Roman society was structured according to class and wealth. Its hierarchical system saw the senatorial, aristocratic class at the top of the social pyramid. In the middle were the equestrians, the plebeians, and the freedmen, in that order. Those with the lowest social status were the slaves.
Many Roman slaves lived lives of unimaginable cruelty. After all, Roman law designated slaves as property, not people. But slavery in ancient Rome underpinned much of society’s success, and the freeborn citizens of Rome were actually heavily dependent on slaves for their world to operate effectively.
Vast numbers of slaves were traded throughout the empire, from Britain in the North to Syria in the East. At the beginning of the Imperial era, it is believed that the ratio of slaves to freeborn people in the city of Rome was 3:1. Slave ownership was common for those at the top of society. Plutarch tells us that the Republican consul, Marcus Licinius Crassus (pictured above left), owned so many slaves that he had 500 just for acquiring and rebuilding property. But it was also not uncommon for plebeians, as well as ex-slaves, to own a few slaves as well. Slave ownership was a sign of status and wealth which nearly everyone in ancient Rome aspired to.
Evidence for Slavery in Ancient Rome
Roman literature, epigraphical sources, and archaeological finds all provide us with information about slavery in ancient Rome. The letters of Pliny the Younger in particular provide excellent source material on slavery, but there are also obvious limitations to written work produced by elite members of Roman society. Many, like Pliny, were prone to idealization. Sadly, there is no surviving literature written from the viewpoint of someone actually living the life of a Roman slave.
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Epitaph inscriptions, as we shall see, provide some excellent evidence for the relationships between slaves, ex-slaves, and former masters. Archaeological excavations of the domains of slaves are also very informative. For example, the remains of amphitheaters — the arenas where gladiator slaves and prisoners of war fought — stretch from ancient Britain to Turkey. They serve as a stark reminder of how extensive enforced servitude in the Roman Empire actually was.
The Life of a Slave in Ancient Rome
There were a number of routes into slavery in ancient Rome. One of the most common was being a prisoner of war. The expansion of the Roman Empire from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE saw many thousands of conquered people forced into servitude.
Some people were sold into slavery. This could be for a number of reasons. Piracy was common across the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Those captured by pirates were then sold on like plunder. People who could not pay their debts could even end up selling themselves into slavery in lieu of payment.
Finally, there were those who were unfortunate enough to be born into slavery. Slave mothers were forced to hand their children over to their owners soon after birth. It was also not uncommon for slave owners to encourage relations between slaves in order to increase their numbers.
There were many different types of slaves and they could be found in every walk of life in ancient Rome. Domestic slaves were perhaps the most common. Some were educated or highly skilled and therefore much sought after. Tutors for children, specialist cooks, and even hairdressers could command high prices.
The success of urban life depended on an army of slaves. Many worked in civic positions in public libraries and baths and also in government administration jobs, often alongside freeborn plebeians. At the other end of the spectrum were prostitutes who worked under the watchful eye of violent brothel-keepers.
Many slaves were subjected to lives of manual labor. Some helped to run the rural estates of wealthy landowners, while others endured the horrific world of the mines, often digging for precious gold and silver. Here the incredibly harsh conditions meant that life expectancy could be as low as a few months.
Roman Slaves and Their Masters
Slavery in ancient Rome was subject to various laws, mostly drawn up in favor of masters, rather than slaves. Slave owners had legal dominium over their slaves, which essentially amounted to the power of life and death. Some slaves tried to resist servitude and ran away or attacked their masters. The punishments for those who were caught were very harsh. If a slave attacked or murdered a master then not only the perpetrator but the entire household of slaves could be executed.
It was, arguably, in a master’s interest to treat his slaves fairly and most probably found that this resulted in a more productive workforce. This is not to say that Roman slaves led happy lives but benefits were sometimes granted, such as a small allowance (peculium). Pliny tells us that he even permitted informal marriage pacts and the making of wills.
Some slaves developed close relationships with their masters built on mutual respect, including, for example, the famous orator and politician, Cicero, and his personal secretary, Tiro. The following extract is taken from a letter sent by Cicero’s brother to Cicero on hearing that Tiro was to be set free. It highlights the genuine affection held for Tiro throughout the family.
‘I am truly thankful for what you have done with regard to Tiro, in judging his former status to be below what he deserved and preferring us to have him as a friend rather than a slave.’
(Cicero, Letters to Friends 16:6)
Gladiators — the Celebrity Slaves
Due to their position at the center of public entertainment and adulation, it is perhaps easy to forget that most gladiators were also slaves. Prisoners of war and convicted criminals were often forced to become gladiators if they had the physical requirements. These men went on to live and train at a combat school (ludus) under a specialized trainer, often an ex-gladiator himself (lanista).
