Slavery was a horrific, though unavoidably normalised, facet of ancient Roman society. It’s thought that, at times, enslaved people made up a third of the population of Rome.
Enslaved Romans fulfilled duties in practically every sphere of Roman life, including agriculture, the military, the household, even large engineering projects and the imperial household. As such, ancient Roman civilisation owes a great deal of its success and prosperity to the forced service of enslaved Romans.
But what was life really like for an enslaved Roman? Here’s how the system of slavery worked in ancient Rome, and what that meant for enslaved Romans across the Empire.
How widespread was slavery in ancient Rome?
Slavery was rife across the Roman Empire, an accepted and widespread practice in Roman society. Between 200 BC and 200 AD, it’s thought that roughly a quarter, or even a third, of the population of Rome was enslaved.
There were various ways a Roman citizen might have been forced into a life of slavery. While abroad, Roman citizens could be snatched by pirates and forced into servitude far from home. Alternatively, those with debts may have even sold themselves into slavery. Other enslaved people might have been born into it or forced into it as prisoners of war.
Enslaved people were regarded as property in ancient Rome. They were bought and sold at slave markets across the ancient world, and were paraded by their owners as a sign of wealth: the more enslaved people a person owned, it was thought, the greater their stature and wealth.
Considered the property of their masters, enslaved Romans were often subjected to vile treatment, including physical and sexual abuse.
That said, while slavery was largely accepted as a fact of Roman civilisation, not all agreed with the harsh or violent treatment of enslaved Romans. The philosopher Seneca, for example, argued that enslaved people in ancient Rome should be treated with respect.
What work did enslaved Romans do?
Enslaved Romans worked across practically all areas of Roman society, from agriculture to household service. Amongst the most brutal work was in the mines, where the risk of death was high, fumes were often toxic and conditions were foul.
Agricultural work was similarly gruelling. According to historian Philip Matyszak, agricultural servants were “treated by the farmers as part of the livestock, offered as much compassion as was given to the cattle, the sheep and the goats.”
In domestic settings, enslaved Romans might fulfil the role of a cleaner as well as a concubine. There’s also evidence that those who could read and write might have served as teachers to children or as assistants or accountants to influential Romans.
There were also less typical duties for enslaved Romans. A nomenclator, for example, would tell their master the names of everyone they met at a party, to avoid the embarrassment of a forgotten title. Alternatively, a praegustator (‘food taster’) of the imperial household would sample the emperor’s food before he ate it, to verify it wasn’t poisoned.
Could enslaved people be freed in ancient Rome?
To avoid enslaved Romans fleeing captivity, there’s evidence that they were branded or tattooed as a sign of their status. Yet enslaved Romans weren’t expected to wear an identifiable form of clothing.
The Senate did once debate whether a specific item of clothing be designated to enslaved people in ancient Rome. The suggestion was overruled on the grounds that slaves might join forces and rebel if they could distinguish how many slaves were in Rome.
Obtaining freedom by legitimate means was also a possibility for enslaved people in ancient Rome. Manumission was the process by which a master could grant, or perhaps sell, an enslaved person their freedom. If formally pursued, it granted the individual full Roman citizenship.
Emancipated slaves, often referred to as freedmen or freedwomen, were permitted to work, although they were barred from public office. They were still highly stigmatised, however, and were subjected to degradation and abuse even in freedom.