A Short Guide to Roman Slaves
Anyone conquered by the Romans was liable to be enslaved, and so were rebellious provincials. Their children were automatically slaves. There were other sources of slaves, like people convicted of capital crimes. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 210-150 BC), the Roman commander in Spain 180-179 BC, crushed a rebellion in Sardinia in 177 BC. He captured so many slaves there that the Roman slave market was flooded with cheap Sardinian captives. Sardi venales, ‘Sardinians for sale', was the cry, and it became an everyday Latin expression for any commodity available in abundance and cheap as a result - a bit like our ‘Made in China'!
A slave's life Slaves could have desperately hard lives, like those sent to work in the mines or on large agricultural estates, but educated slaves owned by rich masters often lived better than poor free people. Slave marriages existed but had no legality so either partner could be sold if his or her master decided. Female slaves were liable to be sexually abused by their masters or overseers, but they also could be freed and married by their former owners. Punishments were arbitrary and down to the master or mistress's whims. Slaves were expensive to buy, clothe, and feed and that could encourage meaner masters to scrimp. Slaves in the household of a wealthy man could have a relatively pleasant life, especially if they came from parts of the Roman world thought civilised, like Greece. Pliny the Younger mentions walking and talking with educated slaves of his.
Many of his slaves might have been born in the household and were treated as part of the home. One of the reasons for better treatment was that the smarter members of the free population realised abusing slaves was likely to backfire. Largius Macedo was a praetor around the beginning of the second century AD, but his father was a freedman. As was so often the case with men who came from lowly ori- gins, Largius Macedo went over the top to show how upper class he was and treated his own slaves cruelly. So one day, while he was bathing at his villa, some of his slaves attacked and beat him and left him for dead. Other faithful slaves revived their master and a hunt went out for those who had escaped. Most were recaptured and punished, but Macedo died a few days later.
Slave rights Slaves also had some rights, which were steadily increased in the days of the emperors. It became illegal to kill a slave or get rid of a slave simply because he or she was ill. There were strict laws against castrating slaves or abusing their bodies in other ways. Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) even made it possible to prosecute the murderer of a slave. In Egypt in the year AD 182, during the days of Marcus Aurelius, an 8-year-old slave boy called Epaphroditus rushed up to the roof of his master Plution's house to watch a procession of dancers go by.
He fell off in the excitement and was killed. He might only have been a slave boy, but the papyrus document that records the disaster also records how his master's father-in-law Leonidas made arrangements for the boy's proper burial. Slaves, wherever they lived, had no freedom. One of the ironies of the way Roman society evolved into the Dominate established by Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, is that many ordinary citizens found themselves effectively enslaved to their jobs and homes with no right to move away or change profession.
More by this Author
By the third century BC, the mixture of old patrician families and wealthy plebs had become the new aristocracy (nobiles) of rich landowners - the only respectable source of wealth for a Roman aristocrat. The nobles...
Slaves in the Roman world, unlike most other slave-owning societies from ancient to early modern times, could always hope they might one day be freed. There were millions of freedmen and women in the Roman Empire, found...