The Romans



There was an accepted convention in the ancient world that it was a mark of humanity to inflict slavery, rather than slaughter or maiming, as a penalty for being on the losing side in battle or war. In using slave labour, the Romans were perpetuating an institution which had existed in Egypt since at least 2600 BC, and had been carried on under the empires of China, India, Babylon, and by the Greeks. In the first century AD, probably one in three of the population of Rome was a slave; this was also the proportion of black slaves to whites in the American South in the 1850s. Nor does it seem that the treatment of the slaves who worked the vast farmlands of Italy was very much harsher than or different from that meted out to African slaves on the American and West Indian plantations in the eighteenth century, or that the majority of household slaves were worse off than many domestic staff in Europe at an even later date.


Four female slaves dress the wife’s hair: relief from a family tomb from Neumagen. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Trier: Barbara McManus)

One of the functions of official provincial tax-collectors, especially in Asia Minor, was to kidnap potential slaves and ship them to the specialist slave-markets, one of the biggest of which, at Delos, could process ten thousand slaves in a day.

Julius Caesar as general

Julius Caesar as a general (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus). He was responsible for large-scale enslavement.

Until the empire, marriage between slaves was not recognized, and their children automatically assumed the status of slave. A slave could keep what he could save towards buying his freedom, but if he ran away and was caught, the punishment was branding or death. There was hardly any aspect of daily life, or of work or the leisure industry, in which slaves were not involved, and their treatment, which was entirely the responsibility of their owner, varied according to their skills and the labour which was required of them.

Slaves working on cloth preparation

Slaves working at bleaching and carding cloth: copy of a first-century wall painting from the workshop of Verecundus. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Slaves were trained to fight each other, and wild animals, to the death in the arenas of the empire. During the later republic, gangs of them worked in fetters on agricultural estates and were chained up in semi-underground barracks at night. Others did not suffer so much. Great numbers of herdsmen were required, and in 8 BC Gaius Caecilius Isodorus, himself a former slave, left a staff of 4116, most of whom would have been employed in this capacity. Cato the Elder, who acquired young slaves as an investment and sold them at a profit after training, laid down that a staff of twelve (a manager, his wife, and eleven hands) was the right number to work a farm of 150 acres devoted to olive-oil growing and sheep. There is little doubt that Roman technology could have devised many labour-saving devices, particularly for use on the farm, were it not that an abundance of slave labour was an economic fact of life.


Terracotta lamp depicting a shepherd whose name was Tityrus. (VRoma: Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels: Barbara McManus)

Slaves worked in the mines, and also in the potteries. They constituted the state’s labour force for building and maintaining public works, and in other government services such as the mint and the corn supply; they were also its white-collar workers, who kept the machinery of bureaucracy and administration working. They served as accountants in private businesses, and as secretaries, teachers, librarians, doctors, scribes, artists, and entertainers. And they constituted the private staff of villas, town house, and palaces.

Hopuse of Menander, Pompeii

Reconstruction of a view in the atrium of the House of Menander, Pompeii, in the first century AD. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

Household slaves had perquisites, but some suffered unusually severe hazards. Vedius Pollio, an equestrian and a friend of Augustus, threw condemned slaves into a tank of moray eels, claiming that with no other creature could he watch a man being torn to pieces so utterly and instantaneously. The poet Martial (c. AD 40 - 104) by his own account, laid into his cook if a meal was not up to scratch.

Preparing a meal

“You say your hare is not cooked and call for the whip. You’d rather cut up your cook, Rufus, than your hare” (Martial, Epigrams III.94). Wall painting of slaves preparing a meal, AD 50 - 75. (VRoma: Getty Museum, Santa Monica: Barbara McManus)

Pliny the Elder used to invite the better-educated members of his staff to join him after dinner for conversation, and remarked of his luxury villa at Laurentum that most of the rooms in the wing which housed his slaves were also perfectly suitable for putting up guests. Seneca observed that in general people were extremely arrogant, cruel, and abusive to slaves, but that his advice was to treat inferiors as you would want to be treated by your masters.

The contrary attitude is illustrated by an incident shortly before Seneca’s enforced suicide. In AD 61, the city prefect had been murdered by one of his own slaves after an altercation. As was the custom, all the slaves of the household were lined up to be taken out and executed. The people besieged the senate, to protest at the unfairness of the punishment. The pro-hanging lobby in the senate prevailed. An enormous crowd, armed with stones and flaming missiles, tried to halt the process. Nero rebuked the public, and ordered the entire route along which the condemned slaves were being led to execution should be lined with soldiers. It was also proposed that all the freedmen who had been in the house at the time should be deported. This was vetoed by the emperor on the grounds of unreasonable cruelty.

serving a banquet

Mosaic of slaves serving at a banquet, from Carthage third century AD. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

A slave could purchase his freedom or achieve it by a process of manumission which was at the discretion of the owner, but which became such a popular process at the beginning of the empire that Augustus introduced laws restricting it. A freedman had full rights of citizenship except that of holding public office. Some freedmen became even richer than the masters they had once served.

Overview of this page [Ref: 5.4]


Slaves - acquisition, treatment, occupations; freedmen.


Julius Caesar

Acquisition of slaves by conquest was a standard practice. Julius Caesar records laconically of his Gallic campaign that on one occasion he sold off a whole town, for which the dealers gave him a receipt for 53,000 men, women, and children.


“You think me barbaric, Rusticus, and too fond of my food, because I beat my cook when my dinner is below standard. If that seems to you a trivial reason for the lash, what other excuse is there to flog a cook?” (Martial, Epigrams, VIII. 23)


“Remember that he whom you call your slave came into life by the same route as you, basks in the same sky, and breathes, lives, and dies in the same way as you do. You can observe the free man in him just as he can see the slave in you” (Epistles, XLVII).


Slaves could obtain their freedom by saving up their “peculium” (personal earnings in the form of pocket money, gifts, or tips) until they had enough to buy themselves out. The process of freeing a slave is known as manumission. Slaves could also be freed under a person’s will, or being pronounced free in front of five witnesses or in writing. Manumission was not, however, at all common among agricultural slaves. A freed slave became his former master’s client.


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Believe it or not:

Slave dealers in the ancient world accompanied armies, hoping to pick up their merchandise cheaply and in bulk. Sometimes, however, they got things spectacularly wrong, as when in 165 BC they backed the Syrians to defeat the Maccabaean Jews.