Slavery in the Roman Empire

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Relief on a sarcophagus from the early 4th century, Archaeological Museum, Milan: a slave brings his master a blackboard to write on.

The slavery in the Roman Empire was made up mostly of debt slavery , while the enslavement of prisoners of war initially played only a minor role. Debt slavery was established in the 2nd century BC. Banned, officially under pressure from the population. In fact, more and more prisoners of war came to Rome as slaves because of the Roman conquests. This made debt slavery increasingly superfluous.


How many slaves lived in the Roman Empire is difficult to estimate from the traditional source. It is believed that the number was quite high, especially in phases of military expansion: the sources report that in the century and a half before the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. Around 700,000 people are said to have been enslaved in BC, in which Rome conquered Carthage and conquered Greece.

In the imperial era, the proportion of unfree people is estimated to be around a quarter of the population of Italy. For the early imperial period, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus report individual households in which three and even four-digit slaves were kept. The Austrian ancient historian Walter Scheidel estimates that one to one and a half million slaves lived in Roman Italy, which corresponds to a population of 15 to 25 percent.

Ways of enslavement

Relief from Smyrna (today Izmir , Turkey): Roman soldier leads prisoners of war in chains

There were different ways of enslavement.

  • In debt slavery , debtors had to sell their bodies, labor, and freedom to pay off their debts. This form of slavery was introduced in the 2nd century BC. Forbidden.
  • In connection with the numerous Roman wars of conquest, prisoners of war were sold as slaves. That was the origin of most of the Roman slaves.
  • Robbers or pirates kidnapped travelers and traders and sold them in slave markets.
  • Slavery has also been used as a punishment for certain crimes.
  • Children of slaves were automatically given the status of their parents. These born slaves were called vernae .

Legal status

In Rome, bondage was primarily a legal category that said little about the living conditions of the person concerned. The slave (mostly in Latin servus , among other terms) was not a person under Roman law and therefore had no legal capacity . Rather, like the other members of the familia, he was subordinate to the head of the house, the pater familias , and was legally represented by him ( patria potestas ) . As a mere thing it was also an object of trade. Killing or injuring slaves of other owners has been prosecuted as property damage since the Lex Aquilia (286 BC) . Slave children ( vernae ) were born slaves belonging to their mother's owner.

The master (dominus) had the right to decide about the life and death of the slave. Raping one's own slaves was exempt from punishment until shortly before the beginning of the imperial era . Corporal punishment was the order of the day, but the castration of slaves was banned in the 1st century. In the case of excessive brutality, the slave could obtain government aid, for example if he asked for asylum at the foot of an imperial statue. The state, in turn, was able to order the torture of slaves in court in certain cases , which according to the Digest was considered to be the "most effective means of establishing the truth".

What the slave earned was the property of the master. The peculium system, which allowed the slave to build his own fortune from his additional income, the peculium, can be proven early on . Nevertheless, it was legally the property of the pater familias , who only left it to his slave voluntarily.

On the other hand, the lack of freedom, but above all the subsequent status as libertus , could even appear to some free people to be desirable. So there were in the Roman jurisprudence the concept of sham slaves (bona fide serviens) , one outdoors , posing as a slave to escape poor living conditions or military service.

Release and released

There were different types of release ( manumissio ) of slaves. The following were possible:

  • Last will in the will (per testamentum) by the Lord
  • Legal act before the magistrate (per vindictam)
  • Entry by the censor in the citizen role as a free citizen (per censum)
  • Sending a charter from the Lord (per epistulam)
  • or through a simple declaration of intent by the Lord in the presence of third parties ( inter amicos , per mensam , per convivium )

The peculium also gave the slave the opportunity to buy himself out .

In Rome released slaves (liberti) could receive citizenship - in contrast to many Greek states - but as clients they were still dependent on the patron who had released them and were protected by their former master. Often a contract was signed upon release that laid down the duties of the former slave.

It is also recorded for Rome that freedmen under Trajan could be exposed to the reprisals of the Senatus consultum Silanianum , which had already been exacerbated under Nero's "Senatus consultum Neronianum".

Development of Slavery

On the left a likely representation of a Germanic slave around the year 375. The long hairstyle is typical of the Germanic.  The slave status results from the collar with the medallion worn by the unfree in the 4th century.  On the right is a slave neck iron of this type with a bronze plate, which can be dated between the 4th and 5th centuries. On the left a likely representation of a Germanic slave around the year 375. The long hairstyle is typical of the Germanic.  The slave status results from the collar with the medallion worn by the unfree in the 4th century.  On the right is a slave neck iron of this type with a bronze plate, which can be dated between the 4th and 5th centuries.
On the left a likely representation of a Germanic slave around the year 375. The long hairstyle is typical of the Germanic. The slave status results from the collar with the medallion worn by the unfree in the 4th century . On the right is a slave neck iron of this type with a bronze plate, which can be dated between the 4th and 5th centuries.

