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Slavery in ancient Rome played an important role in society and the economy, because besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Greek slaves in particular might be highly educated. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short.
Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a court of law unless the slave was tortured—a practice based on the belief that slaves in a position to be privy to their masters' affairs would be too virtuously loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced. Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters. Attitudes changed in part because of the influence among the educated elite of the Stoics, whose egalitarian views of humanity extended to slaves.
Roman slaves could hold property which, despite the fact that it belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it were their own. Skilled or educated slaves were allowed to earn their own money, and might hope to save enough to buy their freedom. Such slaves were often freed by the terms of their master's will, or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Tiro, the secretary of Cicero. Tiro was freed before his master's death, and was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.
Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. After manumission, a male slave who had belonged to a Roman citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote. A slave who had acquired libertas was thus a libertus ("freed person," feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus). As a social class, freed slaves were libertini, though later writers used the terms libertus and libertinus interchangeably. Libertini were not entitled to hold public office or state priesthoods, nor could they achieve legitimate senatorial rank. During the early Empire, however, freedmen held key positions in the government bureaucracy, so much so that Hadrian limited their participation by law. Any future children of a freedman would be born free, with full rights of citizenship.
Vernae (singular verna) were slaves born within a household (familia) or on a family farm or agricultural estate (villa). There was a stronger social obligation to care for vernae, whose epitaphs sometimes identify them as such, and at times they would have been the children of free males of the household. The general Latin word for slave was servus.
A major source of slaves had been Roman military expansion during the Republic. The use of former soldiers as slaves led perhaps inevitably to a series of en masse armed rebellions, the Servile Wars, the last of which was led by Spartacus. During the Pax Romana of the early Roman Empire (1st–2nd century CE), emphasis was placed on maintaining stability, and the lack of new territorial conquests dried up this supply line of human trafficking. To maintain an enslaved work force, increased legal restrictions on freeing slaves were put into place. Escaped slaves would be hunted down and returned (often for a reward).
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In his Institutiones (161 CE), the Roman jurist Gaius wrote that:
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy ... or the product of breeding.—Gaius, as translated and quoted by Nic Fields 
The 1st-century BCE Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus indicates that the Roman institution of slavery began with the legendary founder Romulus giving Roman fathers the right to sell their own children into slavery, and kept growing with the expansion of the Roman state. Slave ownership was most widespread throughout the Roman citizenry from the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE) to the 4th century CE. The Greek geographer Strabo (1st century CE) records how an enormous slave trade resulted from the collapse of the Seleucid Empire (100–63 BCE).
The Twelve Tables, Rome's oldest legal code, have brief references to slavery, indicating that the institution was of long standing. In the tripartite division of law by the jurist Ulpian (2nd century CE), slavery was an aspect of the ius gentium, the customary international law held in common among all peoples (gentes). The "law of nations" was neither natural law, which existed in nature and governed animals as well as humans, nor civil law, which was the body of laws specific to a people. All human beings are born free (liberi) under natural law, but slavery was held to be a practice common to all nations, who might then have specific civil laws pertaining to slaves. In ancient warfare, the victor had the right under the ius gentium to enslave a defeated population; however, if a settlement had been reached through diplomatic negotiations or formal surrender, the people were by custom to be spared violence and enslavement. The ius gentium was not a legal code, and any force it had depended on "reasoned compliance with standards of international conduct."
In certain periods, a great number of slaves for the Roman market were acquired through warfare. The Roman military brought back captives as the booty of war, and ancient sources cite anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of such slaves captured in each war. These wars included every war of conquest from 177-101 BCE, as well as the Social and Samnite wars (91-88 and 82 BCE, respectively). The prisoners taken or re-taken after the three Roman Servile Wars (135-132, 104-100, and 73-71 BCE, respectively) contributed to this number. The Thracian slave traffic added many more numbers of imported persons, including perhaps the most famous Roman slave of all, Spartacus. Later generations of slaves worshiped the genius of Spartacus.
Piracy has a long history of adding to the slave trade, and the Roman Republic was no different. Piracy was one of the many crises with which the Republic had to contend, at least until 85 BCE. In those days, an increase in piracy always led to an increase in slavery.
