Slavery in Ancient Rome

What is slavery

According to (Grant 118) slavery is an institution of the common law of peoples by which a person is put into the ownership of somebody else, contrary to the natural order”. Slavery was commonly practiced throughout all ancient history, but no other people in history owned so many slaves and depended on them so much as the Romans. Many Romans had slaves do their dirty and hard work for them. These slaves were bought and sold in the slave markets. Some slaves were soldiers who had been captured in wars, while others were the children of slave parents. If they tried to run away, they were whipped, burned with iron, and sometimes even killed. Slavery, was accepted as part of life in ancient Rome by the slaves themselves and by the society. Little credit had been given to the important contributions slave labor made to Roman civilization. However, slavery was both beneficial and disastrous to ancient Rome. The followings are on Roman slavery:

  • slaves on farms
  • slaves on business
  • slaves on public buildings
  • good treatments of slaves
  • Saturnalia festival

What were the tasks of slaves

In the Roman system of slavery, the tasks of slaves, such as farming, businesses, and public buildings all contributed to the wealth of the Roman economy.

Slaves on farm

On the farms, slaves produced the food and other materials on which the cities depended. Some of the most important crops produced by slaves were wheat, olives, vines and grapes which were eaten and used for making wine. According to Casson, wines were drunk before, after, between, it became their coffee, tea, and spirits. The olive oil on the other hand, was their butter, soap, and electricity. They cooked with it, put it on at the baths, and burned it in their lamps, and the grains were ground into flour (28). The slaves also worked as carpenters and blacksmiths who repaired the farm tools and carts. Others looked after the cattle, sheep and pigs. The wool from the sheep were spun and made into items which were used by the Roman army and navy. The Roman farm products such as wine, oil, tools, meat were exported to other counties. This gave Rome its greatest source of economic wealth.

Slaves on public building

Besides working on the farms and businesses, the most famous task performed by slaves in the public buildings was working on the aqueduct systems, roads, and the arenas. Buildings were built for public use; others were built by wealthy individuals for the community. However, slaves were used to do the actual construction. The aqueducts supplied many Romans with water outlets, including public fountains in the streets from which most people fetched their water. Besides the aqueducts, the slaves also built bridges and roads which were very important because they were built mainly to allow soldiers to move quickly in war-time. However, it also encouraged trading and helped the spread of Roman culture. “Therefore slave labor became one of Rome’s greatest sources of economic wealth ( Ancient Rome Online).

How slaves were treated

The good treatment of slaves in Rome was one of the positive and beneficial aspects of the slave system. For example, some slaves were given many privileges, comforts and were treated better than most people would have imagined. Nardo states “some masters treated their slaves with care and affection as their own children”(25).

“As historian L.P.Wilkinson also stated, ‘normal masters could hardly fail, even if half -ashamedly, to have a soft spot for characters they had seen toddling and growing up about the place, these slaves in return ate and dressed better than poor free Romans. They were even safer and secure’” ( Nardo.25). Some slave masters showed their loyalty and how much they cared for their slaves by giving nearly complete charge of their money and business affairs to the slaves without interfering. This led to the development of saturnalia festival.If a slave or a poor citizen of  Rome has committed a crime and a rich citizen of  Rome has committed the same crime, the poor citizen or the slave gets a harsher punishment.

Freedom of slaves

Freed slaves were called liberti, and formed a separate class in Roman society at all periods. The Pileus, a felt cap given to the slaves upon their freedom, was their symbol. The number of liberti were not large, but Rome needed to demonstrate at times the great frank spirit of thiscivitas, so the freed slaves were made famous, as hopeful examples.

Freed slaves continued to suffer some minor legal disabilities: they could not hold certain high offices and they could not marry into thesenatorial classes. Even those who grew rich and influential might still be looked down on by members of the traditional aristocracy as vulgarnouveaux riches. The fictional character Trimalchio was such a person.

Usually, already educated or experienced slaves were freed the most often. Eventually the practice became so common that Emperor Augustus passed a law proclaiming that no Roman slave could be freed before age 30. In addition, the master of the house might have children by his slaves. Such children could be well educated and freed when they became adults.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons, ranging from a particularly good deed toward his/her master, or as a sign of friendship or respect. Sometimes, slaves who had enough money could buy their freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. However, few slaves had enough money to do so, and many slaves were not allowed to own money. Slaves were also freed as a result of the master’s death by a statement in his will. Emperor Augustus proclaimed that no more than a hundred slaves, and fewer in a small household, could be freed by this means.

Freeing a slave was called manumissio, which literally means “sending out from the hand”. The freeing of the slave was a public spectacle, the oldest method usually performed before some sort of public official, usually a judge. The slave was touched on the head with a staff and he was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, usually with the master proclaiming a slave’s freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner. After a slave was freed, the person was free to make his or her own way in life, even become an important member in his community.

Former slaves enjoyed few of the privileges of a true Roman citizen. He could not be a candidate in public elections and could not rise to a high rank in the Roman military. He still had to work for his former master a fixed number of days each year, becoming a client and visiting his master regularly to pay his respects, usually in the morning. Some freedmen still did the work for their masters that they had previously done as slaves. Some, such as the Vettii, who were believed to be freedmen brothers, became very powerful. They owned a house in Pompeii that was one of the biggest and most magnificent in the town. A freedman designed the amphitheater in Pompeii, where all plays were held.

The children of former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship without restrictions. The Latin poet Horace, the son of a freedman, served as a military officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus and seemed headed for a political career before the defeat of Brutus byOctavian and Mark Antony. Though Horace may have been an exceptional case, freedmen filled important roles in Roman administrative functions. Freedmen of the Imperial families often were the main functionaries in the Imperial administration. Some rose to positions of great power and influence, as did Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.


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