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Ancient Rome Slavery

Introduction

Think ‘slavery’ and the term brings to mind African slaves in the 19th century. Men were whipped as punishment or simply for amusement while women were raped without a fear of punishment for the rapists. Unfortunately, this treatment parallels how slaves in ancient Rome were treated.

Slavery in Rome was not based on race, and slaves essentially had no legal rights. The Romans were responsible for creating one of the few genuine slave societies 1 in the west and it was truly one of the most relentless and extensive slave systems in pre-modern history. Some historians estimate that slaves accounted for as much as 25-35% of the population during the early Roman Empire!

   Museo Nazionale Romano Romano-Terme di Diocleziano,  Ancient Roman slave collar with inscription : “I fled, arrest me. If you bring me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin as requested.”, (4th Century CE).

Museo Nazionale Romano Romano-Terme di Diocleziano, Ancient Roman slave collar with inscription: “I fled, arrest me. If you bring me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin as requested.”, (4th Century CE).

Slavery rightfully has its negative connotations, but it is worth acknowledging that slavery played a critical role in society and the economy in ancient Rome. Moreover, slavery in ancient Rome differed in terms of the right to social advancement, where slaves were able to obtain freedom through manumission 2 . As such, slavery in ancient Rome is important because slaves were imperative in the development of ancient Rome in the domestic, military and educational domains.

Domestic Slaves

Household slaves were crucial in the smooth running of a Roman house. Unlike publicly owned slaves, domestic slaves usually worked under a single master. Slaves performed a variety of domestic services, and multiple epitaphs record at least 55 different jobs a slave might have. 3 These domestic services include slaves being employed at highly skilled jobs and professions, like a teacher, secretary, accountant, and physician. Other manual labour jobs included "barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse/nursery attendant, and seamstress". Menial jobs like cleaning the house, preparing food in the kitchen, weaving cloth, and dealing with animals in the stables were also common.

Specialised roles like children’s nannies, body servants, and trusted secretaries brought certain slaves into personal contact with the family. Children, for one, would become very attached to their nannies. House-born slaves or vernae (singular verna), usually the offspring of two slaves of the house or a master and slave, were often held in great affection. In general, slaves were subservient and intimately involved with the lives of their masters. This often earned them trust and affection, and in turn, many felt great loyalty towards their owners.

   Fabien Dany, a picture of two  female slaves  (ancillae) serving their mistress. (1 August 2009).

Fabien Dany, a picture of two female slaves (ancillae) serving their mistress. (1 August 2009).

While household slaves likely enjoyed a comparatively higher standard of living among Roman slaves, life as a domestic slave was still harsh. Even the most tolerant owner would not hesitate to punish and discipline an unruly slave if necessary. One household kept leg irons in a cupboard, and some villas often had special cells to punish disobedient slaves.

A slave was also always reminded of their inferior position, regardless of how highly their masters viewed them. Graffiti on some houses in Pompeii suggests that some vernae were rented out for sexual purposes, despite being great favourites in the household. Roman slaves were also not regarded as fully human or equal to their masters, no matter how benevolent the household. Slaves were purely seen as human tools who did not require privacy or their own space.

Households did not have discernable sleeping quarters for slaves; slaves simply slept where they worked. Porters would have bedded down in the small cubicles they used to guard the household entrance. A personal servant would have slept in the rooms of their master’s or across their thresholds. Even after death, there was a need to emphasise the inferior status of a slave. Although many slaves had grave markers in or around the tombs of the family they had served, most were only marked by a simple stone stele, often unnamed.

   Jastrow - Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. “Here lies Eros, Posidippus’ chef, a slave”:  Epitaph on a Stele , (2006).

Jastrow - Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. “Here lies Eros, Posidippus’ chef, a slave”: Epitaph on a Stele, (2006).

Military Slaves

It is well known that one of the sources of obtaining slaves was through conquests or wars. However, it was very rare for slaves to be part of the Roman army. The only known and supported event when slave volunteers, known as volones, were recruited into the army as soldiers was during the Second Punic War in 216 BCE. At this time, the Senate called for volones to replenish the army. An entire legion made up of 8,000 volones fought bravely for Rome and were rewarded manumission.

Recruiting slaves as soldiers and rewarding them their freedom was not a novel idea as the Greeks had done that before. However, unlike the Greeks, the Romans were not embarrassed but celebrated the volones’ victories instead. In his accounts, Livy, a Roman historian, praised slave warriors for their discipline and reliability. This was because of a Roman belief that people, even slaves, are able to climb up to the status of Romans through virtue and hard work.