During the period of Roman imperial expansion, the increase in wealth amongst the Roman elite and the substantial growth of slavery transformed the economy. Although the economy was dependent on slavery, Rome was not the most slave-dependent culture in history. Among the Spartans, for instance, the slave class of helots outnumbered the free by about seven to one, according to Herodotus.
Delos in the eastern Mediterranean was made a free port in 166 BCE and became one of the main market venues for slaves. Multitudes of slaves who found their way to Italy were purchased by wealthy landowners in need of large numbers of slaves to labor on their estates. Historian Keith Hopkins noted that it was land investment and agricultural production which generated great wealth in Italy, and considered that Rome's military conquests and the subsequent introduction of vast wealth and slaves into Italy had effects comparable to widespread and rapid technological innovations.
Augustus imposed a 2 percent tax on the sale of slaves, estimated to generate annual revenues of about 5 million sesterces—a figure that indicates some 250,000 sales. The tax was increased to 4 percent by 43 CE. Slave markets seem to have existed in every city of the Empire, but outside Rome the major center was Ephesus.
Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BCE, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population. For the Empire as a whole, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10 - 15% of the total population. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire's population. About half of all slaves worked in the countryside, the remainder in towns and cities.
Roman slavery was not based on race. Slaves were drawn from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Celts, Germans, Thracians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and a small group of Ethiopians in Roman Egypt. By the 1st century BCE, custom precluded the enslavement of Roman citizens and Italians living in Gallia Cisalpina, but previously many southern and central Italians had been enslaved after defeat. Slaves in Italy were mainly indigenous Italians.
New slaves were primarily acquired by wholesale dealers who followed the Roman armies. Many people who bought slaves wanted strong slaves, mostly men. Child slaves cost less than adults although other sources state their price as higher. Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 people, to slave dealers on the spot.
Within the empire, slaves were sold at public auction or sometimes in shops, or by private sale in the case of more valuable slaves. Slave dealing was overseen by the Roman fiscal officials called quaestors.
Sometimes slaves stood on revolving stands, and around each slave for sale hung a type of plaque describing his or her origin, health, character, intelligence, education, and other information pertinent to purchasers. Prices varied with age and quality, with the most valuable slaves fetching prices equivalent to thousands of today's dollars. Because the Romans wanted to know exactly what they were buying, slaves were presented naked. The dealer was required to take a slave back within six months if the slave had defects that were not manifest at the sale, or make good the buyer's loss. Slaves to be sold with no guarantee were made to wear a cap at the auction.
Nexum was a debt bondage contract in the early Roman Republic. Within the Roman legal system, it was a form of mancipatio. Though the terms of the contract would vary, essentially a free man pledged himself as a bond slave (nexus) as surety for a loan. He might also hand over his son as collateral. Although the bondsman could expect to face humiliation and some abuse, as a legal citizen he was supposed to be exempt from corporal punishment. Nexum was abolished by the Lex Poetelia Papiria in 326 BCE, in part to prevent abuses to the physical integrity of citizens who had fallen into debt bondage.
Roman historians illuminated the abolition of nexum with a traditional story that varied in its particulars; basically, a nexus who was a handsome but upstanding youth suffered sexual harassment by the holder of the debt. In one version, the youth had gone into debt to pay for his father's funeral; in others, he had been handed over by his father. In all versions, he is presented as a model of virtue. Historical or not, the cautionary tale highlighted the incongruities of subjecting one free citizen to another's use, and the legal response was aimed at establishing the citizen's right to liberty (libertas), as distinguished from the slave or social outcast (infamis).
Cicero considered the abolition of nexum primarily a political maneuver to appease the common people (plebs): the law was passed during the Conflict of the Orders, when plebeians were struggling to establish their rights in relation to the hereditary privileges of the patricians. Although nexum was abolished as a way to secure a loan, debt bondage might still result after a debtor defaulted.
Epitaphs record at least 55 different jobs a household slave might have, including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant, and physician. A large elite household (a domus in town, or a villa in the countryside) might be supported by a staff of hundreds. The living conditions of slaves attached to a domus (the familia urbana), while inferior to those of the free persons they lived with, were sometimes superior to that of many free urban poor in Rome. Household slaves likely enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, next to publicly owned slaves, who were not subject to the whims of a single master. Imperial slaves were those attached to the emperor's household, the familia Caesaris.