Arbitrariness and cruelty in dealing with slaves repeatedly triggered bloody slave revolts in the Roman Empire . In particular, the Spartacus uprising (73–71 BC) assumed dangerous proportions for Rome. Even in the imperial era, many free people were afraid of their slaves. An old law was still applied under Emperor Nero (54–68): If a slave killed his master, all slaves who had been in the vicinity at the time of the crime had to be killed because they were alleged accomplices.

Seneca's slave letters are among the most famous writings on slavery . In it he speaks of people (homines) and can also imagine male slaves as friends. More than 200 years earlier, Cato maior had naturally counted slaves among things (res) .

Mitigating slavery can be demonstrated very early on, initially through social control by other slave masters, later increasingly through legal restrictions on master power. An abolition of slavery was never considered. In Philemon's letter, Paul calls a runaway slave sent back to the owner “my own heart” (verse 12) and a beloved brother (verse 16). In the later Pauline letters, the pastoral letters (e.g. Titus 2: 9), however, they are urged not to contradict their masters, which makes it clear that they had become aware of the new dignity they received through baptism. In ancient Christianity, the radical tension between the “divine will of this institution” and the equation of slaves and free becomes visible, “there are no longer slaves and free, there is one in Christ” (Gal 3:28). According to the letter to the Ephesians, slaves should obey their masters “with fear and trembling” ( Eph 6.5  EU ); At the same time, however, the masters are asked to treat their slaves well, "for you know that you have one master in heaven" (Eph 6: 9).

In the early Imperial Era , the number of releases increased so much that Emperor Augustus passed laws that restricted the release. A slave had to be at least 30 years old to be released. In spite of this, the number of freedmen continued to rise, since the masters were able to assure themselves of the special loyalty of their slaves by the promise of the eventual release. Since the freeborn son of a libertus already had unrestricted Roman citizenship, the practice of mass release led to a considerable increase in the number of citizens: the citizenship lost its exclusivity and was therefore finally granted to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire in 212 by Emperor Caracalla .

Since the end of late antiquity , slavery slowly declined in Central Europe and was partially replaced by the colonies , which developed into the system of serfdom through the mixing of the Germanic system of free and unfree . Serfs peasants who depended on a nobleman were forbidden to leave their land. They were obliged to do a lot of work and high taxes to their master. However, it is a common misconception that slavery largely disappeared from Europe by the end of antiquity ; this only happened in the course of the High Middle Ages .

Duties of slaves

As in Greece, the differences within the large group of Roman slaves were enormous. Slaves died in mines under inhumane conditions, while others possessed power, influence, private wealth, and even slaves of their own. A person's legal status in Rome said relatively little about their living conditions.

Heavy work

Field slaves worked in agriculture. They were crammed into small huts, had no exit and hardly appeared in public. They were supervised by overseers who also punished, often with the furca or the patibulum . These slaves were tortured and exploited.

"The worst thing for the company was idle slaves, because they cost something instead of bringing in something, and so Cato dealt intensively with the question of what work can be done in bad weather."

Slaves also built roads and buildings, tended them or worked in the port. Many slaves worked in mines and mints. The work in mines in particular was extremely stressful, the working conditions were often inhuman. Most of the slaves who worked in a mine did not survive ten months.

House slaves

House slaves , on the other hand, belonged to the familia of their dominus and were responsible for all household chores, such as cooking, cleaning and washing. They served, made music and danced at festivities . Often they had a close and friendly relationship with their masters and were not squeezed to the extreme like the field slaves. Their tasks were not only oriented towards economic profit, but the comfort of their dominus and the representation of his power and dignity. Well-trained slaves were also used as tutors or doctors. The landlord released most of these unfree people between the ages of 30 and 40.

Slaves worked in the household; they were also forced to cohabit . In large households, they often did very specialized jobs such as hairdressing, musician or midwife.

Other areas of application

Some slaves in the public service enjoyed the favor of the emperor and worked in his court or in administration. The emperor's slaves could perform important functions and gain considerable power.

One of the most famous places of work for slaves was the arena : many gladiators and charioteers were slaves who were forced by their masters to fight to the death in the arena. For this purpose, they were trained in special schools and were able to gain high prestige and become famous.

