Slavery in Ancient Rome

‘Virginia in the Forum’, 1890. From “Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History Vol. II – Rome”, by Edmund Ollier. [Cassell and Company, Limited, London, Paris and Melbourne, 1890]. Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires after the Hellenistic civilizations, uniting Greece, Egypt, North Africa and the Near East with a single system of government. The Ancient Rome is also well known for its system of slavery like the Hellenistic civilization but with certain differences in its features and characteristics.

1. Roman Italy

Goths seen surrounded by slaves, drinking wine at a country villa in ancient Rome, 4th century AD. From Hutchinson’s History of the Nations, published 1915.(Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The heart of the Roman empire was the Roman Italy. Undoubtedly as the greatest empire, the Romans were constantly engaged in the warfare bringing huge quantities of booty to Italy in the form of money, treasure and slaves. The most common symbol stamped on Roman silver coins was the goddess Victory riding in a chariot and brandishing a whip from the middle of the second century BC onwards.

2. Slavery For The First Time

Roman Lady and Slaves, c1910. Slavery in ancient Rome played an important role in Roman society and economy. Slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Under Roman law slaves were considered property and had no legal standing. As such they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, torture and summary execution. From a ‘Pictorial Record of Remarkable Events in The History of the World’, published by James Sangster and Co., c1910. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Not the whole of the Roman empire was a slave society except Roman Italy. It was only in the Roman Italy that the slaves played an important part in production and formed a high proportion ( say over 20% ) of the population. It seems that in the Roman Italy, slaves began to be used by the landowners in the lands replacing the citizen peasants. This is a puzzling problem for most of the historians because slaves were expensive than the citizen peasants and they were often unwilling to work. On the other hand, citizen peasants were cheap and they naturally had an interest in increasing productivity of the land.

3. Advantages of Slavery

A Roman emperor is carried through the arena by armed forces, inspecting slaves, gladiators, and predators, Rome, Italy, after a painting of Henrie Motte, Digital improved reproduction of an image published between 1880 – 1885. (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Most of the agricultural writers of the period like Cato, Varro and Columella have agreed upon the fact that the involvement of the Roman slaves in the production process was undoubtedly profitable. For instance, Columella recommended the using of gangs of ten male slaves spread over a large farm. Evidently one of the prominent advantages of using slave labour was that the slaves could be organized into permanent work- gangs. They remained fully dependent on their masters to work long hours throughout the whole year. Also, unlike citizens, slaves were not liable to be called away for several years on military service.

4. Intrusion of Slavery

Roman floor mosaic of young slave carrying tray of food for a banquet, circa 2nd century A.D., from Carthage, Tunisia. (Photo by Chris Hellier/Corbis via Getty Images)

The intrusion of slaves into the work force replacing the citizen peasants happened also due to the fact that the presence of a substantial number of slaves in Roman society defined free citizens, even if they were poor, as superior. Another factor for the intrusion of slavery was that the presence of slaves in a household indicated the wealth and rich lifestyle of the slave owners. Not all slaves in a Roman household were directly involved in primary production or revenue generation. Infact, most of the domestic slaves furnished their owners with services that tended to consume wealth rather than produce it.

5. Slavery as Booty Capitalism

ITALY – JUNE 24: Slaves and soldiers, Trajan’s Column in the Forum of Trajan, Rome, Lazio, Italy. Roman civilisation, 2nd century. Detail. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

According to Weber, the slavery was a product of war and therefore it was booty capitalism instead of industrial capitalism. Undoubtedly, it was common to convert war captives or prisoners of wars into slaves. In Rome, slaves were allowed to be free or manumitted by their owners. There was a law passed at Rome in 2 BC, which regulated the number of slaves a slaveowner was allowed to set free in his will. Almost all ex- slaves freed by the Roman masters received Roman citizenship.

6. Slavery And Freedom

Ancient Rome – Young slave serving patricians in the triclinium during a banquet – engraving from “Usi e Costumi di Tutti i Popoli dell’Universo. Ovvero Storia del governo, delle leggi, della milizia, della religione di tutte le nazioni dai pi�� remoti tempi fino ai giorni nostri”. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Manumission was available to both male and female slaves. The Roman slaves were allowed to own their own property which was called the ‘peculium’. Many slaves invested their peculium in trade, money lending and production. According to the Twelve Tables, Rome’s first codified body of law, if an ex- slave, a freedman died intestate and had no heir, his former owner who was now his patron, was to collect his estate.

7. Cruelity towards the slaves

Ancient Rome, Young slave serving patricians who are lying on a triclinium during a banquet, Engraving in ‘The Spanish and American Illustration’ (1887). (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

Many slaves of the Roman household were often cruelly treated. Some were also used for sexual gratification by their masters. According to the sources, Emperor Marcus Aurelius was spiritually satisfied for the fact that he had not taken sexual advantage of two slaves he identifies as Benedicta and Theodotus when it had clearly been in his power to do so. The physician of the second century AD, Galen reported that the Emperor Hadrian once in anger stabbed a slave in the eye with a stylus. According to the accounts of Roman literature, Emperor Augustus ordered that the legs of a trusted slave be broken because he had taken a bribe and revealed the contents of a letter.

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