If you were the galley slave, Judah ben Hur, could you have saved the Roman admiral in the shipwreck?
“The Slave Market” published in Ernst Keil’s Nachfolger, 1891.
Engraving derived from Gustave Boulanger’s oil on canvas work from 1882.
The people of the Empire were divided into three main categories: Roman citizen (civis), free noncitizen (peregrinus), or slave (servus, mancipium, res mortales).
Living somewhere was not enough to make you a citizen of that place. It was the status of your parents that determined unless the state decided to grant you citizenship. Citizens had many well-defined rights not granted to peregrines. Slaves had no rights at all.
Numbers and Status of Slaves
Slavery was considered normal in virtually all cultures in ancient times, and the Romans were no exception. The portion of the population that was enslaved varied across the Empire, with an estimated 15% Empire-wide. Overall, perhaps one household in seven owned slaves, but rates of ownership were much higher in Italy and Sicily. In those regions, perhaps as high as 30% were slaves during the early Empire.
Slavery was the engine that powered parts of the Roman economy and supported the elite Roman lifestyle. It was fueled by massive influxes of men, women, and children captured during Rome’s military campaigns. As the Republic and then the Empire expanded to its greatest extent under Trajan, more than a million persons from regions as distant as Judaea and Britannia lost their freedom. Each conquest pumped a fresh supply of cheap labor toward the estates, businesses, and homes of rich and average citizens alike.
The number of slaves a person owned was a conspicuous measure of wealth. While the private home of an average person living in Rome might use five to twelve slaves, the urban residence of the elite might have up to five hundred performing tasks that only needed a small fraction of that total. A large agricultural estate might employ two or three thousand.
The low status of a slave was evident in the legal Latin term for one: res (a thing, an object, property). In the Digest (a compilation of centuries of Roman law written in AD 533), a slave is a res mortales (mortal thing) whose injury is treated as simple damage to property.
The standard terms for farm slaves further illustrate the subhuman status of slaves. 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 sleep and even work in chains.
But as brutal as life could be for a Roman slave, there was hope for not just freedom but a bright future. The children of a slave freed by a Roman citizen became Roman citizens with full rights themselves. Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freed slave, even became emperor. In this, Roman slavery was fundamentally different from the practice in much of the world.
Slaves could be privately or publically owned. Their living conditions and opportunities were highly variable, depending on the temperament of their owner and the nature of their assigned work.
Private slaves were broadly divided into two categories: urban slaves (familia urbana) and country slaves (familia rustica). The former often had well-defined and rather limited duties, with plenty of time for going to the baths, running their own small businesses on the side, and waiting for orders in the company of other slaves. They frequently became familiar and even friends with their masters; the gift of freedom (manumission) was not uncommon during the owner’s lifetime or in his will.
The farm slaves usually served under a slave or ex-slave overseer (vilicus), who worked them from dawn until dusk, seven days a week, until they wore out and were disposed of accordingly. Unless an owner decided to free a fraction of his farm slaves in his will, servitude was usually until death.
As a general custom, a master would give his slaves a sum of money (peculium-slave’s purse) to spend as they chose. Although the peculium technically belonged to the master and he could take it back at any time, slaves were often allowed to accumulate the money and apply it toward purchasing their freedom. Urban slaves often had some free time for activities that could earn extra money. Technically, this also belonged to the master, but it was commonly treated as belonging to the slave.
Particularly talented slaves might serve as business agents for their owners. As living “things” (res mortales), slaves could not make legally binding commitments on their own. The peculium was the basis for the legal rules where a slave was an agent pledging his master’s credit in trade and contracts with third parties. The chief steward (dispensator, procurator) for many of the elite was a trusted slave or a former slave who had been freed for his excellent service.
Cities and towns often owned slaves directly and used them for public works, such as building roads, maintaining aqueducts, and cleaning and maintaining sewers and public accommodations such as latrines and public baths. The number was limited by the common practice of contracting out public services. For some crimes, the convicted person might be sentenced to a term of service on the same projects as public slaves.
