Slavery in Ancient Rome
The main source of slaves in ancient Rome was the capture of prisoners. Namely, the captive foreigners constituted the overwhelming majority of slaves in ancient Rome, as evidenced by the analysis of numerous written sources, in particular, gravestone inscriptions. For example, as pointed out by the famous French historian S. Nikole, most slaves in Sicily at the end of the II. BC. e. (when slavery on the island reached the largest scale) were born in Asia, Syria, and Greece, which were captured by Rome before.
For them, the slave was associated with the foreigner. Just as the ancient Greeks considered an inferior race of barbarians, the Romans shared the same view on foreigners whose natural state was slavery. For example, Cicero wrote about the widespread view that some races were born for slavery.
Another source of slaves was a sea robbery that reached its peak in the era of the first triumvirate (the middle of I c. BC.), which, in some periods of Roman history, also significantly contributed to the increase in the number of slaves.
The third source of slaves was the creditor's right to enslave his debtor. In particular, Twelve Tables legalized such a right in V BC. E. Upon expiry of the loan, the debtor had one month of benefits; if the debt was not paid, the court gave the debtor to the creditor and the latter kept him at home in shackles for 60 days. The law was defined for such cases, the amount of bread that receive prisoners (at least 1 pound per day), and the weight of the shackles (not more than 15 pounds). During the prison term, the lender could display his debtor to the market three times and declared the amount of debt. If no one expressed the desire to redeem it, he turned into a slave, which the creditor could sell, but just outside the Roman territory. Those Twelve Tables gave father the right to sell his own children into slavery.
However, in the IV. BC. e. Rome passed Hinges law, which prohibited to enslave the Roman citizens - now only foreigners could become the slaves, and only in exceptional cases (for example, the commission of a serious crime), the citizens of Rome could be enslaved. According to the Roman law, the Roman citizen who was declared insolvency (bankruptcy) publicly was deprived of all his possessions, which were selected in the payment of debt, but he maintained the personal freedom. Although there is mention of the fact that the law was evaded, but historians believe that it was not about the debt slavery, but about some forms of working off the debt without a formal slavery.
During the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean in the II-I centuries. BC. debt bondage became an important source of slaves once again - but due to the inhabitants of conquered countries. There were many cases of mass slavery in the territories conquered by Rome for failing to pay the high Roman taxes.
There were some cases where the government has exposed the citizen maxima capitis diminutio, that means, made him a slave, for his crimes. Condemned to death criminals were enlisted in the category of slaves (servi poenae), because in Rome, only a servant could pass into the hands of the executioner. Later, for some crimes the sentence was commuted, and they were exiled to the mines or quarries. Finally, if a free woman had intercourse with a slave and did not stop it, despite the protest of the lord, she also became the slave.
In addition to the mentioned sources of slavery, the natural increase of the population of non-free could be added. Because of the slowness of this growth, the slave trade was established. Slaves were imported to Rome, partly from Africa, Spain and Gaul, but mainly from Bithynia, Galatia, Cappadocia and Syria. Trading brought more revenue to the treasury, as the import, export and sale of slaves was a taxed duty: a eunuch charged 1/8 the cost, with the rest - 1/4, charged with the sale of 2-4%. The slave trade was one of the most profitable activities; it involved the most distinguished Romans, for example. Cato the Elder, recommending for higher yields to buy and train slaves for resale. First place in the slave belonged to the Greeks, which had the advantage of experience. To protect the interests of buyers many measures were taken. Prices of slaves constantly fluctuated depending on supply and demand. The average price of a slave under the Antonines was 175-210, but in some cases, such as the beautiful young slaves, the price was up to 9000 p. In the late Empire (IV-V c.) the price of healthy adult slaves averaged between 18-20 gold solidus (for comparison: for 1 olid in the V century you could buy 40 modius = 360 liters of grain). However, the price of slaves was much lower at the borders of the empire, where there were captive barbarians. Child slaves also cost much less, usually only a few solidi.
