|Female slaves attend their mistress|
The Digest of Roman Law, the Code of the Emperor Justinian, drew a fundamental distinction between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus, or slave. A slave was defined as someone in potestate, in the power of a master, whereas the free person is sui juris, able to act in his own right.
A slave was a res, a piece of property; he could be bought and sold and left in a will. He had no civil status or rights. He could not own property, vote, or serve in the army. He could not legally marry, but could with his master's permission, enter a form of marriage. He could not bring an action in a law court. Evidence in law was only allowed if it was exacted under torture. This is because they were deemed unable to act freely; only torture could free them from the control of their masters. Slaves were part of the master's household (familia). The pater familias had complete control over them. He could punish them by whipping them, imprisoning them in a slave prison (ergastulum) or even having them executed.
- The majority of slaves were prisoners captured in war - eg Caesar in Gaul. The country of origin was important. Greek slaves were valued for intelligence and skill. But as many slaves had Greek names, their purchasers could be misled.
- Piracy was second to war as a source of slaves and was often a cover for the slave trade.
- Brigands often captured travellers and sold them as slaves.
- Some were born slaves. Slaves could not marry legally, but they could live together as man and wife. Children became the property of their owner. Children of masters and slave girls were also slaves.
- Although Roman law forbade the practice of buying and selling a free person, this did happen in practice. In 85-84 BC Sulla, by his heavy tax demands, forced many parents to sell their children, and eventually themselves. Peasants forced off the land often sold their children into slavery - therefore the number of slaves was always increasing.
- A result of being exposed as an infant. If unwanted children were found, they could be made slaves.
- Under the Principate, criminals might be enslaved as a punishment for serious unrest and made to serve in the mines or the quarries. Crimes included theft, sacrilege and arson.
The evidence is thin. It is possible that in Italy at the time of Augustus there might have been 2 million out of a population of 7 million. In Rome, out of about 1 million inhabitants, perhaps a quarter were slaves. The philosopher Seneca (4 BC- AD 65) wrote in his piece On Clemency:
‘On one occasion a proposal was made by the Senate to distinguish slaves from freedmen by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves began to count our numbers.’(However, compare with US figures when in the slave-holding estates in 1850 there were 51 slaves to every 100 free men.)
Slaves on a villa rustica: A large proportion of slaves, perhaps the majority, were employed on country estates. When the upper classes grew rich from the spoils of war, they bought up land, and these new, large estates were worked by slaves. Slaves were part of the property and classed along with the farm stock. The day was long - 9-15 hours, with few holidays. They lived in barracks. In the master's absence, slaves were under the control of the vilicus, usually a slave himself. Slaves who displeased their masters were kept chained in prison overnight. Augustus ordered these prisons to be inspected. Before then, there was no supervision. Rural slaves were less likely to be freed than slaves in a city.
Ad gladium - sent to the arena
Ad ludum - sent to training school
Ad bestias - thrown to wild beasts
In households: Cleaning, cooking, serving, gardening; nurses, tutors.
|A slave holds up his master's writing table|
Urban slaves had more holidays in the town than in the country. Many of the slaves were specialists - hairdressers, litter bearers, secretaries. Such people were only busy for short periods. The greater the level of skill, the better the treatment. Many slaves were given a wage (peculium) by their masters. It remained the property of the master, but slaves were usually allowed to save it, and they could use it to buy their freedom.
These were owned by the state and the towns. Many were used for clerical jobs especially in financial affairs. Others acted as assistants to the aediles. Slave craftsmen belonged to a trade guild association. The chances of freedom for able and ambitious slaves who served in the imperial bureaucracy were good. But the majority were engaged in menial jobs.
The Roman proverb was: ‘Every slave we own is an enemy we harbour'. The Sicilian revolt of 135 BC and the Spartacus revolt show the dangers inherent in slavery. Many slaves, especially those from Gaul, Iberia and Thrace, had been born free. Masters were always vulnerable to the despair of the slaves. Slaves prepared their food, shaved them, and helped them to bed.
The classic Roman attitude is represented by the Elder Cato’s, 2nd century BC work On Farming. His sole motive was profit: slaves to be treated like animals, though there is more anxiety about the welfare of an ox, which is less capable of looking after itself. The best principle of management is to treat both slaves and animals well enough for them to work hard. But from the late Republic and the Principate there is evidence of changing attitudes. The number of new slaves available from the wars declined with the advent of the Augustan peace. The last big haul of slaves was after Trajan’s Dacian wars. After this, the supply dried up and the slave began slowly to be replaced by the tenant farmer.
'I am more upset about it than anyone would suppose I should be about a slave’s death’.
Seneca's Moral Letters contain an epoch-making statement of his attitude to slavery:
‘Please reflect that the man you call your slave was born of the same seed, has the same good sky about him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do.'
From the 1st century onwards we find epitaphs to the souls of dead slaves. Slaves belonged to associations defraying the funerals of members of their community.
Cinerary urn for the freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two women, probably his wife and daughter
‘He ought never to have been a slave and now you have decided that he should be our friend instead.’He went on to mention his own freedman and in doing so, revealed a primary motive for manumission:
‘The loyalty which I receive from Statius is a sheer delight to me; so how much more you will gain in the same way from Tiro- and more, because Tiro is a scholar and a conversationalist, a humane man, and these are qualities which count for more than material values.’
A slave granted his freedom by a Roman citizen became a citizen himself, a strategy of incorporation without parallel among other slave-owning societies. However, though he could become a citizen, a freedman could never qualify for membership of the Senatorial or Equestrian orders, or the higher magistracies. But the sons of freedmen born after manumission could rise high. Horace became Augustus’s court poet.
Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and no-one could imagine a society without it. The Roman conquests increased the supply of slaves into Rome, where they a variety of occupations. Roman slavery was distinctive in that it manumission was relatively easy. The Romans believed that freedmen were a valuable resource for the state and provided a wealthy man with a trusted body of clients.