1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Rome: Introduction. Sources. Employments. Numbers.

(Part 6)


Slavery in Ancient Rome: Introduction. Sources. Employments. Numbers.

We have already observed that the Roman system of life was that in which slavery had its most natural and relatively legitimate place; and accordingly it was at Rome that, as Blair has remarked, the institution was more than anywhere else "extended in its operation and methodized in its details." Not only on this ground is it especially deserving of our study, but because out of the slave-class, as it was organized by the Romans in the countries subject to the empire, the modern proletariate has been historically evolved.

We must distinguish from the later slavery at Rome what Mommsen calls "the old, in some measure innocent" slavery, under which the farmer tilled the land along with his slave, or, if he possessed more land than be could manage, placed the slave—either as a steward, or as a sort of lessee obliged to render up a portion of the produce—over a detached farm. Though slaves were obtained by the early victories of Rome over her Italian neighbours, no large number was employed on the small holdings of those periods. But the extension of properties in the hands of the patricians, and the continual absences of citizens required by the expanding system of conquest, necessarily brought with them a demand for slave labour, which was increasingly supplied by captives taken in war. Of the number furnished from is source a few particulars from the time of the mature republic and the first century of the empire will give some idea. In Epirus, after the victories of Aemilius Paullus, 150,000 captives were sold. The prisoners at Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae were 90,000 Teutons and 60,000 Cimbri. Caesar sold on a single occasion in Gaul 63,000 captives ; Augustus made 44,000 prisoners in the country of the Salassi; after immense numbers had perished by famine and hardship and in the combats of the arena, 97,000 slaves were acquired by the Jewish war. But slavery, as Hume has shown, is unfavourable to population, and even the wars of Rome were insufficient to maintain the supply. Hence a regular commerce in slaves was established, which was based on the "systematically-prosecuted hunting of man," and indicated an entire perversion of the primitive institution, which was essentially connected with conquest. The pirates sold great numbers of slaves at Delos, where was the chief market for this kind of wares ; and these sales went on as really, though more obscurely, after the successful expedition of Pompey. There was a regular importation at Rome of slaves, brought to some extent from Africa, Spain, and Gaul, but chiefly from Asiatic countries—Bithynia, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Syria. A portorium—apparently one-eighth for eunuclis, one--fortieth for others—was paid on their import or export, and a duty of 2 or 4 per cent. on their sale.

There were other sources from which slavery was alimented, though of course in a much less degree. Certain offences reduced the guilty persons to slavery (servi poenae), and they were employed in public work in the quarries or the mines. Originally, a father could sell his children. A creditor could hold his insolvent debtor as a slave, or sell him out of the city (trans Tiberim). The enslavement of creditors, overwhelmed with usury in consequence of losses by hostile raids or their own absence on military service, led to the revolt of the Mons Sacer (493 B.C.). The Poetelian law (326 B.C.) restricted the creditor’s lien (by virtue of a nexum) to the goods of his debtor, and enacted that for the future no debtor should be put in chains; but we hear of debtors addicti to their creditors by the tribunals long after—even in the time of the Punic Wars.

There were servi publici as well as privati. The service of the magistrates was at first in the hands of freemen; but the lower offices as of couriers, servants of the law courts, of prisons, and of temples, were afterwards filled by slaves. The execution of public works also came to be largely committed to them,—as the construction of roads, the cleansing of the sewers, and the maintenance of the aqueducts. Both kinds of functions were discharged by slaves, not only at Rome, but in the rural and provincial municipalities. The slaves of a private Roman were divided between the familia rustica and the familia urbana. At the head of the familia rustica was the villicus, himself a slave, with the wife who was given him at once to aid him and to bind him to his duties. Under him were the several groups employed in the different branches of the exploitation and the care of the cattle and flocks, as well as those who kept or prepared the food, clothing, and tools of the whole staff and those who attended on the master in the various species of rural sports. A slave prison (ergastulum) was part of such an establishment, and there were slaves whose office it was to punish the offences of their fellows. To the familia urbana belonged those who discharged the duties of domestic attendance, the service of the toilet, of the bath, of the table, of the kitchen, besides the entertainment of the master and his guests by dancing, singing, and other arts. There were, besides, the slaves who accompanied the master and mistress out of doors, and who were chosen for their beauty and grace as guards of honour, for their strength as chairmen or porters, or for their readiness and address in remembering names, delivering messages of courtesy, and the like. There were also attached to a great household physicians, artists, secretaries, librarians, copyists, preparers of parchment, as well as pedagogues and preceptors of different kinds,—readers, grammarians, men of letters and even philosophers,—all of servile condition, besides accountants, managers, and agents for the transaction of business. Actors, comic and tragic, pantomimi, and the performers of the circus were commonly slaves, as were also the gladiators. These last were chosen from the most warlike races—as the Samnites, Gauls, and Thracians. Familiae of gladiators were kept by private speculators, who hired them out; they were sometimes owned by men of high rank.

As to the numbers of slaves belonging to individual masters, though we have no distinct general statement in the Roman writers, several special examples and other indirect indications serve to show that the wealthier men possessed very large familiae. This may be inferred from the columbaria of the house of Livia and of other great houses. Vettius armed four hundred of his own slaves when he entered on the revolt which was a prelude to the, Second Servile War. The slaves of Pedanius Secundus, who, in spite of a threatened outbreak of the indignant populace, were all put to death because they bad been under their master’s roof when he was murdered, were four hundred in number. Pliny tells us that Caecilius, a freedman of the time of Augustus, left by his will as many as 4116. The question as to the total number of slaves at Rome or in Italy is a very difficult one, and it is not, perhaps, possible to arrive with any degree of certainty at an approximate estimate. Gibbon supposes that there were in the Roman world in the reign of Claudius at least as many slaves as free inhabitants. But Blair seems right in believing that this number, though probably correct for an earlier period, is much under the truth for the age to which it is assigned. He fixes the proportion of slaves to free men as that of three to one for the time between the conquest of Greece (146 B.C.) and the reign of Alexander Severus (222-235 A.D.). The entire number of slaves in Italy would thus have been, in the reign of Claudius, 20,832,000, that of the free population being 6,944,000.

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