Ancient roman slavery essay

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  1. Slavery in the Roman Empire
  2. Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political, and Demographic Consequences
  3. Slavery In Ancient Greece And Rome
  4. Related Topics

Slavery in the Roman Empire

We have no records from the viewpoint of slaves themselves but it is not difficult to imagine that, faced with the personal risks to oneself and the relations one might have developed, there was not much a slave could do to change their lot other than hope that one day freedom could be legitimately won. The case of Spartacus, then, was an unusual but spectacular one. It was not an attempt to overthrow the entire system of slavery but rather the actions of a disaffected group willing to take the risk to fight for their own freedom.

Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who had served in the Roman army and he became the leader of a slave rebellion beginning at the gladiator school of Capua. Supplementing their numbers with slaves from the surrounding countryside and even some free labourers an army was assembled which numbered between 70, and , Amazingly, the slave army successively defeated two Roman armies in 73 BCE. It may have been Spartacus' intention to disperse at this point but with his commanders preferring to continue to ravage Italy, he once more moved south.

More victories followed but, let down by pirates who had promised him transportation to Sicily, the rebellion was finally crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus at Lucania in 71 BCE. Spartacus fell in the battle and the survivors, of them, were crucified in a forceful message to all Roman slaves that any chance of winning freedom through violence was futile. The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part.

Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one's freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one.

Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political, and Demographic Consequences

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication. We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Become a Member. Cartwright, M. Slavery in the Roman World. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Cartwright, Mark. Last modified November 01, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 01 Nov This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms. Please note that content linked from this page may have different licensing terms.

We publish the digital edition of Timeless Travels , the unique magazine for lovers of history, culture, and travel. Slavery as An Accepted Reality Slavery, that is complete mastery dominium of one individual over another, was so imbedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers. Remove Ads Advertisement. Bibliography Barchiesi, A. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies. Butterworth, A. Martin's Press, Grant, M. The History of Rome. Faber, London, Hornblower, Simon.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Potter, D. A Companion to the Roman Empire. Wiley-Blackwell, About the Author Mark Cartwright. Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. Related Content Filters: All.

The revolt of the gladiator Spartacus in BCE remains the Batavian revolt was a rebellion of the Batavians against the Romans Citizenship is and always has been a valued possession of any individual The Mediterranean Sea was the economic focal point of the Roman Help us write more We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Recommended Books The Colosseum. Harvard University Press 31 May Haynes Publishing UK 05 June Chicago Style Cartwright, Mark. Powered by Mailchimp Newsletter Our latest articles delivered to your inbox, once a week:.

But there is scarcely any alternative. Epitaphs and legal sources are immensely important, but they are by themselves insufficient; and epitaphs, especially, cannot be expected to reveal much that is critical of slavery when they celebrate for the most part individuals who found ways to achieve some sort of conventional success in life.

In what follows, therefore, I offer a set of inferential observations from my reading of certain literary authors of the Principate, who allow, I believe, credible glimpses of life in slavery that stand in strong contrast to what has been seen so far.


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The first point to emphasise is one that slavery historians, especially modern slavery historians, have always known, namely that slavery in Roman antiquity was not a soulless legal condition—a point of view common in legal studies of Roman slavery—but a human relationship in which slave and master were always inextricably bound together.

The relationship was obviously asymmetrical, comparable according to the third-century Greek author Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 7.

But it was not completely one-sided. Yet because slaves were a human form of property, human agency could and did manifest itself in the relationship from moment to moment. The relationship therefore was one that on both sides involved constant adjustment, refinement, and negotiation.


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  • Some slaves, sure enough, enjoyed a privileged status in their households. As follows: The orator Piso, wishing to avoid being unnecessarily disturbed, ordered his slaves to answer his questions but not add anything to their answers. He then wanted to give a welcome to Clodius, who was holding office, and gave instructions that he should be invited to dinner. He set up a splendid feast. The time came, the other guests arrived, Clodius was expected.

    Piso kept sending the slave who was responsible for invitations to see if he was coming. Evening came; Clodius was despaired of. An anecdote like this, as everyone will be aware, cannot be taken at face value, as if literally true. It is what the story symbolises that is important: the fact that at any time any slave at Rome had the potential to challenge the authority the slaveowner commanded, which means accordingly that the relationship between slave and master always implicated the energies of both sides in a never-ending struggle for supremacy, and clearly it was not always the master who won.

    Owners knew this as the anecdote shows and they had to reconcile themselves to it. Similarly Philo had no doubts Every Good Man is Free 38 that sex was a particularly useful commodity in the relational contest of wills: maidservants with pretty faces and charming words might well take the initiative and seduce their masters—which is to say that slave women could use sex to their advantage and were not always its victims.

    Fear of upheaval was never far away. At the turn of the third century the sophistic writer Aelian Characteristics of Animals 7. The woman had been unwilling to give up her slave lover, and falsely accused the sons before a magistrate.