The entire structure of the slaves was divided into two categories: familia rustica and familia urbana. In each estate led by familia rustica was the manager (lat. Villicus), who monitored the implementation of the slaves responsibilities, analyzed their arguments, to meet their legitimate needs, to encourage industrious and punish the responsible. The managers often used those rules very broadly, in particular where the masters did not intervened in the case, or were not interested in the fate of their slaves. There also was an assistant manager with the staff of supervisors and foremen. The following were numerous groups working in the fields, vineyards and cattle-herders, spinners, and weavers, fuller, tailors, carpenters, joiners, etc In large estates each group was divided, in decuries headed by decurio.
Sometimes familia urbana was also numerous, divided into personnel manager (lat. Ordinarii), who had the confidence of the master. and personnel for services in the house, and outside it (lat. Vulgares, mediastini, quales-quales). For example the housekeeper, cashier, accountant, supplies, bidders. among the second - the gatekeeper who replaces the watchdog and sits on the chain guard, doorkeepers, the guardians of furniture, silver keepers, cloakroom attendants, servants and so on. f. In the kitchen, there was a dense crowd of chefs, bakers od bread, cakes, pies. One service at the table of a rich Roman required a considerable number of slaves: one duty - to set the table, and others - to impose dish, the third - to try it, the fourth - to pour wine. There were some specific slaves to wipe the master’s hands. The crowd of beautiful boys, dancers, dwarfs and clowns entertained the guests at a meal. For personal service for the master, valets, bathers, domestic surgeons, barbers were appointed; in wealthy homes there were readers, secretaries, librarians, scribes, educators, writers, philosophers, painters, sculptors, counters, agents on business and so on. Between those shopkeepers, peddlers, bankers, moneychangers, moneylenders there were many slaves involved in one or the other thing in the favor of his master.
Besides slaves belonging to private individuals (lat. Servi privati), there were public servants (lat. Servi publici), owned by state or cities. They built the streets and aqueducts, worked on quarries and mines, cleaned sewers, served in slaughterhouses and in different public workshops (weapons of war, rope, gear for ships and so forth.); they were also occupied with the magistrates lower positions - messengers, servants of the courts, prisons and churches; They could be public cashiers and clerks. A retinue was made of these slaves that accompanied each of the provincial officer or commander to place of his position.
Ancient writers have left us many descriptions of the terrible situation of Roman slaves. Their food was very old: it was given only not to starve the slaves to death. Meanwhile, work was exhausting and lasted from morning to evening. Especially difficult was the situation of slaves in the mills and bakeries, where slaves were often tied to their neck to a millstone or a board with a hole in the middle, to prevent them from eating flour or dough. In the mines, the sick, mutilated, women and old men worked under the whip until they fell from exhaustion. In case of illness slave was transported to a deserted "island of Aesculapius," where he had a full "freedom to die." Cato the Elder advises to sell "old bulls, sick cattle, sheep, ailing, old wagon, scrap metal, old slave, and everything unnecessary." Cruel treatment with slaves was consecrated with traditions, customs, and laws. Only during Saturnalia slaves could feel more freely; they wore a special hat and sat at the table of their masters. All the rest of the masters and arbitrary controlled them. The chains, shackles, stick, whip were in vogue. Often the master ordered a slave to throw into the pit, stove, or sit on the forks. The slave seemed to be a rude and insensitive and therefore the punishment for him horrible and painful. Slaves were milled into millstones, their head were skull skinned, and masters chopped off the nose, lips, ears, hands, feet, or hung the slave on the bare iron chains, leaving at the mercy of predatory birds. Finally, they crucified slaves on the cross.
Apparently, slaves did not differ from the free citizens. They wore the same clothes, in their spare time went to the baths, theaters, stadiums. At first, the slaves had special collars with the name of the owner, which were quickly canceled. Senate even ruled on this matter a special provision, so the slaves could not figure out their whole quantity.
At the beginning of the historical life of ancient Rome, they did not have many slaves; even near the middle of V in. BC. e., at the direction of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the total population figure of 440,000 there no more than 50,000 slaves with freedmen. In this era the Romans are not rich, harsh, do not need a lot of manpower - often after winning the battle, the enemy prisoners were kille: after the defeat of the Samnites, eg., 4,000 prisoners were killed in one day by specially sent soldiers. Position of the slave was regulated by the manners and customs, and was generally tolerable. Slaves were mainly prisoners of war and they were close to their masters by race, language, beliefs and lifestyle. Master personally knew his slaves, he cultivated land with them, and in the house his activities did not differ from activities of slaves; slaves often acted as advisors and companions of his master, ate with them at the same table , performed religious celebrations. They had their own family; they were allowed to save for themselves the property, which subsequently could serve as a means of redemption for them to become free.