Private slaves in public offices
Roman government was based on the often unpaid service of the wealthy elite. The nobleman who was elected or appointed to a government post was expected to provide his own administrative staff. These normally came from among his slaves and clients (freedmen and others who depended on the noble patron for personal favors). The practice extended even to emperors in the early Empire. Until the reign of Claudius, the close personal assistants of the emperors were almost entirely the emperor’s own slaves. Trusted slaves handled petitions coming in and instructions going out, acting as gatekeepers with exceptional power over what received the emperor’s attention. Some men chose to enslave themselves for the opportunity for such service, with the expectation that they would be freed later with the emperor as their patron and unlimited opportunities because of that.
The emperors from Claudius to Trajan employed their freedmen as their inner cabinet, men whose skills were known and whose loyalty could be trusted (except for the ones who assassinated Domitian). Hadrian changed the practice by requiring his immediate cabinet to be men of the equestrian order, but the execution of the real work under them was still the responsibility of the slaves and freedmen of the equestrians.
Even though it was officially a degradation of status, free women often married the servi Caesaris and the liberti Augusti who were the civil servants of the Empire. Many emperors valued the loyalty resulting from the hereditary service of fathers and sons. The slaves were often manumitted at the minimum age of 30 to become freedmen with all the advantages of being the client of an emperor. The fortunate ones were also awarded the “gold ring” or received a “restitution of free birth” ruling that allowed the former slave to become an equestrian if he had the required 100,000 denarii.
For the same crimes that might send a member of the senatorial or equestrian orders into exile for a period of time, the ordinary citizen or peregrine might be sentenced to a term of service on public works projects, with or without accompanying fines or substantial loss of property.
A free man convicted of some crimes might be stripped of all property and made a permanent slave. A sentence of damnatio ad metalla sent the condemned man to work in the mines or quarries. An alternative sentence was ad gladium, which sent him to a gladiatorial training school. Both ad metallum and ad gladium were essentially death sentences after the state got some work or entertainment out of the condemned man.
A slave convicted of a crime was often executed immediately after trial by crucifixion or by being killed and eaten by beasts (damnatio ad bestias) as the morning or midday event in an area.
How to Become a Slave
There were several common ways to become a slave, ranging from events at birth to catastrophes as an adult. The main ones are listed here.
Born to a slave parent
Since slaves were officially nonpersons, there was no such thing as a legal slave marriage. However, legal recognition wasn’t necessary for slave families to exist. Many couples formed through natural affection, but sometimes the master or overseer would put the couple together. On rural estates, it was much like breeding cattle. After the influx of slaves from newly conquered lands dried up, the price of slaves rose, and home-born slaves (vernae) became more important.
The children born to a slave were the property of the parent’s owner. The common attitude of the Roman elite toward fathering slave children themselves is enshrined in Roman law, which forbade adultery among free citizens but regarded anything a master did with any slave to be perfectly acceptable. If the master’s natural sons were fortunate, they might be formally adopted and gain all the rights of his legitimate children. Natural daughters could not be adopted. Adopted children suffered little if any social stigma because of their parents’ relationship.
Especially for farm slaves, bearing enough children could lead to freedom. If a woman bore three children, she might be exempted from heavy labor. If she bore four, it was not uncommon for her to be freed, but natural affection for her children who remained slaves often tied her to the estate.
Conquered and Captured in War
The Romans were not unique in making slaves of the people they conquered, but they were more efficient than many. Slave traders (venalicii) followed the legions and bought the new captives for transport to the major slave markets of the Republic and then Empire.
Vast numbers became available after a successful campaign, driving prices down. Skilled warriors often ended up in the arenas as gladiators while women and children swelled the ranks of ordinary slaves.
The number of slaves shipped home during Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaigns from 59 to 51 BC cannot be known for certain, but some estimates approach a million.
The number of Jews enslaved during the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66 to 73) was approximately 100,000 with around 20,000 taken from the Jerusalem area alone in 70 AD.
While many Dacians entered the Roman slave markets as “normal” sales before Trajan’s two wars with Decebalus (AD 101 to 102, 105 to 106), estimates of the newly enslaved because of those wars reach as high as 400,000.
Sentenced for a crime
Conviction of some crimes could result in loss of Roman citizenship and enslavement as penal slaves. Sentences were typically to the mines (ad metalla) or to the gladiator school (ad gladium). Both were effectively death sentences.
