published on 18 January 2012
Slavery was an institution established very early on in Rome’s history, and it was extremely common in virtually all ancient civilizations. Slaves were a vast, unlimited source of labor, and even the poorest Romans could usually afford at least one slave.
Slaves could be born into the system or brought into it in a variety ways. Prisoners of war and captives by pirates were a major source of slaves in ancient Rome. Fathers also had the power to sell their children into slavery, and some children who were abandoned and left for dead were picked up by slave traders and sold as slaves.
Slaves were distinguished from Roman citizens based on the type of clothes they wore. Roman society was very visual, and a slave’s clothing left much more skin exposed than the clothing of a free person.
Slaves were treated as property, not people. They could be violently beaten at any time, they had no parental or matrimonial rights and their testimony was only considered valid in court if collected under torture. Slaves were, however, provided with shelter, food, clothing, and sometimes medical treatment, none of which were guaranteed for all free people. In fact, early on in Rome’s history, Roman citizens used to sell themselves into slavery in order to receive these necessities. A law was later passed by the Senate that made this illegal.
Not all slaves did the same kinds of jobs. Some were even provided professional training and served as managers, accountants, craftsmen, and teachers. Those who worked in the city enjoyed the most autonomy because they were often sent out on errands in town and could earn tips. Slaves were able to keep any money they earned and could use it to purchase their freedom. Slaves who worked in the country on villas had to endure harsh physical labor, but generally worked in healthier conditions than those in the city. Criminals and excessively violent slaves were sent to work in the galleys. The average life expectancy of slaves who worked here was 3 years. The only place worse was the silver mines. Slaves who worked in the mines had an average life expectancy of only 6 months.
Because they were not Romans citizens, slaves were looked down upon by Romans. They were seen as drunken, greedy, lazy, untrustworthy, and childlike. Yet, many people also viewed them as extremely loyal. Indeed, slavery was not merely an economic relationship. In many ways, the relationships between slaves and other members of the familia were very much familial. Slaves commonly played a large part in raising children (especially in wealthy households) and in educating them from a very young age. Moreover, there were loving relationships between masters and slaves. It was not uncommon for slaves to be given gifts, and there are countless examples of tombs and monuments that were set up for slaves, freedmen, and descendants of slaves.
Slaves were not guaranteed to be enslaved for life. They could be granted freedom through a process called manumission, meaning “to send from the hand [of the master].” Usually, freedom was granted in one of three ways: the master could declare a slave’s freedom in front of legal witnesses; the master could free his slaves in his last will and testament; and slaves could purchase their freedom if they were fortunate to save up enough money.
Slave names were not the same as names of Roman citizens. They often had short one-word names. Some slaves were able to keep part of their original names, while others had new names assigned to them by their masters. A freedman, on the other hand, took the praenomen and nomen of his former master, and his slave name became his cognomen. Freedmen then became clients of their master, who became their patron. They were expected to continue to provide service and due loyalty to their former masters.