   John Trumbull - The Anthenaeum / Yale Unversity Art Gallery,  A picture depicting the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC , (1 January, 1773).

John Trumbull - The Anthenaeum / Yale Unversity Art Gallery, A picture depicting the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, (1 January, 1773).

Apart from those who have served as soldiers in the army, there were still slaves who served the soldiers and attended to their needs. Many Roman soldiers owned slave servants. Innumerable documents have shown that soldiers either inherited or borrowed slaves from their households, bought them while in service, obtained them through pillaging or inherited them from fellow companions. These slaves probably served as personal servants for the soldiers.

Another group of slave servants were called the servitia castris (camp slaves). These slave servants performed vital tasks for the Roman military and were probably camp property. Calones (grooms), agasones and muliones (baggage handlers), as well as galearii (helmet-wearers), constituted the group of servitia castris. Their tasks were to tend to the horses and baggage animals as well as to lead the animals in the baggage train. The servitia castris were organized and trained to defend the baggage if the enemies attack them. The calones also had to feed and muck the animals whenever the army was at rest.

Even though the servitia castris were known as camp slaves and were probably under the camp property, there is ambiguity as to whether the servitia castris truly only performed the tasks as mentioned above and belonged solely to the camp. There are legal sources that claim that cavalrymen possessed their own calones. Such reports imply that there was partial privatization4 of supply of resources in the Roman army.

Intellectual Slaves

Different from the domestic and military slaves, slaves who had better career prospects were regarded as “intellectual slaves”. Even though they still held no basic rights and freedom due to the Roman Law, they were given much higher respect and proper treatment from the Romans as compared to the other slaves. Moreover, the intellectual slaves were required by their masters to dress according to their roles to uphold the families’ reputations and images in the society.

Some highly intellectual slaves were already knowledgeable before they were claimed by the Romans. For example, Greeks became slaves to the Romans after Greece being dominated by the Ancient Rome Empire in 47 BCE. Despite of their servile status, the highly educated Greeks became tutors in Ancient Rome. Usually, the wealthy Romans would consider to hire Greek slaves to educate their children for primary education. To illustrate, Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave, was employed to educate his master’s child. As Greek education was deemed to be more advanced, more Greek slaves were brought to Rome to ensure that Roman children received a more complete and integrated education in Rome. Thus, Roman education had even adopted certain Greek educational prospects.

   Giovanni Dall’Orto,  A slave giving education to his master , (March 21, 2005).

Giovanni Dall’Orto, A slave giving education to his master, (March 21, 2005).

Apart from the Greek slaves, some slaves were also fortunate enough to be able to receive education through self-learning or even guidance from their masters. For instance, Marcus Tullius Tiro, a slave of the Cicero family, received education from his master. He was taught how to read and write Latin and Greek. They even gave Tiro a position as Cicero’s secretary. His responsibility was to note down Cicero’s opinions on governance, politics and philosophy. Tiro was a precious member to the Cicero family, both as a companion and as a partner for work. His intelligence and the depth of knowledge of his conversations were greatly appreciated and recognised by the Cicero family.

Moreover, as a slave, Tiro had another prestigious achievement in terms of inventing “Notae Tironianae”. It was the first shorthand5 method in the Roman history that was named as Tironian Notes. Tiro discovered this method when he was searching for an efficient and effective way to jot down Cicero’s speeches. It was a combination of abbreviation of Latin letters and Greek symbols. Later on, Tironian Notes because popular and was widely used in the Medieval Europe by the monasteries.

                  Squidonius,  Demonstration of Tironian Notes , (March 27, 2010).

               Squidonius, Demonstration of Tironian Notes, (March 27, 2010).

Intellectual slaves were given opportunities to work for their own allowance and future. They could take up occupations such as “accountants, doctors, teachers or even musicians”. After years of hard work, the intellectual slaves could then use the money earned in exchange for manumission with their Roman masters. In the case of Publius Terentius Afer, also known as “Terence”, his master was aware that he had the intelligence. Terence’s master sent him to receive proper education, which this resulted in Terence having the interest and ability in Roman playwright. Impressed by his great achievements, Terence was then set free by his master.

   Pieter van Cuyck (I),      Publius Terentius Afer   receiving honours for his playwrite, (1726).

Pieter van Cuyck (I), Publius Terentius Afer  receiving honours for his playwrite, (1726).

   Terence [Publius Terentius Afer] (author),  Terence's Comedies , in Latin, with Romanesque drawings, (1150).

Terence [Publius Terentius Afer] (author), Terence's Comedies, in Latin, with Romanesque drawings, (1150).

