People with a Price: Slavery in the Roman World

Slavery has been a disturbingly normal part of human history. As an institution, slavery seems to be as old as civilization itself; images and documents going back to the third millennium BC demonstrate the antiquity of slavery, and the vast majority of historical societies have allowed the practice of slavery. As inhabitants of liberal, post-Enlightenment modernity, we have trouble appreciating how acceptable slavery seemed for most of the human past. It is a great tragedy that slavery – or “human trafficking” in the current parlance (see for more information) – still continues to exist, but virtually everywhere that it does still exist, it is a “black market” institution, carried on without the approval of the state. But until the nineteenth century, slavery was everywhere permissible. The abolitionist movement was the historical aberration, and we are the heirs of its great victories.

In the long history of slavery, a handful of civilizations stand out for the important role which slavery played in their social and economic structures. The greatest modern historian of ancient slavery, Moses Finley, called these societies genuine “slave societies,” as opposed to “societies with slaves.” These labels help us to understand the history of slavery. In a genuine slave society, slaves exist in very large numbers, they play a fundamental role in the economic organization of the society, and the practice of controlling slaves makes a major impact in the values of the culture. Few of history’s societies qualify as genuine slave societies, and pre-modern examples are exceedingly rare. The discovery of the New World, the rise of an Atlantic trade system connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and the development of modern capitalist trade which tied the production of agricultural “cash crops” like sugar and coffee, tobacco and cotton to the market – all of these promoted the expansion of slavery in the modern world. Yet the classical civilizations of Greece and especially Rome stand out as ancient examples of genuine slave societies.


It is a paradox of history that an institution as offensive and unjust as slavery seems to have flourished in societies that were otherwise advanced, even in some ways progressive. Slavery darkens the reputation of cultures whose literature, whose architecture, whose legal systems we can frankly admire. Various attempts have been made to explain this apparent disjuncture. Some have argued that the labor of the slaves allowed the masters the leisure necessary to pursue philosophical reflection and artistic expression; the great historical sociologist Max Weber emphasized that slavery was the basis of the urbanized economy and urbanized culture of the classical world. Still others claim that the idea of freedom was accentuated by the presence of slaves; the contemporary sociologist of slavery, Orlando Patterson, has made the point that the “freedom” of the Greeks and the Romans took shape against the unfreedom of the slave. There may be some truth in all of these arguments, but the fundamental reason why slavery and civilization seem to have developed in step is because slavery was closely related to the same deeper forces that we recognize as the drivers of progress in the long sweep of human history – forces like law and trade.


To appreciate this, we need to ask ourselves the basic question, what is slavery? It is a simple question and a fundamental one. Slavery is the practice of treating human beings as property, as commodities which could be bought and sold. When ancient philosophers reflected on the institution of ancient slavery, they admitted that this was the essence of slavery. In the words of the late Roman rhetor Libanius, “The slave is a person who will at one time or another come be owned by someone else and whose body can be sold. What could be more humiliating, than to have money taken by the old, given by the new master? Has not this body been mutilated, and this soul utterly destroyed?” The slave knew what it was like to sit on the block and watch him or herself be auctioned off for a price. The slave had to live in fear that at any moment he or she might once again be sold. At any moment, a slave family might be broken up by sale. Moreover, if the master died, the slave was part of the inheritance; if the master went bankrupt, the slave was part of the collateral. “Slaves can have no rest in their souls because of the uncertainty about future masters.”


The Roman law of slavery underscores the slave’s condition as a piece of property. Roman law is one of the greatest products of Roman civilization, and yet slave law is centrally important to the Roman legal system. The Roman law of slavery, in the words of an early twentieth-century legal scholar, was the most characteristic part of the most characteristic achievement of Rome. Slavery was a status. “The supreme division in the law of persons is this, that all men are either slaves or free men.” The great consequence of slave status was that the slave fell under the dominium of the master. Dominium – cognate with our word “domination” – was the foundational concept of the Roman law of property, signaling the virtually unlimited power to use and sell the object of ownership.


Roman law also tells us that the Romans believed there was an intimate connection between war and slavery; they believed that their slaves had been, in a broad sense, captured in war and subjected to slavery. Indeed, one of the ways they justified their slave system was by claiming that slaves were spared war captives whose alternative fate was death; so slaves were a sort of living dead, granted the “merciful” option of enslavement over slaughter in war. But Roman law recognized another way of becoming a slave: birth to a slave mother. The child ex ancilla natus, born of a slave woman, followed the mother into slavery. It is easy to understand why this rule was useful to masters: it eliminated the need to ask any questions about paternity, which avoided ambiguity and permitted the sexual exploitation of slaves by their masters.