Different rules applied in the provinces, where most people were not Roman citizens. At his own discretion, a provincial governor could make a noncitizen a slave for almost any reason without any possibility of appeal. As portrayed in the novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and its movie versions, Judah ben Hur might easily have been sent to the galleys at the whim of Governor Gratus, but it would have been a private galley, not a warship of the Roman navy. The crew members of a warship were all free men who volunteered for a military career.
It was a serious crime to kidnap and enslave a free person, but it was all too common, especially when the supply of new slaves through conquest dried up. Roman law even included specific procedures for a slave who claimed to be a free victim of kidnapping to attempt to prove that fact in court.
The Latin words for kidnap (surripio, surrupio, praeripio, subripio, rapto) are also the words for steal, grab, hide, and rape, which well describe the treatment of the victims. The “possession in bad faith” of a Roman citizen (knowingly holding one captive) was called plagium, and an extensive body of law addressed the various forms.
Bandits and pirates preyed on travelers, and slave traders raided across imperial borders and in remote areas within the Empire. Even walking alone at night in a city like Rome could end in assault and enslavement. A written bill of sale accompanied the purchase of a slave, but many slave traders were not scrupulous about asking for proof of legitimate ownership before making a deal.
Abandoned at birth
When a baby was born, it was presented to the pater familias, the oldest male who was head of the family. If he refused to accept the newborn, it was removed from the household and abandoned. Babies “exposed” to die could be picked up by anyone who wanted them. Many were taken to become slaves, although Roman law maintained that an abandoned freeborn baby remained freeborn regardless of its fate.
Abandoned persons who had been enslaved could regain their freedom if they could prove they were free when abandoned. However, that was very difficult to do. A presumed slave had no legal rights, so a citizen had to be found who was willing to act as adsertor libertatis to present the case in court.
Sold by your family
Since the power of a father over his children was absolute, he could sell a child into slavery. While this might be discouraged for Roman citizens, it did occur to pay a debt or avoid starvation.
Sold by yourself
While not technically allowed to sell themselves into slavery, some Roman citizens chose to enter a condition similar to slavery by contracting to serve like a slave for terms of several years up to life. Some gladiators were in this type of service.
Noncitizens could sell themselves, and some chose to sell themselves into the positions of steward or imperial slave, assuming they would be freed later to enjoy the benefits of having a rich or powerful patron.
The Slave Market
With an economy so dependent on slave labor, it is no surprise that the Roman state chose to regulate the trade in slaves. The slave markets were under the administrative authority of aediles in Rome and quaestors in other locations. Sales were documented by the exchange of a witnessed bill of sale.
For the poor soul who had just been enslaved, the slave market was a rude introduction to the debasing life that awaited them. “Full disclosure” was the rule for slaves and cattle in what was usually a caveat emptor commercial world. Slaves on the auction block were displayed naked so potential buyers could thoroughly inspect before bidding. A placard was hung around the neck of each slave that revealed (from a buyer’s perspective) the positive and negative characteristics of the person for sale. The seller (mango) was required to provide correct information about the geographic origin of the slave, any known health problems, tendency to run, attempted suicides, and any other known ”defect.” The placard also had to reveal whether the slave was undischarged from noxa, i.e., had committed an offense for which the owner was responsible either to pay restitution or to hand over the slave.
Roman law provided for “return for refund” if an unreported defect was found within six months after purchase. If a slave had an undisclosed health problem, even if the seller had no way to know about it, the slave could be returned for a full refund of the purchase price.
Fragment of a fresco showing slaves preparing a meal, AD 100–150
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
How to Become Free
Manumission was the legal process whereby a slave became a freedman (libertus) or freedwoman (liberta). The freed slave of a Roman citizen became a Roman citizen but with limited political rights and specific obligations to the one who freed him. The children of these freed slaves had the full rights of any Roman citizen.
Those who were born as free citizens but forced into slavery by kidnapping or abandonment as a baby remained Roman citizens, and there was a court procedure to regain their freedom. As slaves, they could not bring suit in court, but an adsertor libertatis could represent them to present the evidence of their free status. It might sound easy, but it usually wasn’t. Even if a slave could find a free citizen to advocate for him/her, it was often impossible to gather compelling evidence that he/she had been kidnapped or abandoned by citizen parents as a baby.
An owner who was a citizen could perform a formal manumission that conferred citizenship or an informal one that did not.