    Slavery in the Roman Empire

    They were subsequently executed. The combination of slavery, sex and shame was a recipe for social disaster, a deeply disturbing prospect to be avoided at all costs. How might a sense of the never-ending in the master-slave relationship be recovered? The Cena is of course a piece of fiction, as is the Satyricon as a whole. But no one would question that it reflects social conditions of the first century and for present purposes its value lies, I believe, in the way its narrative nature opens up the possibility of observing continuous interaction between a slaveowner and various members of his domestic entourage over a certain interval of time.

    There is a porter ostiarius , a major-domo atriensis , an accountant dispensator , a steward procurator , a record-keeper actuarius , a name-announcer nomenclator ; there are cooks and carvers, doctors and masseurs, musicians, acrobats and readers, and any number of attractive boys from Alexandria and Ethiopia to wait at table and catch the eye of guests.

    Trimalchio orders drinks for the slaves who sit and attend his guests They do not have to be taken literally as evidence of what slaveowners did in real life. But they reveal how slaves on a daily basis might reap the rewards of being close to their owners at specific moments in time. Physical proximity of slave and master, it needs to be remembered, could expose domestics, even those of superior station, to the punishing consequences of random bouts of temper or irritability as much as to the benefits of random acts of kindness—evidently a common enough problem for moralists like Seneca and Plutarch, and even the medical authority Galen, to be found giving counsel about it from one generation to the next—and there is no shortage of such consequences here.

    Trimalchio has an over-zealous slave who picks up a fallen dish boxed on the ears When another pig is brought in, another cook is threatened with flogging because he seems to have forgotten to gut the animal. This is a charade of course. Trimalchio is playing a trick on his guests because he wants to impress them with the sausages and black puddings he knows will appear once the pig is cut open. But the significant point is that the charade is credible: Trimalchio has the cook stripped and handed over to torturers tortores he keeps on his staff, as slaveowners could, expressly for the purpose of physically punishing members of his household He also threatens to burn alive a certain Stichus a good slave name if the slave fails to take proper care of his burial clothes Violence, physical, psychological, or both, figures everywhere in the relationship between owner and owned, and the extended dinner narrative expresses this dynamic reality in a way, I think, that inscriptions and passages from the law cannot.

    That slavery was an institution based on brute force and terror hardly needs to be demonstrated. And it was not the slaveowner alone the slave had to fear.

    Slavery In Ancient Greece And Rome

    It made sense to Petronius to imagine that a slave accountant could have a slave underling beaten for having lost his clothes at the baths It even made sense that slaves themselves could be called upon to commit acts of violence: in a later episode of the Satyricon ff an upper-class woman calls on her slave spinning-maid to spit on an enemy, and on her slave chamberlain to beat him.

    Violence, or the threat of violence, was everywhere. The violence of sale was a variation on this theme. So what, I wonder, would a real-life character such as the freedman L. Volusius Heracla, who was commemorated as both capsarius and a cubiculo ILS , have thought when looking at a picture like this before he was set free? Had he once been in the slave-market?

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    Might he be there again? Was he once a slave whose face a slave-dealer had plastered with bean-flour to remove his freckles and moles to make him more attractive to buyers—a trick of which Galen knew 6. But this is not real life, you will say.


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    It all comes from a work of the literary imagination, and a work which by definition demands outrageous comic exaggeration, so that a strictly literal reading of the text cannot be justified. Incidents such as that witnessed by Galen 5. As a control on Petronius some evidence from the Moral Epistles of his contemporary Seneca might be considered. Seneca himself was a slaveowner, on the evidence of the Moral Epistles alone It is what he takes as normal or uncontroversial about slaveowning that is surely significant.

    In the ordinary course of events Seneca expects elite Romans to have a mass of slaves attending upon them, litter-bearers to transport them, door-keepers to control access to their houses, masseurs to take care of their bodies And slaves are a burden to the owner: they have to be fed and maintained, and they have a tendency to run away Seneca values the edifying story of the Spartan boy who killed himself rather than submit to slavery for what the story says about the need to secure freedom of the spirit; but when he tells it to his interlocutor Lucilius he shows no sympathy for or interest in the slave as a slave It causes him no distress that a slave criminal should be burned alive No problem that a slave might jump from a roof and kill himself to avoid the taunts of a dyspeptic owner or fall on the sword in order to avoid capture after running away 4.

    Slaves are essentially enemies, always involved in plots to kill their owners, creatures who, quite simply, like animals, have to be ruled Slavery itself Seneca regards as a state characterised principally by subjection to compulsion—this indeed is what he calls the bitterest part of slavery Or else it is a kind of living death, from which the slave will do anything to escape, saving money by going hungry so that freedom can eventually be purchased and slavery set aside When Seneca makes his grand Stoic statements about the brotherhood of man, claiming for example that the labels of elite Roman, freedman, and slave are no more than inconsequential words The poet Martial opens another window into the world of the master-slave relationship, and he is the last author I want to consider.