Slavery in the Roman World

As expected of the ancient world and particularly of the Roman world, slavery was incredibly brutal and unrelenting. The slave in the ancient world served in a wide variety of capacities, some physically arduous to the point of being debilitating, while others performed servant duties and clerical activities. The treatment of a slave depended, as in all cases of slavery, upon the civility of their master. The Roman Republic served as the example for modern states, specifically the United States. It is no surprise, therefore, that one will find similarities between Roman and American thinking on slavery and their treatment of slaves, making knowledge of ancient slavery important to those studying the slavery in the Americas that would occur almost two thousand years later.

In the Roman world a person became a slave through a variety of means that evolved throughout time. In the beginnings of Rome, the primary form of slavery was debt bondage, a precarious pact in which an individual would become indebted to a noble through being unable to repay debts and serve as a slave until that debt could be repaid, often for life. Later in the third century B.C., debt bondage would be outlawed in Rome, and other forms of slavery became more common. Children could be sold by their families as slaves should parents prove too poor to feed their offspring. Criminals also could be turned into slaves as punishment. Kidnappers and pirates also supplied slaves, and children born to parents that were slaves also became slaves upon their birth. But by far, the most common way one became a slave in Roman society was through conquest: the Romans, as is well known, had a propensity for conquest and decimation. Rome’s immense territorial expansion meant many wars and many prisoners of war who would be turned into slaves. Conquered foreign enemies and rebels would be captured by the army and sold into chattel slavery. Julius Caesar reportedly captured over one million French slaves during his conquest of Gaul in 58 to 51 B.C.[1] The sheer scale of the conquests turned Rome into a slave society, with slaves encompassing 20–30% of their society.[2]

The life and freedoms allowed to be had for a slave as previously stated varied tremendously depending on the kindness or cruelty of the master. It also however depended on if one was a city slave or a country slave and what the role of the slave was, as well as their ethnicity. Greek and Egyptian slaves most often served in better conditions with better roles. Those considered by the Romans to be barbarians such as Germanic peoples, Britons and Slavs served in more labor-intensive roles. Slaves were used in a wide variety of roles in ancient Rome including secretaries, gladiators, farmers, gardeners, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, laundresses, butlers, hairdressers, teachers, tutors, miners, midwives, house servants and factory wor[ES1] kers. The city slave was generally semi-educated and served as a midwife, house servant, or even as an assistant. Columnella calls the city slave a “lazy and sleepy type of slave who is accustomed to having a lot of time on his hands, to lounging around the Campus Martius, the Circus Maximus, the theaters, the gambling dens, the snack bars and the brothels”[3] Clearly the city slave possessed many freedoms not customary to other types of slave; and while that life meant more privileges not afforded to others, it did not by any means represent a life of freedom. All types of slaves frequently suffered at the hands of cruel masters, whether in the form of sexual abuse or torture. Juvenal records that some women hired a torturer on a yearly salary and writes of a poor slave, Psecas, whose hair was torn out by her mistress and who was whipped for curling her master’s hair unsatisfactorily.[4]

The country slave was by far the victim of the greatest hardships in Roman society. The slave Apuleius writes that, “when the day was nearly over and I was completely exhausted, they undid the ropes attaching me to the millstone, removed my harness, and tied me up to the manger.” He continues by describing the condition of the slaves at the mill. “Their skin was everywhere embroidered with purple welts from their many beatings. Their backs, scarred from floggings…. All of them, decked out in rags, carried brands on their foreheads, had their heads half shaved, and wore chains around their ankles.”[5]

Miners, however, seemed to have suffered the worst fate of all Roman slaves. Diodorus Siculus writes of his findings at a Roman silver mine. “They are physically destroyed…. Many die because of the excessive maltreatment they suffer. They are given no rest or break from their toil, but rather are forced by the whiplashes of their overseers to endure the most dreadful of hardships; thus they do wear out their lives in misery.”[6]