This "heyday" of slavery occurred during the grand Roman conquests of the late republic (II-I centuries. BC. E.) And the first century of the Roman Empire (the end of I in. BC. E. - The middle of I in. BC. E.) when the inhabitants of the conquered countries and territories captured the vast majority of slaves. Ancient sources mention the huge numbers of prisoners who became the slaves.
The inhabitants of conquered countries were enslaved not only at the time of the conquest of Rome, or the suppression of uprisings, but for as long as they retained the power of Rome. The most common thing was slavery for debt or non-payment of taxes, and this practice has acquired a mass character. In particular, during the period from the end of II. until the second half of I in. BC. e. tax collection by private tax farmers became popular. Romans appointed incredibly high taxes that most of the locals were not able to pay, and into account of tax evasion debtors themselves or their families were enslaved. Huge number of provinces population conquered by Rome in this period has been stolen into slavery in Italy for tax evasion.
Thus, during this period the Romans turned into a "nation of masters", which accompanied with the whole army of slaves - mostly foreigners enslaved during the Roman conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean. Moreover, this army replenished through new looting and arbitrary in the conquered territories. In Italy, the slaves in that period were used in large numbers not only in households but also in agriculture, construction and crafts.
We know about several slave revolts occurred in II-I centuries. BC. e. in Italy and Sicily. In 196 BC. e. there was an uprising of slaves in Etruria, in 185 g - in Puglia. A more serious revolt broke out in 133, under the leadership of Yevney in Sicily. According to ancient author Diodorus, the number of rebels came to 200 thousand.
The most formidable uprising was a revolt of Spartacus (73-71 gg. BC. E.). His army counted almost 120 thousand people. However, according to the testimony of the Roman historian Appian and Sallust, in the revolt of Spartacus not only slaves were involved, but free proletarians.
In the following century, when the influx of prisoners has decreased, and the inhabitants of the conquered territories changed their status closer to the citizens of Rome, the number of slaves start to decline rapidly. There are signs of a reduction of this since the end of I c. BC., and even more - for I century. In a II-III. servants in the Empire and in Italy, constituted a small percentage of the population. The number of slaves in these centuries in the ratio was negligible, they were very expensive and were used mainly as domestic servants by wealthy Romans. The average price of a slave at this time compared to the IV. BC. increased 8-times. Therefore, only wealthy Romans could afford buying and keeping slaves, to keep slaves as domestic servants or use slave labor in the crafts and agriculture. In II-III centuries, it has lost all meaning and practically disappeared.
Transformation to serfdom had already begun in the II-III centuries. When a new kind of slave appeared. The owners of such estates endowed slave with plot of land, living away from the masters with more or less independent life, enjoyed more rights than slaves have ever had before: they could marry; in fact, slaves possessed their own farm. Therefore, slaves were no longer slaves, but they acted as serfs for rich Romans.
Finally, the history of slavery in antiquity ended with the official introduction of the serfdom or some of its variants in Roman Empire. This happened during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-305.). He had forbidden the peasants, under pain of severe punishment, to leave their place of residence. During the IV century Diocletian's successors tightened the measures and spread them on the overwhelming majority of the population. Laws and decrees of the Diocletian, almost all the citizens of the central and western provinces of the Roman Empire were attached either to a particular piece of land, or to his place of residence, as well as to a particular profession, which was hereditary.
Slaves became part of Rome's history. Their number and ethnicity have become one of the potential causes of the rising and fall of a great empire. It would hardly be fair to measure the current events of the distant past. Slavery is a phenomenon that is alive today and will live in the most hidden and ugly forms for decades. One thing is certain - Rome was the clearest example of the exploitation of man in the primitive conditions of the ancient world, thereby inscribing vivid and memorable page in the history of human civilization.
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Ackroyd, Peter. Ancient Rome. London: DK, 2005.
Macdonald, Fiona. Ancient Rome. Chicago, Ill.: Heinemann Library, 2005.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 2010.
Rostovtzeff, Michael. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.