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What Life Would Have Been Like For A Roman Slave

Updated July 29, 2019 28.3k views14 items

Slavery in the Roman world was a complex social, economic, and political institution. As a pervasive aspect of Roman life, slaves were present in homes, at workplaces and shops, and on agricultural fields, employed by wealthy and common freemen alike. Slaves were also used by the Roman state, public wards used to maintain the luster and spectacle of the administrative apparatus. 

To be a slave in the Roman Republic or Empire meant a lack of legal standing. Slaves had no rights, no possessions, and were treated as their masters saw fit. Slaves could be prisoners of war, criminals, or freemen so bad off that they had to sell themselves into servitude.

With so many components to how slaves could be procured, their role in the Roman world, and what ultimately brought their servitude to an end, it's difficult to generalize what life was like for a Roman slave. However, there are elements of slavery that remained more or less consistent through the Roman world.  

  • Slaves Worked In All Forms Of Menial Labor

    Slaves in Roman society were present in all aspects of life. From household domestic slaves to agricultural laborers, slaves were fundamental to economic function in the Roman world.

    Generally classified as urban or rural, slaves did everything from cooking and cleaning to mining for silver. On country estates, slaves might perform both domestic and non-domestic tasks, working as smiths, bakers, and guards.

    Many of these same types of skills could be found among slaves working in cities where slaves also worked for businessmen as accountants and managers. Prisoners of war were often sold as slaves, sometimes becoming public slaves used to fight fires, tend to public buildings, and serve as executioners. 

  • Slaves Could Buy Their Way Out Of Slavery

    Slaves were property but, according to Roman law, had the ability to achieve freedom through several processes. The oldest and easiest was simply being given freedom by one's master, perhaps in a will, although a formal ceremony and payment was usually involved. Slaves who essentially sold themselves into servitude could repay their debt over time, achieving freedom once a contract was complete. 

    Slaves could also develop wealth of a sort, given a peculium, or account they controlled while still under the authority of a master. Wealth could be land or currency and, although it was technically still under the control of the master, slaves with access to enough peculia could channel funds and resources into profits for their masters while developing wealth of their own. This could be used to purchase freedom. 

    Manumission led to conditional citizenship. Freed slaves became clients of their former owners but were restricted from taking public office. According to Roman jurist Gaius, slaves under the age of 30 could not be freed during the 1st century CE while limits were also placed on the number of slaves that owners could free in their wills. 

  • Slaveholders Were Free To Punish Their Slaves Through Cruel Physical Means And Execution

    Slaves were expected to behave and, according to the sources, knew the consequences if they didn't. In Menaechmi by Plautus, the 2nd-century playwright attributes the following words to Messenio, a slave:

    Stripes, fetters, the mill, weariness, hunger, bitter cold - fine pay for idleness. That's what I'm mightily afraid of. Surely, then, it's much better to be good than to be bad. I don't mind tongue lashings, but I do hate real floggings. 

    Slave owners could beat and punish slaves harshly, inflicting everything from whippings to chains and fetters. Masters could also sell their slaves, execute them by hanging or crucifixion, and make them do the worst possible tasks as punishment. Runaway slaves were branded to deter future infractions. 

  • Slaves Received Limited Rations Of Bread

    Cato the Elder, soldier, statesman, and historian from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, wrote about the daily needs of agricultural slaves, specifically what they should receive for food and drink. According to Cato, slaves should receive wheat to make bread, although shackled slaves who couldn't grind their own grain were to receive bread itself. When slaves worked the fields during the summer, more flour was needed, as was additional wine.

    In addition to bread and wine, slaves ate what Cato termed "relish" made out of olives. Salt and oil were provided as well. 

    During the 1st century BCE, Varro indicated slaves gathered wild fruits and vegetables, as well as cultivated crops of their own. Domestic slaves were able to eat items from urban gardens or foods left over from their masters' meals.