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The Roman Slave Trade

The Roman economy was built on a foundation of slavery, which was taken for granted as a normal feature of society. Even the early bishoprics and monastic houses kept slaves, despite the radical ideas of Christianity which emphasised equality.

Most slaves fell into their unfortunate position after being captured in battle or condemned for a criminal offence. Julius Caesar brought back a million people from Gaul. Huge numbers of people must have been enslaved after the conquest in Britain, and Strabo classified them among the goods exported from pre-Roman Britain to Gaul. Aristotle refers to a slave as a ‘vocal tool’. They were seen as non-persons who could justifiably be traded as a commodity. A good slave cost 2000 denarii, although a pretty girl could cost 50,000 denarii including tax. According to the sales contract, they are ‘non-returnable, except for epilepsy’.

Roman SlaveThe children of slaves became slaves themselves. They were branded, or wore a collar with the words: ‘I have escaped. Send me back to my master.’ At the Hambleden villa a large number of infant burials suggests that a slave’s life expectancy was very short - if, indeed, the bodies are those of slaves’ children. The owners might rear the children to sell them on, but it would have been expensive to wait until they were old enough for the market. Women might be sold specifically to produce children, who then became the master’s property. The master could sleep with a woman slave and sue any other man who did so for violation of his personal property. Many women slaves worked in brothels or mines. A woman slave could not marry without her master’s permission, and the poet Martial tells the satirical tale of a master who sold his slave mistress but bought her back because he could not bear to be parted from her. If she worked in a household, she might be required to spend hours preparing intricate hairstyles for her mistress. Such a scene is shown in a relief found in Neumagen, Germany, in which one slave is dressing her mistress’ hair, one is holding a mirror, and two are standing by to apply perfume.

Slaves were badly treated in many ways, including being put in chains. Large neck rings and thick ropes kept slaves from escaping. Two small bronze figurines, one from Cumbria and one from London, show slaves sitting with ropes around their necks, continuing to be tied around their hands and then around their feet. The body of a man at Cirencester, who suffered sixteen fractured ribs, may have been an ill-treated slave.

Slaves could suffer punishments that were far out of proportion to the small mistakes that had prompted them. One man would throw slaves into his fishpond and watch as they were torn apart by huge lampreys. On the other hand, the tasks they were forced to carry out were often torture enough in themselves. They operated the factories and the silver mines, where they ‘pray for death, so great is their suffering’. Farm work was hard enough for city masters to use it to threaten their slaves. Slaves maintained and repaired the aqueducts; worked on the docks; and did the most unpleasant jobs on the imperial estates. They might have their hair cut off so that a wealthy Roman could use it for a wig or hairpiece. They would clean the temples and unblock the sewers. The city government employed slaves as builders and street sweepers. Gladiators were usually slaves, and every day thousands of criminals, slaves and prisoners of war were forced to fight until only one remained alive. Slaves joined a guild in order to benefit from some sort of social cohesion and support. For example, if a master did not uphold his legal duty to bury his slaves, the guild would make the arrangements and ensure that the correct rites were performed at the burial and on the anniversary of death.

A luckier slave might work in a home doing menial tasks such as cooking, nursing and massage. They would wait on diners at the evening meal, or accompany their masters to the baths, carrying their towels and cosmetics. For the sake of prestige, a wealthy Roman might show off a huge number of slaves, since their quantity was the measure of his worth. Masters liked to boast that they did nothing for themselves, and used some of their slaves to carry out pointless tasks like walking ahead of them to point out obstacles, or greeting the master’s friends. More useful but nearly as wasteful were the chores of lantern-bearing, scavenging or shouting out the time in places like the baths, where there were no clocks.

There were some reforms as the empire progressed; Claudius forbade owners to abandon their slaves when they became old or sick. Spartacus led a revolt in the year 73, which lasted two years. Seventy thousand slaves rampaged through southern Italy, but they were eventually defeated and six thousand of them were crucified and left to rot along the Appian Way.

Despite all this, some slaves were lucky enough to work for masters who not only treated them according to the law, but actually afforded them some power. Indeed, because of heavy taxes, some people voluntarily enslaved themselves to the nobility. For a long time the Emperor’s slaves and freedmen (ex-slaves) were in charge of the civil service. Greek slaves were valued for their education, and Pliny the Younger treated his more educated slaves as equals, and encouraged them to discuss intellectual matters. Some masters loved their slaves, and even sent them on holiday to Egypt if they were sick. Rome was full of ‘lazy, sleepy slaves, lounging around waiting for their masters at the playing field, or the theatres, betting shops and snack bars’.

It was possible for slaves to better themselves; if a gladiator was victorious, he could earn his freedom. Otherwise a slave might receive peculia (money gifts) from his master, and save them over many years to buy his freedom. Another way to earn money was to buy a child slave, train him and sell him to the master at a profit. Even after a slave had earned his freedom, he might remain sincerely attached to his master or at least to the food and shelter that the master offered. Greeks and other well-educated slaves became tutors, bookkeepers or estate managers. Some slaves were encouraged by their masters to learn a trade; one such slave became a goldsmith and dedicated an altar at Norton in Yorkshire. Slaves could marry freeborn citizens, but at the expense of the latter’s freedom. One such marriage might have been that between Claudia Martina and Anencletus, a slave of the provincial council. Claudia Martina died aged only nineteen.

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