To free a slave, 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 could be done at any time and any place where the praetor might be found, even just meeting in the street, providing certain standard requirements were met. The master freeing the slave had to be at least twenty. The person being freed had to be at least thirty or an acceptable reason for early manumission had to be presented to the praetor in a court setting. There were a few generally acceptable reasons for early manumission. One was for the slave to marry the master, although senators were forbidden to marry their freedwoman.
A second way to formally manumit a slave was to record him or her as free in the census list when it was next updated.
Perhaps the most common way was to free some slaves in the master’s will. Augustus set limitations on the number of slaves that could be freed by a will. For estates between 100 and 500 slaves, one fifth could be freed by will. For even larger estates, the number was limited to 100.
Some slaves were freed by informal means such as by letter or by announcing the manumission among friends. This was sometimes done when the legal requirements for formal manumission could not be met. Examples include when the slave was under thirty, the master under twenty, or the total number freed by a will exceeded the legally allowed number.
During the Republic and early Empire, people freed in this way remained officially slaves but were in practice free. Rather than becoming citizens like the masters who freed them, such former slaves became Junian Latins after adoption of the lex Iunia Norbana in AD 19. They lacked some important legal rights, such as a legally recognized marriage and the ability to make a will. Junian Latins could receive citizenship at a later time if the former owner performed the formal manumission procedure or if the emperor granted citizenship rights to the individual.
Despite the risks of even more brutal treatment upon capture, running away was common. An owner had the full support of the Roman legal and policing systems in regaining possession.
A slave with a history of running often wore a metal slave collar bearing a label identifying the owner, the place to return the slave, and sometimes the amount of reward. If a slave with a history of running was put up for auction, the placard around his neck that described his origin, skills, and defects had to include his past attempts to escape.
The punishment for running away was determined by the owner: corporal punishment, a slave collar, branding (often on the forehead) with F or FUG, or sale to an even less desirable owner for harsher work, like into the gladiator school, the mines, or the galleys.
Sometimes the slave found it too hard to survive as a runaway (fugitivus) and returned voluntarily. Even the harsh conditions of slavery might seem preferable to starving if the escaped slave could find no alternative.
Until a Senate resolution made it illegal under a charge of plagium to buy or sell a runaway, an escaped slave might be in league with a “runaway-man,” who would offer to buy the escaped slave from the legal owner for less than full value. Once the runaway-man owned the runaway, the slave might pay what the runaway-man asked for his legal manumission. Sometimes the slave got less than he expected; rather than sell him his freedom, the runaway man would sell him into slavery again at full price.
For many, the life of a slave proved too much to bear. Suicide was a socially acceptable solution to life’s problems, even among the free and wealthy. For a slave on the auction block, attempted suicide was one “defect” that must be listed on the sales placard that hung around the neck. Cases are known where slaves who had been condemned to die in the arena found ways to kill themselves before facing that fate.
Freedmen not quite free
Although a former slave who had been freed by a Roman citizen became a citizen as well, the new freedman was not equal to a freeborn citizen under Roman law.
Citizens without all the rights
Freedmen who were Roman citizens still lacked some of the privileges of full citizenship. They could not serve in a regular Roman legion, although they could serve in the noncitizen auxiliaries that functioned much like the legions. Even if they met the personal wealth requirements of 400,000 sesterces (equestrian) or 1,000,000 sesterces (senatorial) of the elite orders, they could not become members without a special grant from the emperor. They could not be magistrates in provincial towns that were coloniae, whose citizens were former legionaries (who were all Roman citizens) and their descendants.
After Augustus, a senator could not contract a legal marriage with a freedwoman. This restriction extended through his grandsons, and his daughters could not marry a freedman.
Legal Obligations between Freedmen and Their Patrons
After emancipation, the freedman entered a new permanent relationship with his former master. The master became the patron and the freedman his client. As long as the patron or his children were alive, the freedman owed specific duties that were enforceable in court. This was assumed fair because the patron had conferred the invaluable gift of citizenship on his slave through manumission.
An overriding principle was that the client must not “harm” the patron. For example, a freedman needed specific permission from the civil authorities to sue his patron. The only criminal charge a freedman could bring was treason. The same was true for the patron against his freedman.
