Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Roman Slavery - the mindset

The thing you've got to remember with slavery in the ancient world - and the modern one for that matter - is that this was a long standing institution. For the average Roman the act of giving up their slaves would be like us giving up our car...or smart phone, unimaginable, right? Slaves were a seemingly indispensable way for households, farms, and factories to get through the day - without them, for all intents and purposes the sky could fall in. And despite the extreme powers an owner held over them - freed slaves did not turn into rabble rousing emancipators or run underground railroads to get escaped compatriots back home - instead most became slave owners themselves, and some even owned slaves while still in bondage. So presumably the experiences of the average Roman slave - of course there would be exceptions - were not as negative as we might imagine.

There are probably several reasons why, but firstly we should explore the bluntest. Money. Apart from the very poor, virtually all Roman citizens owned at least one slave. For the everyday man in the street, his servant probably cost him three or four years worth of wages, which was almost certainly borrowed. Beating, injuring or killing their slave would be akin to us taking to the family car with a baseball bat. Sure, some of us might, but most of us wouldn't. It's what I call the 'Porsche' scenario. Most of us would have to give up a whole lot to afford a Porsche and once we owned one, we would do everything we could to make sure it never lost value. Of course, there'd be a few who are so rich they wouldn't care what happened to the car...wrapping it around a tree and walking away from the wreckage wouldn't matter one bit. Roman slave owners could be defined in much the same way and a slave's experience probably matched that of a car. The majority of owners who'd scraped together enough cash to buy another human wouldn't be in the mindset of setting out to devalue their investment...but then, some wouldn't have cared.

Added to this, slavery had some broader advantages we might not consider, but no doubt a Roman-era slave did. A master with a trade meant an apprenticeship...and a career. An unmarried master might mean a marriage proposal - as might an unmarried mistress - oh, the scandal. Plus, working in a household meant eating just as well as those they lived with - chemical analysis of Roman-era skeletal remains of known slaves has shown this - not to mention free health care and a retirement plan. So perhaps we shouldn't look at Roman slavery quite the same way as we look at the modern-era slave trade. In an extreme way it was more like a current day workplace agreement - with productivity schedules and get-out clauses. Sure, our employers don't have the power of life and death over us, but then again, we're chained to our banks - and our desk - for the next twenty years anyway...so you've got to admit, we're not a whole lot better off, are we?

Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life after one million Gauls are sold into slavery


  1. To what extent do you think there was a divide between urban and rural slavery, given that the large scale slave revolts we know about in Sicily and under Spartacus were largely drawn from slaves working the land?

    1. Hmmmm...there was probably a bit of divide between urban and rural slaves, with each group having different advantages and disadvantages - but the big slave revolts were driven by circumstances as much as they were by geography. The first Sicilian revolt came just ten years after the conquest of Carthage and Greece, so at the time there were plenty of disaffected army-hardened Punics and Greeks who were young enough to fight - and were gathered in large enough numbers on the big 'plantation' style farms to form into cohesive groups - something that indeed was next to impossible in a city. The Sicilian revolts were also isolated from the big Italian cities - so there wasn't really an opportunity for urban slaves to join them anyway. Spartacus came a little latter, this time with more recently captured Gauls and Pontics - many of his fellow gladiators and runaway slaves would have had military experience from the Mithridic wars. His initial power base was also very close to Capua, the second largest in Italy - lots of urban runaways would have come from there, and plenty would have come from Rome.

      Still, at a guess, I'd imagine most Romans would have preferred their household staff to lack military experience so it's probable a greater percentage of farm slaves were captured combatants than those found in the suburbs...so that may have been part of the problem at the time. However, by the 1st-century AD the big slave revolts more or less became history - the lack of foriegn wars produced less military-experienced slaves and the manner of slave aquisitions in peace time probably produced a lot more slaves who just wanted to do their time and become a Roman citizen. That's my take on it anyway.