Slavery in ancient Rome: how important were enslaved people to Roman society?

Whether you worked in the mines or as a concubine, life as an enslaved person in ancient Rome could be thoroughly unpleasant. Here we explore the dangerous world of forced labour...

Engraving of a Roman slave market

The Roman empire was hugely dependent on forced labour. It was a key foundation on which Rome’s power, wealth and influence was built. A great many enslaved people were set to work in menial and manual jobs – including agriculture, mining and construction.

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As historian Philip Matyszak explains, these types of jobs could be particularly brutal. “Being sent to the mines was a drawn-out death sentence,” he says “They worked in very dangerous, very unhealthy conditions lit by oil lamps, constantly breathing in fumes. They worked in a state of acute misery.”

Unfortunately, those working above ground in agriculture fared little better. “They 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.”

Not all enslaved people performed menial labour

Some of those enslaved, however, undertook work in what would now be considered white-collar jobs, such as teaching or accounting. For instance, middle-class Roman families, in their admiration of Greek culture, would often seek out educated slaves from Greece as home tutors for their children. Enslaved people from lands deemed to be of lesser cultural worth, such as Britain or Germany, were generally less attractive when it came to work that carried with it a level of responsibility.

That educated people could be put into slavery illustrates the idea that a large swathe of the population could be susceptible to a life – or a good few years, at least – in servitude. “Anyone could be a slave,” says Matyszak. “It was one of those misfortunes that could happen, like getting a terrible illness. You could decide to go off and visit a temple in Greece, get caught by pirates on the way and end up in the olive fields in north Africa. It was something that could happen to a lot of people.”

And piracy was just one way in which people became ensnared in slavery. Any child born to an enslaved mother would automatically become enslaved themsleves – regardless of the social standing of their father. There were also plenty of instances of free children being sold into slavery in order to improve a family’s financial circumstances or settle a debt.

What jobs did enslaved people do in ancient Rome? Here are three examples…

Agricultural slaves

Agricultural slaves toiled in the fields and endured terrible conditions. As well as being worked to the bone and malnourished, they were also commonly chained up and forced to sleep in ergastula (prison barracks).

Praegustator (food taster)

Roman feasts boasted flowing wine, sumptuous dishes – and the threat of poison. In the imperial household, a praegustator would sample all the delicacies before they touched the emperor’s lips, to make sure they weren’t poisoned.

Nomenclator (name caller)

At parties, feasts and political functions, a nomenclator’s job was to tell their master the name of whomever they met, so they would be saved the embarassment of not recognising who they were speaking to.

Enslaved people as property

Under Roman law, enslaved people were considered property. As with personal possessions, the wealthier you were, the more enslaved people you owned and the higher your social standing. The most prosperous households owned slaves for every imaginable purpose, purchased at the slave markets found in almost all Roman towns. Whether a slave was needed for cooking, for childcare or as a concubine, during the late Roman republic at least, supply was high and trade was brisk.

Many enslaved people hailed from the territories into which the Roman republic had expanded: a large proportion of these were former enemy soldiers, spared execution in return for spending the rest of their days in forced labour. According to Matyszak, it would be fair to suggest that certain military campaigns were effectively recruitment drives: “Some of the Republican wars in Greece almost translate as huge slave-raiding expeditions. The sack of Epirus, in 167 BC, for instance, ended with some 150,000 people enslaved.”

With the vast majority of Rome’s geographical expansion occurring during the days of the republic, the early era of the subsequent Roman empire – the relatively stable period known as Pax Romana – saw this supply line very much dwindle. Accordingly, legislation was introduced to further limit the ability of a slave to find freedom.

Devoid of legal rights, certainly during the republic, slaves were subjected to whatever punishment their owners meted out. Disobedience was met with brutal treatment that was often violent – and potentially fatal. For instance, in the event of a slave murdering his master, the punishment had dire consequences for the late owner’s other slaves, all of whom faced execution too.

Certain slaves – particularly those working in more prestigious roles – could develop a close relationship with their owner, which sometimes resulted in the slave being freed. This was the experience of Tiro, who worked as Cicero’s secretary for many years. The goodwill of slave owners was rare, though. Many slaves who were freed only did so by saving up any modest income – such as money given to them by their master for small personal expenses – and buying their way out of servitude.

  • Read more about how Roman slaves could buy their freedom through manumission

While escaping from forced work was almost exclusively an individual pursuit, there are examples of slaves rising up against the system, either against their own master or in organised rebellions. The most famous rebellion was led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus in 73 BC in one of the Servile Wars. It’s believed that Spartacus was killed in battle, while the surviving 6,000 slaves who had followed him were crucified, their bodies gruesomely strung up along a road called the Appian Way. The normal balance of power had been restored.

Was Spartacus a slave?

Very little is known for certain about Spartacus, but the records do show that he was sold into slavery to a gladiatorial school in Capua, 16 miles north of Naples. He may have come from Thrace and could have fought in the Roman army – it’s believed that the name Spartacus may have been given to him once he was enslaved.

Spartacus escaped captivity in 73 BC, along with 70 other enslaved people. Together, they made their stand on Mount Vesuvius, defeating the forces sent to deal with them. This victory inspired other runaway slaves flocked to their side – it’s estimated that Spartacus’s army numbered 100,000 at its peak.

Initially Rome didn’t take what it saw as a minor revolt seriously, but after a number of victories, General Marcus Licinius Crassus was sent to put an end to what would become known as the Third Servile War.

By 71 BC, Crassus had defeated the slave army and 6,000 surviving rebels were crucified. Spartacus is believed to have been killed in battle, but his body has never been found. Although Spartacus was ultimately unsuccessful, his attempt to rid the republic of slavery went on to inspire reams of books, films and television shows, as well as others hoping to instigate revolutions.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the September 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed