Slavery in Roman Times: Hoping for Freedom While Legally Classified as a Thing
In ancient times, slavery was a normal part of virtually all cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Slave labor was the engine that powered many segments of the Roman economy, and it underpinned the lifestyle of the Roman elite. While the Empire-wide slave population has been estimated at 15% during the early Empire, in Italy and Sicily it was as high as 30%.
Each time Rome’s armies conquered a new area or reconquered a rebellious one, many of its men, women, and children were captured and sold to the slave traders who followed the legions. These men transported the newly enslaved to slave markets throughout the Empire.
By the time the Empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan in AD 117, more than a million people had been taken as slaves. While many Dacians from the region of present-day Romania were already Roman slaves, Trajan’s two wars with Decebalus (AD 101 to 102, 105 to 106), injected as many as 400,000 newly enslaved Dacians into the Roman markets.
A slave was considered property to be treated however the owner wished. The Latin legal term for slaves emphasized their lowly status: res (a thing, an object, property). In the Digest, which compiled centuries of Roman law in AD 533, a slave was called a res mortales (mortal thing), and any injury was treated as damage to the property of the owner and nothing more.
When a person was first enslaved, it was customary for the first owner to rename him or her as part of stripping them of personhood. Names often reflected their place of origin (Dacius for a male slave who came from Dacia). They could be named after plants or animals, after a physical characteristic, or even a number. If a slave was sold, the new owner often changed the name again. Born Diegis in Dacia, the hero in True Freedom was renamed Dacius to reflect where he was born. After he almost dies rescuing his owner’s daughter, Julia recognizes his selfless bravery by renaming him Leander because of his courage as he fought to save her.
Owning many slaves was a way to flaunt a person’s wealth. Although the private home of an average person in Rome might use five to twelve slaves, the elite might have up to 500 slaves in their urban townhouse (domus), even though a fraction of that number could perform the tasks. Many of these slaves had limited duties and ample free time while they waited to serve.
Owners often allowed their urban/household slaves (familia urbana) to go to the public baths, watch chariot races and gladiatorial games, and even run their own small businesses. Masters sometimes became friends with those who served them as stewards, secretaries, and in other duties that allowed frequent personal contact. It was common for some to be freed during the owner’s lifetime or, more likely, in the will of a paterfamilias (legal head/patriarch of a Roman family who owned all the family property).
In contrast, life as a farm slave was one of constant toil. The familia rustica of a large estate might include two or three thousand slaves, and often they were treated worse than the estate’s livestock. A slave or ex-slave overseer (vilicus) made them work them from dawn until dusk, seven days a week. Unless an owner decided to free a fraction of his farm slaves in his will, servitude was usually until death.
The Latin terms for farm equipment demonstrate the farm slave’s subhuman status in Roman society. A farm implement, like a plow, was an instrumentum. The ox pulling the plow was an instrumentum semivocalis. The slave driving the ox was an instrumentum vocalis, a talking tool. Their lodging was an ergastulum (private prison), and on some estates, farm slaves might work and even sleep in chains.
Life could be brutal for a Roman slave, but for those who were freed, the future could be bright. When freed by a Roman citizen, some became Roman citizens themselves. New freedmen had limited political rights and specific obligations to the ones who freed them. But their children from a legally recognized marriage had the full rights of any freeborn Roman citizen. Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freed slave, even became emperor.
When a Roman citizen freed a slave (manumission), the new freedman or freedwoman joined one of three classes: Roman citizens, Junian Latins, and those given the status of an enemy who fought against Rome and then surrendered (peregrini dediticii). If the owner was over twenty and the slave over thirty, a new Roman citizen was created. For slaves under thirty, manumission made them Junian Latins without citizen rights but with more rights than foreigners.
Under special conditions, a slave under thirty might get full citizenship. Natural children of their owner could be made citizens. A female slave being freed to marry her former owner also became a citizen so their children could be full citizens. For a male slave, citizenship was granted if he was to become an agent in business with his former owner.
For older slaves, the master and slave appeared before a praetor (judge), and the slave was declared free. The praetor touched the slave with a rod to officially free him or her. This manumission “by the rod” (vindicta) could occur anytime and anyplace, even while walking through the streets or relaxing at the baths. The freed slaves became Roman citizens, although they were barred from holding elected office. For slaves under thirty in Rome, a council of five senators and five equestrians convened to determine whether the conditions for citizenship were being met.
Once freed, the former master became the patron and the new freedman his client. While the patron or his children lived, a freedman owed specific services to his former owner. The most significant was his duty to give his patron officium. This could consist of a specified number of days of work (operae) or their equivalent in money. Often the new freedman continued working for his patron as he had before being freed. Like other clients, freedmen often visited their patron during the morning salutation to express their respect and often to receive a gift of food or money from their patron.
When a male slave was freed, his name changed one more time. He took his former owner’s first and clan names (praenomen and nomen) and added his slave name as his third name (cognomen). For example, when Leander was freed by Tiberius Julius Secundus, he became Tiberius Julius Leander. In essence, a freed slave became a member of the former owner’s extended family.
In the polytheistic Roman society, it was not uncommon to allow a slave to worship gods different from those of his or her Roman owners. Some chose to become Christians, where they were welcomed as brothers and sisters even by wealthy Romans who owned many slaves themselves. The teaching of Paul the Apostle explained this unusual relationship in his letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (ESV).
Paul also told Christian slaves how they were to behave. “Bondservants (slaves), obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” Galatians 6:5-7 (ESV). One can imagine how hard that must have been when a master was cruel and treated his slaves like livestock.
In True Freedom, Diegis is torn from his childhood home by Rome’s conquering armies and sold as a farm slave to labor until he dies. Renamed Dacius, his faith gives him strength to bear what he must and serve without complaining. When he follows Jesus’s command to love even his enemies and rescues his owner’s daughter, gratitude for his loyal service brings the freedom he never expected, with all the benefits his Roman owner can bestow.