Slaves in Roman society was completely reliant upon the nature of their masters. Sexual abuse of slaves, torture, and murder of slaves by slave owners was all legal until laws much later attempted to curb cruelty to slaves. A favorite pastime of nobles was dishing out punishment upon their slaves — torture, crucifixion, and more, popularly, forcing slaves to fight unwinnable battle against lions or other animals as punishment, or more correctly for the master’s pleasure. Pliny the Elder writes of Vedius Pollio, “He used to toss slaves sentenced to death into ponds of lampreys, not because wild animals on land were not capable of killing a slave, but because with any other type of animal he was not able to enjoy the sight of a man being torn to pieces, completely, in one moment.”[7]

The horrific treatment of many slaves led to frequent attempts to escape, so much so that every slave wore a collar with an inscription upon it dictating the name of the master, the reward for his return, and where to return him to. Professional slave hunters would then seek out and capture the slave to receive the reward. Given often sadistic treatment of slaves, it is unsurprising that since many slaves had nowhere to escape to, they chose revolt. Many slave revolts occurred in Roman territory. To discourage such mutinies, the answer was even more cruelty. If a widespread rebellion occurred, those who revolted would all be crucified, as occurred in the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 135 B.C. If a slave killed a master, by law all of the murdered master’s slaves would be put to death, typically by crucifixion. A common Roman view on slaves is expressed by Pliny the Younger, who commented on one such incident, when a slave murdered the master who had tortured him. “No one can feel safe, even if he is a lenient and kind master. Slaves are ruined by their own evil natures, not by a master’s cruelty.”[8]

While sadism and cruelty were accepted behaviors for many, a large number of masters alternatively believed that kindness was the best way to treat one’s slaves. As time passed into the Imperial age of Rome, stoics and even Roman emperors increasingly made efforts to increase the protections of slaves. Seneca writes to affirm a friend for being “on friendly terms with your slaves. This attitude,” he tells his friend, “is quite in keeping with your good sense and your liberal education… The essence of my advice: Treat those of lower social rank as you would wish to be treated by those of higher social rank.”[9]

Emperor Hadrian passed a law forbidding masters from killing their slaves and forbidding a master from requiring a slave to fight wild animals in the arena unless that slave had been condemned to death by an official court.[10] Emperor Theodosius chastised the slave trade, “Who can tolerate that children should be separated from parents, sisters from brothers, wives from husbands?” and quickly passed a law to cease the separating of slave families.[11] Roman Jurists would even eventually come to the epiphany that, “According to our code of law, slaves are considered nonentitites. However, this belief is not valid under natural law because, according to the law of nature, all men are equal.”[12] Roman beliefs on slavery would eventually evolve to the point that many masters would grant their slaves manumission for good service. The eventual adoption of Christianity as the state religion would coincide with the banning of the gladiatorial games and thus slaves’ usage in them.

For all the relatively minor legal progress in mitigating the treatment of slaves and even in evolving social attitudes, Rome never abolished slavery. The life of a slave in the Roman world could range from the very worst treatment imaginable to a life relatively similar to that of a servant. Slaves were viewed as people by some of the more liberally minded, but as property or as animals by many. Whether treated kindly or cruelly, the life of a Roman slave was one of existence as a living piece of property, a person that had no right to vote, no legal right to marry, no agency, and little to no free will.


[1] Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did, 163.

[2] Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 58–60

[3] Columella, On Agriculture. 1.8.1.

[4] Juvenal, Satires, 6.457.

[5] Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 9.12.

[6] Siculus, Diosorus. The History of the World, 5.38.1.

[7] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.39.77.

[8] Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14.

[9] Seneca the Younger, Letters, 47.

[10] Aelius Spartianus, The Life of Hadrain, 18.7.

[11] The Law of Theodosius, 2.25.

[12] Ulpian, The Digest of Laws, 50.17.32.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tristan Erwin

Tristan Erwin

History student at UNG Military College. Specialist in European history and Mythology. Footnotes and Bibliography always provided. Only scholarly sources used.