The Role of War in the Slave Economy of the Roman Empire
There were three basic types of people in the Roman Empire: Roman citizens, free noncitizens, and slaves. The first had many special rights, and the last had no rights at all. Under Roman law, slaves were simply property that could be treated like other animals.
There were several ways a person might become a slave: born to a slave mother, abandoned as a baby because the head of the family didn’t want the child, sold into slavery by a poor parent, captured outside the Empire by slave traders, kidnapped within the empire and sold, and captured in war.
From the time of the Roman Republic through the expansion period of the Roman Empire, war was a major source of slave labor. After a battle or the sacking of a city, the defeated were collected and guarded by soldiers. The commanding general then decided their fate. Although some were released to become subjects of Rome, death or enslavement was more likely. When Corinth was conquered in 146 BC, all adult males were killed, and the women and children were made slaves.
Slaves were just one more kind of plunder to be used for the profit or glory of Rome and its military leaders. Right after a battle, the defeated warriors and often civilians were collected and guarded by Roman soldiers. By the middle of the first century AD, manacles with chains had become a standard part of a legionary’s equipment. Soldiers often received a personal share of the plunder, which might include people. In 52 BC, Julius Caesar gave each of his legionaries one slave to be kept for personal use or sold to the traders who followed the army.
Romans regarded anything taken from an enemy as their rightful property, including people. Usually, the questor, who was responsible for the financial affairs of a legion, took charge of the captives and sold them to slave traders who followed the legions as they advanced against Rome’s enemies. Sales of captives were called sales under the spear (sub hasta) or under the garland (sub corona) because war slaves in the second century AD wore a garland on their heads while being auctioned.
Slave traders transported the captives from the conquered territory to many parts of the empire. That often started with a long walk to a coast where the slaves could be loaded onto ships for transport around the Empire. It was common for men to have metal shackles clamped around their necks. Chaining slaves together made it harder to escape on the long treks. Women and children were considered less likely to try to escape and weren’t always chained.
From the Republic through the Empire, military success was measured in part by the number of slaves taken and sold. The money from such sales paid the expenses of the Roman state, including paying her armies, building public facilities, and funding future wars.
The numbers of people enslaved following a successful Roman campaign were staggering. In 167 BC, over 150,000 slaves were taken from Epirus, a relatively small area spanning parts of present-day Albania and the western coast of Greece. In 57 BC, Julius Caesar took 53,000 from a single tribe in Gaul (present-day France). During his Gallic wars between 58 and 51 BC, he might have taken as many as one million Gauls as slaves.
In the First Jewish Revolt of AD 66 to 70, 97,000 slaves were taken from Judaea. Emperor Vespasian used the wealth plundered from the Jews to replenish a Roman treasury depleted by the civil wars of AD 69 and for public building projects. Many Jewish slaves were used to build the Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum), started by Vespasian and finished by his son Titus, only to be killed in the games in the amphitheater they helped build.
After Trajan’s Second Dacian War (AD 105-106), between 400,000 and 500,000 Dacians were enslaved, allowing the new Roman province of Dacia to be largely repopulated by Romans and their allies. Combined with the wealth from Dacia’s rich gold and silver mines, slave sales helped fund Trajan’s many public building projects, from the massive public Baths of Trajan (larger than eighteen American football fields) to a huge forum (1000 x 600 feet). A hill was flattened to make room for the forum’s construction.
Trajan’s Forum included a huge basilica along one side for government activities and public gatherings. Along the adjoining side was a six-story building (large parts still standing) of shops and offices that served as an ancient shopping mall. Two libraries (one Greek, one Latin) stood behind the basilica with a courtyard between them. In that courtyard was Trajan’s column. The column (still standing) is ninety-eight feet tall and has carved scenes of the First and Second Dacian Wars spiraling up it. In vivid detail, the scenes tell the story of those conflicts from the preparations for the first war through the Roman triumph in the second. Since no account written at the time of Trajan’s Dacian wars still survives, the column is a vital source of information about those conflicts in particular and Roman military practice in general.
One can only imagine the cost of such magnificent building projects, and slaves were one important source of the wealth that funded them.
Slave prices in the early second century AD varied considerably, depending on the age, fitness, and skills of an individual. A denarius was a silver coin worth about one days living wage. The very young were cheap (75 denarii for a 3-year-old boy) because mortality for children under five was high. Young slaves ranged from 175 to 600 denarii. One seven-year old boy cost 200 denarii, and a girl sold for 210. A young woman might sell for 250 to 675 denarii and a male slave for 350 to 700 denarii, depending on age and skill set.
Once the captives were sold to a trader at the questor’s first auction, they entered the slave trade as a commodity for resale. At the next auction, they would wear wooden plaques around their necks that described where they came from, what skills they possessed, and what defects they had, both physical and mental. They would be displayed naked so the bidders could see what they would be buying. It was common for a new owner to rename a newly purchased slave to emphasize the break between a former life as a free person and a new life as property.
Hope Unchained begins with Ariana, her younger brother Diegis, and her little sister Roanna held in separate cages sorted by age and gender, awaiting the questor’s auction. Although she is taken from her cage before that first sale and soon freed, her brother and sister start the march to the sea for a second sale that could take them anywhere in the Empire. Hope Unchained follows her attempt to find and buy her loved ones out of slavery before it’s too late to save them.