Despite the ideology of war and conquest, one of the most important advances of the last twenty years has been the gradual recognition that in fact most slaves in Roman society were born into slavery. Whereas many ancient sources emphasize the role of war in supply slaves to the market, in reality natural reproduction was the main source of new slaves. This shift in our understanding has a number of important consequences. First, it underscores the importance of slave women, whereas earlier generations of study had focused on male slaves. Two, historians now believe that slave “families” were actually quite common. Of course, the slave family had no validity in Roman law (“among slaves there is no legal marriage”) and was perilously exposed to the dangers of the slave system, but the slave family was surely the principal way that slaves, on a day-to-day based, coped with and resisted the dehumanization of slave status. We know depressingly little about the realities of the slave family, even if compelling evidence for slave families is fairly widespread. Some of this evidence is “new” – such as an inscription recorded on a stone recently uncovered which lists the names and ages of 152 slaves on one estate where they were clearly grouped into smaller family formations.


The most profound consequence of our better understanding of the slave supply, and the crucial role of natural reproduction within it, is that it changes the way we understand what “caused” slavery. In other words it helps us to reassess the old question of why slavery became so unusually prominent in Rome. It was long held by scholars that Roman slavery was part of Roman imperialism, that the slave system was created by the Roman war machine. There is, clearly, some truth in this version of history. We need only remember that in his conquest of Gaul Julius Caesar was said to have killed a million enemies and sold another million into slavery; while these figures are not even remotely credible, they are a real enough reflection of the spectacular violence and horrific displacement the Roman armies were capable of effecting. In reality, though, the Roman slave system expanded in the late republican period, as the Roman legions were busy conquering the Mediterranean world, not because the conquests brought in millions of captured slaves, but because in the wake of conquest Rome achieved levels of prosperity and development which no civilization had yet seen.


It is clear that trade and economic development accelerated in the late Roman republic and into the early imperial period. Slavery advanced in step with Roman progress because the Roman economic system generated a massive need for slave labor. Urban populations – above all the great capital itself – created markets for the products produced by slave labor. For example, the great cash crop of the ancient world was wine. Wine was consumed on a massive scale in Roman civilization (imagine a world without coffee, sugar, tobacco, marijuana, and many other stimulants, and where beer was “barbaric,” and you can begin to imagine the place of wine in Roman society). The great wealth of the senatorial and equestrian classes was built on the back of slave labor, and wine was the royal road to riches.


Still, one of the most striking facts about Roman slavery is the sheer diversity of occupations performed by slaves. Slaves were prominent in the production of agricultural goods like wine, wheat, oil, etc. But slaves also acted as textile workers and domestic laborers, as doctors and scribes, as pedagogues and as business agents. In fact not a few slaves in Roman society were highly educated, and many of these were of Greek background, fluent in the classics of Hellenic culture. Perhaps the greatest philosopher of the Roman empire was Epictetus, a slave who earned his freedom and became a profoundly influential teacher of Stoic doctrine (including its core tenet that true freedom is internal and moral rather than external and legal: “every good man is free”).


The example of Epictetus reminds us that there were fundamental differences between ancient and modern slavery, of which three are especially important. First, to an unusual extent, the Romans allowed manumission, the act of freeing a slave, and on unusually generous terms that could entail full citizenship. The hope of freedom – used as a powerful incentive to extract cooperation from the slave – colored the entire institution of Roman slavery. Second, ancient slavery was not race-based. The sinister connection between skin color and slave status was a purely modern contrivance. The ancient Romans were promiscuous enslavers. With their Mediterranean complexions, they had slaves who were both whiter and darker than them. Clearly blond-haired northerners ended up in Roman slavery, as did sub-Saharan Africans. Third, although sexual exploitation has been a part of every known slave system, in the modern world Christian culture at least nominally discouraged the sexual abuse of slaves; in the ancient world, by contrast, masters were expected, and in some ways deliberately encouraged, to use the bodies of their slaves as sexual objects. To an extraordinary extent, sexual exploitation was a routine part of the slave experience in Roman antiquity. It is clear from the unforgettable portrait of a freed slave in Petronius’ ribald Satyrica that the trauma of sexual exploitation was at the heart of the slave’s experience.


Unlike modern slavery, ancient slavery never provoked an abolitionist movement. Not even an educated ex-slave like Epictetus could imagine a world without slavery (though apparently a radical Jewish sect called the Essenes did, and a lonely Christian voice in the fourth century came close by arguing that slavery was inherently unjust). The more enlightened observers of Roman slavery recognized the slaves’ humanity and argued for mitigating slavery’s worst effects – the unbridled violence, the rampant sexual abuse – but fell short of advocating the overthrow of the institution.


The Roman slave system was both “ancient” and “modern,” but above all it was a unique historical configuration that lasted some five or six centuries – from the conquest of the empire in the late republic down to its very demise in the fifth century – and ultimately victimized hundreds of millions of souls. The first task of the historian is to understand the past, but this search for understanding does not mean that we must suspend our capacity, with all due humility, to judge the past, in all its complexity. Slavery was a pervasive part of Roman society, and an inseparable part of the Roman achievement.