There were no slaves in the military, they were considered unworthy to carry arms and were only armed in extreme situations . Soldiers recognized as runaway slaves were immediately executed. However, there were (non-Roman) auxiliary troops in which, as an exception, unfree soldiers could also be deployed.


Field slaves usually only worked in a loincloth. House slaves were often given clothes similar to their owners and could only be recognized by their behavior. The only clothing that slaves were not allowed to wear was the toga , which only male free Roman citizens were entitled to.

There have been various attempts by senators to introduce their own clothing for slaves. Mainly out of fear of slave revolts , these attempts were unsuccessful.

Slave markets

All slaves were sold in slave markets. The prices differed significantly. The prices of educated slaves were particularly high, and they often had a high social status in their conquered homeland before they were enslaved. For the first century AD, the average price of a slave in the Germanic provinces is given as 2000 sesterces . Beautiful slaves were expensive. According to a report by the geographer Strabo , 10,000 slaves were sold daily in Delos alone , but this can also be a round figure that only means "a lot".


Source collections

  • Werner Eck ao: Slaves and freedmen in society during the Roman Empire . WBG, Darmstadt 1993.
  • Zvi Yavetz: Slaves and Slavery in Rome . Transaction, London 1988.

Research literature

  • Heinz Bellen et al. (Hrsg.): Bibliography on ancient slavery (= research on ancient slavery. Supplement 4). Steiner, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-515-08206-9 .
  • Keith Bradley: Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire . Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987.
  • Keith Bradley: Slavery and Society at Rome . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994.
  • Thomas Finkenauer (Ed.): Slavery and release in Roman law. Symposium for Hans Josef Wieling on his 70th birthday. Springer, Berlin et al. 2006, ISBN 3-540-36953-8 .
  • Moses I. Finley : Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Expanded edition by Brent D. Shaw. Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton NJ 1998, ISBN 1-55876-170-5 (Four lectures presented at the Collège de France in Nov. and Dec. 1978). (Former edition also in German as: Die Sklaverei in der Antike. History and Problems. 6th – 7th thousand. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-596-24352-1 ).
  • Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto : Slavery and release in the Greco-Roman world (= study books antiquity. Volume 15). Olms, Hildesheim et al. 2009, ISBN 978-3-487-14251-7 .
  • Peter Hunt: Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden (MA) 2018.
  • Stefan Knoch: slave welfare in the Roman Empire. Forms and motifs between humanitas and utilitas (= slavery - bondage - forced labor. Volume 2). 2nd, updated and expanded edition, Olms, Hildesheim et al. 2017, ISBN 978-3-487-15598-2 (also: dissertation, University of Trier 2004).
  • Ramsay MacMullen : Late Roman Slavery . In: Historia . Volume 36, 1987, pp. 359-382.
  • Leonhard Schumacher : Slavery in antiquity . Beck, Munich 2001.
  • Alexander Weiss: slave of the city. Investigations into public slavery in the cities of the Roman Empire (= Historia individual writings. Volume 173). Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-515-08383-9 .

Web links

Commons : Slavery in the Roman Empire  - Collection of Pictures, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: Slavery  - Sources and Full Texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Walter Scheidel: Demography. In: Heinz Heinen (Hrsg.): Concise dictionary of ancient slavery. Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2011.
  2. ^ Herbert Hausmaninger : Roman private law . 9th, completely revised edition, Böhlau, Vienna 2001, p. 280 f.
  3. ^ Karl-Wilhelm Weeber : Everyday life in ancient Rome. A lexicon. Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf / Zurich 1998, p. 328.
  4. ^ Karl-Wilhelm Weeber : Everyday life in ancient Rome. A lexicon. Artemis & Winkler, Zurich 1995, p. 329.
  5. ↑ On this: Joseph Georg Wolf : The Senatusconsultum Silanianum and the Senate speech of C. Cassius Longinus from the year 61 AD , (presented on Jan. 17, 1987), meeting reports of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences , Philosophical-Historical Class; 1988.2; ISBN 978-3-533-04023-1 , p. 48 f .; Max Kaser : Roman private law. Short textbooks for legal studies. Munich 1960. From the 16th edition in 1992 continued by Rolf Knütel . 18th edition ISBN 3-406-53886-X , I § 67 I p. 283, note 3 and § 67 II 3, p. 285, note 25.
  6. Digest 19,5,3,18 ff. Ulpian , 50 ed., 29,5,25,2. Gaius 17 ed. Prov.
  7. ^ Andreas Reissmann, 1999.
  8. ^ Karl-Josef Gilles: The Trier Gold Treasure , Theis, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, ISBN 978-3-8062-0003-4 .
  9. Strabo, Geography 14,5,2.