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Overview of Slavery in Ancient Rome - the Roman Slave Markets and Life of the Slaves

Updated on August 21, 2012

Slavery is the oldest form of abuse on human rights, yet a necessity for the growth of ancient civilizations.

Whether captured soldiers or unfortunate people caught in the open, evidences of slavery go as far as 1,300 years BC. But no other slave system has ever reached such humongous scale as the slavery in Ancient Rome. This hub will transport you back to first century BC in an attempt to review the Roman slave system.

The concept of slavery was not a new one in the ancient times, but the Romans took it to a new level.
The concept of slavery was not a new one in the ancient times, but the Romans took it to a new level. | Source

The number of slaves in Italy and Rome

With the growth of the Republic and the need of cheap human labor, the number of slaves grew, and with it prices plummeted to incredible lows. “Cheap like a sardinian” as the Romans said, a saying that came with the capturing of the island of Sardinia, wich resulted in a high number of slaves. Primary used in mining and agriculture, the number of slaves in a mansion could go up to 10,000 people. According to research made in Italy, then number of slaves during the periods in which the empire was at its peak, grew to a million and a half. That is approximately 25% of the isle's population during that period.

In the Eternal city, the percentage of slaves to citizens was around 25% - 40%, keeping in mind that the populace in the first century were about one million, resulting in having 400 000 slaves living in Rome.

Slave ethnicity

The ethnicity of the slaves was primarily dependent on the ethnicity of people living in the surrounding areas of the Italian cities and people with which Romans were at war with.

Ancient print picturing a group of slaves, each one originating from a different culture.
Ancient print picturing a group of slaves, each one originating from a different culture. | Source

During the second century B.C. When overseas provinces were established, slaves came primarily from Sicily, Cartage, Spain, Mala-Asia and Greece. With the slaves from the east being valued the most due to their higher cultural level. They were used for a variety of professions, primarily for medics, cooks and workers. Slaves from the Barbaric Northern and Western territories were sent to places where rough manpower was needed. They were considered easy to replace.

In the first century B.C. during the marches of Marius, Sulla, Cesar, Lucius and Pompeii, larger portions of the slave work force was composed of Gauls (when Gallia was conquered about 1 million of its denizens were sold into slavery). Other cultures also included Germans, Thracians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Numidians. Slave caravans followed the conquering army buying slaves directly from them.

During the time of the first empire, Roman conquests continued, but the number of slaves dwindled even with the constant flow of newly acquired slaves. This has lead to the first laws that would the protect the slaves from their masters.

Emperor Augustus was the first one to forbid killing of slaves. Later on emperor Claudius passed a law, which stated, that if a slave was to fall ill, his master was responsible for the treatment of the mentioned individual. Furthermore since slaves were interested in their work - it even became a common practice, for the slave to keep a part of the fruits of their labor.

Slave traders

The slave traders were called Mangones or Venalitii. With a low public status, usually working for the wealthy, senators and aristocrats, which would invest in the slave trade from Mala-asia, Africa and Krim. Because of the constant risk that slaves were either sick or old, they were stripped bare of their clothes.

Authorities would keep an eye out for a fair auction as well as the price of the slave being on par with the actual quality of the “merchandise”. If he or she had any downsides that were not stated by the trader, the last had to take it back in a six month period or give a bigger discount to the buyer.

The provincial slave markets

The entire empire was a working ground for the slave trade business. Slaves were shipped to provinces and sold at the local slave markets, with some of the providers working also as tax collectors.

Often times if a family couldn’t pay off their tax, they were taken into slavery, until they pay-off their debt. It is in these markets that the slaves were bought and re-sold to the wealthy slave masters, after the new “property” was shipped via ship or a caravan to their destinations. One of the bigger slave markets was situated on the Greek island of Delos, with the capacity to hold up to 10,000 slaves.

