Slavery was an everyday fact of life in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire which followed it.
Although scholars have to rely on approximations and the prevalence of slavery varied over time, it is estimated that upwards of 20% of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of slaves. That would be roughly 15 million people out of a total population of perhaps 75 million at the height of the empire in the second century AD.
Moreover, the concentration of the slave population was particularly high in certain areas. In Italy, where the patrician class who gained most from the empire’s expansion were based, over 30% of the population were slaves in the imperial age. So, given that well over ten million people were enslaved across the empire at any one time, what was life like for a Roman slave?
The Did People Become Roman Slaves?
The reality was that life could vary significantly for those who were unfree. Some were born into slavery, and some had it imposed upon them.
Unsurprisingly, those born into it were the children of slaves. Conversely, those born free and enslaved later in their lives could end up in this position in a variety of different ways.
Some were foreign people captured and enslaved during one of Rome’s many wars. This could be with a people beyond Rome’s borders, such as with the Germanic tribes or a people who had recently been conquered, as occurred in southern Britain in the first and second centuries AD.
People could also end us as slaves due to having fallen into major debt or if they were found guilty of having committed a serious crime. The modern world is unusual because it incarcerates people for months or years if they commit a crime.
Most earlier societies either imposed fines, physical punishment, or enslaved the guilty party, and one would not find prisons across the Roman Empire except for those which were used to hold individuals for long enough to crucify them. Once somebody was enslaved in any way, they were usually auctioned off at a slave market.
What was life like for a Slave?
Life for the slave could be dictated considerably by whether they were born free or not. Often it was more tolerable for those who were born into slavery.
For instance, a second or third-generation slave of an equestrian class family living near Rome generally had a reasonably stable life. The enslaved people occupied a position comparable to that of nineteenth-century domestic servants.
This varied according to who one’s owner was, but if it was an amiable individual, life might not have been too harsh, and there was the possibility of earning one’s freedom if they served well enough for long enough.
In contrast, life for a newly enslaved person could be much more brutal. For instance, because those slaves who were captured in war were more likely to be male fighters, they had a much more significant chance of being bought by a gladiatorial school.
If this was the case, life could be nasty, brutish, and short, with such a person often dying just months later on the sands of one of the 400 amphitheaters prevalent in all the empire’s major cities.
Another particularly dreadful fate was to end up damnati in metallum, condemned to the mine. Mines in Roman times were dangerous places and the work was arduous. One did not want to end up as a slave working in one of them.
While many individuals ended up in the gladiatorial schools or the mines, it should be noted that slavery was an absolutely integral part of the Roman economy.
Slaves and the Roman Economy
As such, many people performed roles that were typical of the middle classes in the modern world. Some were barbers, cooks, hairdressers and wet nurses, while others even acted as scribes and officials within the municipal governments of towns and cities.
Moreover, their living conditions were very often quite good. Slaves who lived in the domus or villa or a Roman noble would probably have had living quarters and a diet that would have surpassed the poor free person in Rome itself.
Indeed there was a widespread practice of poor free persons electing to become slaves to improve their living conditions. This emphasizes that slavery in Roman times was very different from the kind of chattel slavery seen in the sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations of the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Of course, there were other abuses. There seems to have been a general expectation that slaves could be used for sex by their owners, and there were almost certainly many, many instances where slaves were beaten or treated poorly by their masters or mistresses.
Nevertheless, on the other side of things, freed slaves could become Roman citizens. Many of them rose to positions of substantial power within the Roman government, such as occurred with the freedmen Phaon and Epaphroditus, among others, during the reign of Nero.
Indeed the lack of major slave revolts throughout Roman history would seem to suggest that life was broadly tolerable for the majority of slaves.
Thus, as one might expect with a group that made up approximately 20% of the population of the Roman Empire and, by extension, about 5% of the world’s population in the first and second centuries AD, the experience of a being a slave in Rome differed widely, from the benign to the brutal.
In this sense, perhaps it reflected life in any society, and people have had vastly different living conditions throughout modern history.