Many fought to the death in amphitheaters under the gaze of huge crowds — although it is a myth that a gladiator died in each and every fight. Gladiators were very expensive commodities and their popularity with the crowd often meant that they were spared death.
It is perhaps a step too far to describe gladiators as the glamorous representatives of slavery in ancient Rome. But some became very well-known and lived their lives in the spotlight. Ancient sources tell us that some women were very fond of gladiators. Small jars of sand soaked in their sweat were even sold outside amphitheaters as an aphrodisiac.
A gladiator who was particularly successful could sometimes earn his freedom, at the discretion of the lanista. If granted, he would be awarded a wooden sword (a rudis) as a symbol of his freedom. One example of such a man was the gladiator Flamma, whose epitaph survives today. The inscription tells us that he was given the rudis four times. However, each time he returned to work as a gladiator. Perhaps a life of fame was sometimes too alluring to give up.
Routes Out of Slavery in Ancient Rome
When a person was granted freedom from slavery in ancient Rome, it involved a process called “manumission.” There were several different methods of manumission. One of the most common was through a ceremony held in front of a magistrate. Here the slave would kneel before the magistrate and be touched with a rod on the shoulder. Then they would be given the pileus, a soft conical-shaped hat that served as a symbol of their freedom.
Many slaves were also set free as a condition of their master’s will. Others were simply declared free by their master, then allowed to formally register as a citizen. Slave women could also be freed by marrying their masters. This was normally done to allow any subsequent children to be born as free citizens. Finally, there were those who bought themselves out of slavery, but this was less common.
Freedmen and Freedwomen in Ancient Rome
Freedmen and freedwomen in ancient Rome held the legal status of libertus and liberta, respectively. They were allowed to become citizens but with certain restrictions. Most notably, they could not hold major positions of public office, nor enroll in military service. One important advantage, though, was that their children would become full Roman citizens.
The relationship between ex-slaves and their former masters was one of the cornerstones of Roman society. This was a system of patronage which involved a series of mutual benefits and obligations. Freedmen were expected to visit their former master each morning and carry out various administrative tasks. They also assisted with canvassing for votes if their master was standing for public office. Some freedmen ran small businesses on behalf of their former owners. Conversely, the patron was obliged to provide money and/or food to help their ex-slave and their family. They would also often introduce them to business contacts and trade networks.
Most freedmen worked in urban trade or crafts, setting up small businesses based on their skills. Some became very wealthy as a result of their business’ success, such as the baker Eurysaces whose vast tomb is pictured above.
Slavery in ancient Rome held a stigma that freed people found hard to shake off. Freeborn people would often view ex-slaves as socially inferior and vulgar. Latin literature provides us with some interesting examples of the much-maligned stereotype of the uncivilized freedman. The Satyricon, a novel by Petronius, features an extremely wealthy freedman named Trimalchio. Trimalchio goes to great lengths to appear educated and cultured to his freeborn dinner guests, with little success. Petronius’ mocking portrayal only serves to deepen the social persecution of the ex-slave. At one point, the freeborn narrator haughtily describes his experience of Trimalchio’s dinner party as “more like a musical comedy than a respectable dinner party.”
Many hundreds of dedicatory inscriptions involving slaves, ex-slaves, and masters survive today. These inscriptions provide vital first-hand evidence of life after slavery in ancient Rome. They also reveal some fascinating details about individual journeys from slavery to freedom.
The above epitaph inscription is dedicated to Lucius Antistius Sarculo (pictured left) and his wife Antistia Plutia (pictured right), by their freedmen Rufus and Anthus. The inscription states that Rufus and Anthus paid for the inscription from their own funds. This in itself is a poignant mark of the bond formed between master and ex-slave. But we also learn from the inscription that Plutia was herself a freedwoman and the former slave of Antistius. This shows that Plutia had risen from a life of slavery to become the wife of a wealthy freeborn citizen, with slaves and freedmen of her own.
The Legacy of Slavery in Ancient Rome
Slavery in ancient Rome was, without doubt, an abhorrent aspect of Roman society by today’s standards. But to the Romans (at least those who were freeborn) it was entirely normal and accepted as a necessary part of daily life. Slavery in so-called civilized western countries was not made illegal until the 19th century. Despite this, it still exists today in many countries throughout the world in various forms. Slavery in ancient Rome arguably led to many more centuries of enforced servitude, cruelly imposed by one human upon another.