The most common source of slaves were the prisoners of war, criminals which were sentenced to slavery for their crimes also know as “Servi poanae”. The children born into slavery “sanguinolenti” - had no rights, just as their parents.

A mainstream of slaves followed Romes path of conquest and their ethnicity depending on winch part of the Mediterranean the Empire would expand in. Among the enslaved were people from Northern Italy, Greece, Iberia, Gallia, The Balkans, Egypt, Northern Africa, Britain, Dacia, Parthia.

Slave markets of Rome

The place of the first slave market in Rome was behind the Roman Forum and the basilica of Julius. It was called Graecostadium or a market for Greek slave trade with Greek slaves being high in numbers. After Emilie's victory over the the Macedonian tzar Perseid at Pidna in 168 B.C., 150,000 Greeks were brought from the conquered territories. The market was huge and most popular with the Romans. Slaves from the highest quality were offered at the, built by Septimus, “saepta” - the favorite meeting spot for Romans who came to buy.

Slave auctions and prices

The auctions themselves were complex and, as for any other good, the seller had to guarantee the quality of his stock, declare their origins (with small signs called “tituli”) and state their skills, if they had any.

Those that were tamed and taught were valued the most and could reach prices up to 12 times higher than the other slaves. There were even closed auction for the rich, looking for something exotic. The Romans had an eye for the foreign.

Antique print picturing Roman slave master selling female slaves.
Antique print picturing Roman slave master selling female slaves. | Source

The sales themselves were no different than buying livestock, or fruit. The “stock” was brought up naked with only their tituli. The buyers could go up to them to take a closer look, get a sense of what they are buying. If the seller could not guarantee for the slave, the slave would be wearing a hat.

Security was very important. After the stock was observed, chosen and paid for, the seller would deliver the selected slave or group of slaves to their new owner. Until the time of the exchange whey were being kept in cages made of iron or wood.

Punishment and mercy

A slave’s life was stripped of rights, but not from punishments. Slaves had their chores. If they fail to do their tasks, a punishment was awaiting in accordance with the task they failed at. Often the easiest treatment was to sent them away with no food.

With other measures being harsher and even going to the extremes. They would get beaten with a whip for disobeying their master and the only thing that would keep them safe from a severe punishment is the fact that they are valuable investments. Especially women.

Bought slaves had it another way. The worst for them was to have their head shaven and sent to work at their master’s villa, where the conditions were worse. There they would live in shacks, stuffed together. Many of them would try to escape those harsh conditions. Since a runaway slave can’t be sold again the Fugitivarii (head hunters of that time) were sent to capture and return the stock.

Usually a slave would have a mark on his forehead, or wear a collar with the name of his master. When the Fugitivarii return a slave he would get branded or tattooed with a stigma, one on his forehead depending on his crime – FUR for a thief, FUG for a runaway. Even the gladiators had markings, so they would easily be recognized if they take flight.

Indeed the live of a slave is harsh, but from time to time there were those that have earned their masters grace and were set free. Every five years, a citizen (and slave owner) was to go to Rome, to meet with a censor. In front of them they had to state family’s name, offspring, wife, all his wealth and lands including the slaves he owned. The higher number of slaves the wealthier the man (although in a time there was a saying “that many enemies, as many slaves”). And if the said person was pleased with his slave and decided to, he could set that person free. It is the censor that could register a newly freed slave and grant him citizenship, providing all right a Roman citizen has and giving a new life.

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    • profile image

      tom 2 years ago

      ik ben tom

    • tamarawilhite profile image

      Tamara Wilhite 2 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      One of the things that drove the Roman slave trade was the high value placed on boys, while female infants were routinely killed. It is estimated that among the freeborn and upper classes, the gender ratio was 7 men to 5 women.

      When around a quarter of all men cannot find a free wife, you get a large trade in women to fill in the demographic gap. We see that with the flow of brides and sex slaves into China today, where the one child policy and male bias created a similar gender imbalance.