A freedman was required to give his patron officium, general services performed for the patron. Both before and after the manumission ceremony, the new freedman swore a binding oath to give his new patron a certain number of operae (man-days of work) or the monetary equivalent. In many cases, the freedman continued working for the patron in the position he had before manumission, which made fulfilling this requirement simple.
As a client, the freedman was also expected to visit his patron most mornings to pay respect and usually to receive a gift of food or money. In many ways, the patron/freedman relationship was like that of parent/child.
Not all clients were former slaves. Many were men of lower social status currying favor or of nearly equal status who were obligated to the patron for some reason. A patron with many clients often wasted much of the morning in receiving these visitors.
Many freedmen built considerable wealth of their own after manumission. If their patron should fall on hard times, the freedman was required to support the patron. If the patron died, the freedman might be required to become the guardian for his minor children.
Masters often freed slaves for the purpose of matrimony, and special rules applied. If a female slave was freed to marry her former owner, she could not divorce him or marry another without his permission. Further restrictions were placed on women who freed a man for the purpose of marriage. She had to be a freedwoman herself, and the man had to have belonged to the same former owner.
A freedman took his former owner’s first and clan names (praenomen and nomen) and added his slave name as his third name (cognomen). For example, if Malleolus was freed by Publius Claudius Drusus, he became Publius Claudius Malleolus. In essence, a freed slave became a member of the former owner’s extended family.
A freedman who became a citizen could will his property to legitimate heirs. If all his heirs were illegitimate, his patron received half his wealth, regardless of the terms of the will. After Augustus, the patron received an heir’s share regardless of the legitimacy of the freedman’s children if the estate was large. Since any wealth accumulated by the freedman was presumed to come from the money given him by the master when he was freed, it was considered only fair for the patron to be an heir.
If the manumission was informal so citizenship was not received, the freedman became a Junian Latin with fewer rights than a citizen.
Differences between Jewish and Roman attitudes and practices toward slaves
Not all societies in the Mediterranean world followed the Roman model of treating every slave as mere property with the children born to slaves being slaves themselves. The most notable exception was found among the Jewish people, whose treatment of slaves was defined by the Law of Moses in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25. While Jews were allowed to buy slaves who were not Jews, make them slaves for life, and will them to their children, they were not allowed to do so with fellow Jews. The reason given: “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
When a Jew sold himself to a Jew, he was to be treated the same as a hired worker, not like a slave. The term of service was six years, and he was to be freed in the seventh year. If he became a slave while already married, his wife left with him. If his master provided a wife, the wife and any children remained with the master. If the newly free man didn’t want to leave his family, he could choose to become a bondservant who served permanently. The contract between him and the master was witnessed before a judge and sealed by piercing his ear with an awl against the doorpost of the master’s house. The faithful steward, Simonides, in Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had chosen to become a permanent bondservant in accordance with this law.
The Year of Jubilee came every 50 years. At that time, the Jewish slave was to be set free and all his children with him. If a non-Jew bought a Jewish slave, the slave retained the right to be redeemed by any blood relative, including himself. Depending on the number of years to Jubilee, the redemption price was prorated downward from the original sale price to reflect the remaining years the Jewish slave would have served. In the Year of Jubilee, even non-Jewish owners were required to free their Jewish slaves and all their children.
Christian perspective on slavery in the 1st century AD
At a time when the class distinctions of Roman citizen versus non-citizen, of slave versus freedman versus freeborn undergirded every aspect of a person’s life, a radically different understanding was being taught within the Christian communities. It is best summed up in the letters of Paul of Tarsus (the apostle) to the Christians of Galatia (now Turkey) around AD 50 and again to the Christians of Corinth in Achaia (now Greece) around AD 56. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).
What did this mean in practice? It did not mean that Christians automatically freed all their slaves. It meant that the concept of a slave as a “living thing” (res mortales) or “talking tool” (instrumentum vocalis) was replaced by one where the slave was a servant to be treated with dignity as a member of the extended family, a brother or sister in Christ. While under house arrest in Rome in AD 60, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon in Colosse in Asia (now Turkey), asking him to forgive his runaway slave, who had become a Christian after running away. Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus again as a member of Philemon’s household, as not only a slave but as a brother in Christ. The slave voluntarily accompanied the messenger back to Colosse, confident that his return would be met with forgiveness rather than the punishment expected for running away.
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