing attitudes!

The Roman Empire was also extraordinary, for a slave-dependent society of the ancient time, in granting freedom to their slaves and allowing them to gain full Roman citizenship. Not every slave could become a Roman citizen though. For instance, those who showed signs of being whipped as punishment for a crime could be denied Roman citizenship. Even if a slave did gain their freedom, ironically, ex-slaves were still supposed to have various obligations to their former masters and, on legal technicalities, could be re-enslaved by them!

Yet, don't let Rome's 'kindness' in eventually freeing her slaves fool you. This wasn't always done out of the goodness of a Roman's heart. Objective considerations came into play as well. For example, freeing a slave was financially cheaper than keeping them around until old age as a slave, when they consumed more resources than they produced.

As you can tell in this section alone, slavery in ancient Rome was anything but straightforward.

Roles Slaves Had

So what roles did these ancient slaves have in ancient Rome? As a whole, they were extremely important for society. As you can imagine, their essentially free labor moved Rome's economy forward.

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