Romans and Slaves

Roman slaves

In the Roman world, slaves were everywhere. Everybody owned slaves. Even slaves owned slaves. To us, reducing another human being to a commodity seems one of the most heinous of crimes, but in all Roman literature, even into the Christian era,  there are few, if any, suggestions that it was wrong.

Slaves, Kyle Harper claims in Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), were ‘the ancient equivalent of domestic appliances’, and he provides evidence of slave ownership in households across the social spectrum, from the super-rich to the comparatively poor. If this seems implausible, we might consider how many households today, living in comparative poverty, still own a car, a cooker and washing machine, a television and computer, and central heating. In ancient Roman society, slaves performed all these functions. To the Romans, they were essential for civilised existence; in fact, slave ownership was the very mark of freedom itself.

According to John Chrystostom, a man who appeared in public without a single slave thought himself ‘laughable’. The free Roman citizen was expected to be accompanied by slave attendants everywhere, even into the bath. Libanius mentions that women bathers would gossip if they saw someone enter the baths unaccompanied. Some very wealthy individuals, claims the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, might turn up at the baths with up to fifty slaves in their retinue. Slaves accompanied free Romans wherever they went, from the moment of waking throughout the day and the night too. They were the constant shadows of everyday Roman life.

    A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels.   The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs.   Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320


A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels. The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs. Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320

‘It is astonishing,’ writes Harper, ‘how often a slave will unexpectedly appear in a late antique scene.’ He cites a story from Augustine’s Confessions, about a young man who set out to rob a silversmith in Carthage; he took his slave with him to carry the loot. Clearly even thieves in the Roman world did not like to risk being seen carrying things around in the street… Even Christian priests had slaves, so they would not have to demean themselves by performing ‘shameful labour’.

This attitude is perhaps surprising to modern sensibilities. In our contemporary society, hard work is seen as virtuous; the adjective ‘hardworking’ is often used to connote goodness and moral worth. The work ethic is deeply engrained in almost all of us. Yet, for the Romans, the opposite seems to have been the case: they had a sort of anti-work-ethic. To perform any sort of manual labour, the sort of thing a slave might do, was to appear similar to a slave oneself, and to incur the shame of slavery. A Roman woman who did her own shopping or cooked her own dinner might have been mistaken for a slave; a commentator on the Psalms suggests that it is ‘shameful’ even for a free woman to breast-feed her own child. The same might be thought of an educated Roman man who had to dress himself in the morning, pour his own wine or write his own letters (Romans usually dictated their letters to slave secretaries, and the same secretaries would read the replies out loud. Romans had not, it seems, mastered the art of silent reading.)

Wealthy Roman families could own hundreds of slaves, even thousands of them. When in AD408 the young Christian aristocrats Melania and Pinianus renounced worldly possessions to take up the ascetic life, they freed eight thousand slaves, and that was after the rest of their family (the prominent Valerii) had taken their share. For poorer families, or for individuals, one or two slaves had to suffice. Kyle Harper mentions Egyptian papyri that document several poor households clubbing together to buy a slave between them. Soldiers, too, might own slaves, while others would be owned in common by their units. The 4th century Christian cavalry trooper Martinus – later St Martin – was thought unusual in owning only a single slave. In a rare demonstration of charity, Martinus shared his domestic chores with the slave, even cooking their meals and cleaning his own boots on occasion.

While slavery in the later Roman world was in some ways easier than it had been – imperial legislation had outlawed many of the harsher mass punishments of an earlier time – it was still an unenviable fate. Slaves were regarded as not wholly human, and could be punished and abused at the will of their owner. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions a slave being given 300 lashes; 30-40 seem to have been considered moderate. Fugitive slaves could expect to be branded, or forced to wear iron collars detailing their offence. TMQF, the brand might read – tene me quia fugi: ‘Arrest Me I Have Fled’. One known collar reads ‘I am the slave of Felix the Archdeacon. Hold Me Lest I Flee’ – proof that churchmen too owned slaves. Another, from North Africa, reads adultera meretrix: tene me quia fugitivi de bulla regia – in Harper’s translation, ‘I Am A Slutty Whore. Hold Me I Have Fled From Bulla Regia’. Under Roman law, it was impossible for a slave to be raped: slaves had no legal humanity, and it was considered only a crime against the owner’s property. For the owners themselves, almost anything was permitted, and by late antiquity the Roman state had lost its monopoly on violence.

But for all this, Roman slavery differed in an important respect from the horrors of plantation slavery in the 18th-19th centuries. Roman slaves could be freed, and once free they could become Roman citizens, equal (in almost every respect) to those around them. Some freed people could amass great wealth and rise to high status. By the later Roman era, almost every family must have had slave ancestry, even the most prestigious. This too seems incredible, especially considering the very brief and apparently rather cursory ceremony required to turn a slave chattel into a free and legal human being.

In the earlier Roman era, there were a variety of manumission rituals, but Harper demonstrates that, by Late Antiquity, the usual method was the alapa – the ‘slap’. The slave owner simply slapped the slave on the face, perhaps two or three times; when this act was performed before witnesses and a magistrate, freedom was the result. According to the churchman Basil, it represented ‘the final act of violence the slave would have to bear before freedom’; the poet Claudian writes that this ‘happy’ blow would free the slave from the threat of the lash. It seems that this slapping ritual was often performed in public, at the opening of the games. The sixth-century ivory diptych of the Consul Anastasius appears to show slaves being freed in the amphitheatre with a blow on the head in just this fashion.

          Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.


       Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.

Oddly, the ritual of the slap seems to have carried over into both the confirmation ritual of the Catholic church and the medieval ceremony of knighthood. According to some sources, a slap or blow (the same word, alapa, is used) was given to the candidate for knighthood, perhaps symbolising the last violence he might suffer before demanding redress. Later, the blow with the hand seems to have turned into a tap with the flat of a sword blade. It is perhaps amusing to consider that when the Queen of England knights some deserving worthy by tapping a sword lightly upon their shoulders, she is unknowingly re-enacting the ancient Roman ritual of freedom from slavery!