In urban workplaces, the occupations of slaves included fullers, engravers, shoemakers, bakers, mule drivers, and prostitutes. Farm slaves (familia rustica) probably lived in more healthful conditions. Roman agricultural writers expect that the workforce of a farm will be mostly slaves, managed by a vilicus, who was often a slave himself.
Slaves numbering in the tens of thousands were condemned to work in the mines or quarries, where conditions were notoriously brutal. Damnati in metallum ("those condemned to the mine") were convicts who lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves as a legal penalty. Their status under the law was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free. They were expected to live and die in the mines. Imperial slaves and freedmen (the familia Caesaris) worked in mine administration and management.
In the Late Republic, about half the gladiators who fought in Roman arenas were slaves, though the most skilled were often free volunteers. Successful gladiators were occasionally rewarded with freedom. However gladiators, being trained warriors and having access to weapons, were potentially the most dangerous slaves. At an earlier time, many gladiators had been soldiers taken captive in war. Spartacus, who led the great slave rebellion of 73-71 BCE, was a rebel gladiator.
A servus publicus was a slave owned not by a private individual, but by the Roman people. Public slaves worked in temples and other public buildings both in Rome and in the municipalities. Most performed general, basic tasks as servants to the College of Pontiffs, magistrates, and other officials. Some well-qualified public slaves did skilled office work such as accounting and secretarial services. They were permitted to earn money for their personal use.
Because they had an opportunity to prove their merit, they could acquire a reputation and influence, and were sometimes deemed eligible for manumission. During the Republic, a public slave could be freed by a magistrate's declaration, with the prior authorization of the senate; in the Imperial era, liberty would be granted by the emperor. Municipal public slaves could be freed by the municipal council.
There are reports of abuse of slaves by Romans, but there is little information to indicate how widespread such harsh treatment was. Cato the Elder was recorded as expelling his old or sick slaves from his house. Seneca held the view that a slave who was treated well would perform a better job than a poorly treated slave.
Although in general freed slaves could become citizens, with the right to vote if they were male, those categorized as dediticii suffered permanent disbarment from citizenship. The dediticii were mainly slaves whose masters had felt compelled to punish them for serious misconduct by placing them in chains, branding them, torturing them to confess a crime, imprisoning them or sending them involuntarily to a gladiatorial school (ludus), or condemning them to fight with gladiator or wild beasts (their subsequent status was obviously a concern only to those who survived). Dediticii were perceived as a threat to society, regardless of whether their master's punishments had been justified, and if they came within a hundred miles of Rome, they were subject to reenslavement.
Crucifixion was the capital punishment meted out specifically to slaves, traitors, and bandits. Marcus Crassus was supposed to have concluded his victory over Spartacus in the Third Servile War by crucifying 6,000 of the slave rebels along the Appian Way. Jesus of Nazareth was likewise crucified, whether as a traitor, or to deny him status as a free man.
Several emperors began to grant more rights to slaves as the empire grew. Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide. Legal protection of slaves continued to grow as the empire expanded. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century CE to allow slaves to complain of cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.
According to Marcel Mauss, in Roman times the persona gradually became "synonymous with the true nature of the individual" but "the slave was excluded from it. servus non habet personam ["a slave has no persona"]. He has no personality. He does not own his body; he has no ancestors, no name, no cognomen, no goods of his own."
Moses Finley remarked, "fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources". Rome forbade the harbouring of fugitive slaves, and professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Advertisements were posted with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards. If caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus. Sometimes slaves had a metal collar riveted around the neck. One such collar is preserved at Rome and states in Latin, "I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you'll be rewarded."
There was a constant danger of servile insurrection, which had more than once seriously threatened the republic. The 1st century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that slaves sometimes banded together to plot revolt. He chronicled the three major slave rebellions: in 135–132 BC (the First Servile War), in 104-100 BCE (the Second Servile War), and in 73-71 BCE (the Third Servile War).
The religious holiday most famously celebrated by slaves at Rome was the Saturnalia, a December festival of role reversals during which time slaves enjoyed a rich banquet, gambling, free speech and other forms of license not normally available to them. To mark their temporary freedom, they wore the pilleus, the cap of freedom, as did free citizens, who normally went about bareheaded. Some ancient sources suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice may have varied over time. Macrobius (5th century CE) describes the occasion thus:
Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.
Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to enjoy a pretense of disrespect for their masters, and exempted them from punishment. The Augustan poet Horace calls their freedom of speech "December liberty" (libertas Decembri). In two satires set during the Saturnalia, Horace portrays a slave as offering sharp criticism to his master. But everyone knew that the leveling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end.
Another slaves' holiday (servorum dies festus) was held August 13 in honor of Servius Tullius, the legendary sixth king of Rome who was the child of a slave woman. Like the Saturnalia, the holiday involved a role reversal: the matron of the household washed the heads of her slaves, as well as her own.
The temple of Feronia at Terracina in Latium was the site of special ceremonies pertaining to manumission. The goddess was identified with Libertas, the personification of liberty, and was a tutelary goddess of freedmen (dea libertorum). A stone at her temple was inscribed "let deserving slaves sit down so that they may stand up free."
At the Matralia, a women's festival held June 11 in connection with the goddess Mater Matuta, free women ceremonially beat a slave girl and drove her from the community. Slave women were otherwise forbidden participation.
Slave women were honored at the Ancillarum Feriae on July 7. The holiday is explained as commemorating the service rendered to Rome by a group of ancillae (female slaves or "handmaids") during the war with the Fidenates in the late 400s BCE. Weakened by the Gallic sack of Rome in 390, the Romans next had suffered a stinging defeat by the Fidenates, who demanded that they hand over their wives and virgin daughters as hostages to secure a peace. A handmaid named either Philotis or Tutula came up with a plan to deceive the enemy: the ancillae would put on the apparel of the free women, spend one night in the enemy camp, and send a signal to the Romans about the most advantageous time to launch a counterattack. Although the historicity of the underlying tale may be doubtful, it indicates that the Romans thought they had already had a significant slave population before the Punic Wars.
The Mithraic mysteries were open to slaves and freedmen, and at some cult sites most or all votive offerings are made by slaves, sometimes for the sake of their masters' wellbeing. The cult of Mithras, which valued submission to authority and promotion through a hierarchy, was in harmony with the structure of Roman society, and thus the participation of slaves posed no threat to social order.
The Stoics taught that all men were manifestations of the same universal spirit, and thus by nature equal. Stoicism also held that external circumstances (such as being enslaved) did not truly impede a person from practicing the Stoic ideal of inner self-mastery: It has been said that one of the more important Roman stoics, Epictetus, spent his youth as a slave.
Both the Stoics and some early Christians opposed the ill-treatment of slaves, rather than slavery itself. Advocates of these philosophies saw them as ways to live within human societies as they were, rather than to overthrow entrenched institutions. In the Christian scriptures equal pay and fair treatment of slaves was enjoined upon slave masters, and slaves were advised to obey their earthly masters and lawfully obtain freedom if possible.
Certain senior Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom) called for good treatment for slaves and condemned slavery, while others supported it. Christianity gave slaves an equal place within the religion, allowing them to participate in the liturgy. According to tradition, Pope Clement I (term c. 92–99), Pope Pius I (158–167) and Pope Callixtus I (c. 217–222) were former slaves.
Freeing a slave was called manumissio, which literally means "sending out from the hand". The freeing of the slave was a public ceremony, performed before some sort of public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, usually with the owner proclaiming a slave's freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner.
A felt cap called the Pileus was given to the former slave as symbol of manumission.
Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed toward the slave's owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave who had enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. However, few slaves had enough money to do so, and many slaves were not allowed to hold money. Slaves were also freed through testamentary manumission, by a provision in an owner's will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to at most a hundred slaves, and fewer in a small household.
Already educated or experienced slaves were freed the most often. Eventually the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed before age 30.
A freed slave was the libertus of his former master, who became his patron (patronus). The two had mutual obligations to each other within the traditional patronage network. The terms of his manumission might specify the services a libertus owed. A freedman could "network" with other patrons as well.
As a social class, former slaves were libertini. Men could vote and participate in politics, with some limitations. They could not run for office, nor be admitted to the senatorial class. The children of former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship without restrictions. The Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.
Some freedmen became very powerful. Many freedmen had important roles in the Roman government. Freedmen of the Imperial families often were the main functionaries in the Imperial administration. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.
Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman designed the amphitheater in Pompeii.
A freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche. Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon, is a caricature of such a freedman.
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