Conclusion

The idea of having to work for a brutal oppressor until your death is definitely a terrifying thought. Why any humane society would approve of such a cruel act is simply unimaginable in our world today. However, a key thing that differentiated the Roman civilisation from most ancient civilisations or from modern day slavery is the fact that Roman slaves could earn manumission, and most slaves did this if they had an access to education. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Knowledge and literacy are the keys to end slavery.” Continuous learning is no doubt essential to a free life, and this holds true even to today. Literacy would be the only ticket out of an ill-fated life.

Even in 2018, minority groups constantly have to justify their existence to people who refuse to acknowledge them due to ignorance and bigotry. Slavery in the Roman world was not based on any kind of bias. However, slaves literally had to save up to buy themselves if they wanted to be a free person. While we can never equate the magnitude of the emotional trauma of being a slave in ancient Rome to the experiences of these minority groups, the situations of the two groups share a similarity. Only by educating ourselves and being aware of what is happening to our fellow humans can we ensure that slavery of any form is not tolerated in our society ever again.

References

Abbott, F. F. Cicero: Selected Letters. (1909). Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library. Accessed on 18 March 2018.

Dhesi, J. An Investigation Concerning Ancient Roman Education: The Dispelling of Widespread Illiteracy and the Significance of the Classical Model of Education Grounded in the Lives of Scholars and Emperors. (2015). Retrieved from University of Colorado Boulder Scholar. Accessed on 14 April 2018.

DiRenzo, A. His Master’s Voice. (n.d.). Retrieved from Ithaca College. Accessed on 14 April 2018.

Ford, C. R. Contrast of Plautus and Terence. (1937). Retrieved from The University of Louisville’s Institutional Repository. Accessed on 14 April 2018.

Harrsch, M. Roman Slavery and the Rate of Manumission. (2015, 2017). Retrieved from Ancient Times at Blogspot. Accessed on 13 March 2018.

Hodges, V. A Journey in Chains: Study of the Ancient Rome Slave. Retrieved from Taxes A&M University Libraries - OAKTrust. Accessed on 21 April 2018.

Hooke, N. The Roman History From the Building of Rome to the Ruin of the Commonwealth. (1818). Retrieved from Google Books. Accessed on  20 April 2018.

Hornblower, D., Spawforth, A. & Eidinow, E. Livius Andronicus, Lucius. (2012). Retrieved from Oxford Reference. Accessed on 15 March 2018.

Hunt, P. Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery. (2018). Retrieved from Google Books. Accessed on 13 March 2018.

Morton, A. Slaves, Damnati and Freedmen in Ancient Rome. (2018). Retrieved from Alison Morton. Accessed on 20 April 2018.

n.a. Manumission. (n.d.). Retrieved from Oxford Living Dictionary. Accessed on 19 April 2018.

n.a. Livius Andronicus. (n.d.). Retrieved from Earthly Latin Writings. Accessed on 15 March 2018.

n.d. Shorthand. (n.d.). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed on 19 April 2018.

n.a. Slave Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, Sl. Accessed on 13 March.

n.a. Slavery in Ancient Rome. (n.d.). Retrieved from United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV). Accessed on 21 April 2018.

Phang, S.E. Roman Military Service: Ideologies of Discipline in the Late Republic and Early Principate. (2008). Retrieved from Google Books. Accessed on 13 March 2018.

Rodriguez, J. P. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; Volume 7. (1997). Retrieved from Google Books. Accessed on 13 March 2018.

Silver, M. Public Slaves in the Roman Army: An Exploratory Study. (2016). Retrieved from Academia. Accessed on 21 April 2018.

Footnotes

  1. Slave Society: A society where the fundamental class conflict is based on the division of people into masters and slaves, with slaves being the dominant producing class, and ownership over this complete commodification of the human being controlled by masters.
  2. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Manumission means "to release someone free from slavery".
  3. A large elite household might be supported by hundreds of staff!
  4. Probably the most practical way to handle resources at that time!
  5. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Shorthand means "a mothod of writing rapidly by substituting characters, abbreviations, or symbols for letters, sounds, words or phrases".
  1. Slave Society: A society where the fundamental class conflict is based on the division of people into masters and slaves, with slaves being the dominant producing class, and ownership over this complete commodification of the human being controlled by masters.
  2. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Manumission means "to release someone free from slavery".
  3. A large elite household might be supported by hundreds of staff!
  4. Probably the most practical way to handle resources at that time!
  5. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Shorthand means "a mothod of writing rapidly by substituting characters, abbreviations, or symbols for letters, sounds, words or phrases".