Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political, and Demographic Consequences

by Moya K. Mason

Since the dawn of civilization there were always those who exercised control and power over other people; in other words, in some form or another slavery has been a condition of our history. Even the highly admired and influential civilization of the Ancient Romans did not escape the practise, which eventually came to play an integral role in how their society was run. How did a culture which began as a small farming community on the banks of the Tiber River come to have the numbers of slaves that they did in seemingly such a short period of time? What conditions in their society gave them the opportunities and power to acquire large numbers of slaves? And what were the effects of large-scale slavery on the people of Rome: both rich and poor? What types of work were slaves used for and were there economic repercussions for the people of Rome and Italy? Can it be said that the introduction of slaves into Roman society was interwoven with the building of an empire, and in many ways helped to precipitate it? Many other peripheral issues will undoubtedly find their way into the following analysis, helping to clarify the realities of slavery in the world of the Ancient Romans.

Rome began as a small agricultural community about fifteen miles off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and its earliest inhabitants advocated hard work, determination, and devotion to duty. These qualities gave Rome a core of stability and self-sufficiency that preserved its society and helps to explain its continuity and expansion. For almost two hundred and fifty years it was ruled by a monarchy and its first king was the legendary Romulus. Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek rhetorician and historian who lived and taught in Rome in late 1st Century BC. He wrote a history of Rome from its humble beginnings through to the First Punic War. Dionysius gives information, which suggests that from its very foundation, there were slaves in Rome.(1) It is traditionally accepted that Romulus founded the community in 753 BC and was its first king. He and his followers became involved in skirmishes with neighboring peoples, including the Latins and the Etruscans, capturing many of them. Some were given Roman citizenship by him, while others were put to death or enslaved. If they were not sold, these early slaves would be employed primarily in domestic work or labor side by side with their master in the fields.(2) Dionysius also states that Romulus gave Roman fathers the right to sell their own children into slavery.(3) Therefore, it seems as though the Romans had a long history concerning the institution of slavery that began with its own inception and kept growing alongside the state. To be sure, the numbers of slaves were few in the early days of Rome, but with the coming of the third century BC the numbers would soar to unbelievable heights.

The legend of Horatius Cocles is related by Livy in A History of Rome and provides a character description for the men who made Rome great. The peasant farmers embodied the Roman ideal, and besides working hard on small scale plots of land, they also made up the ranks of the army and fought bravely to defend their own property and that of others. Horatius Cocles was a soldier-farmer who stood his ground to defend Rome from an onslaught of Etruscans.(4) He typified the Roman citizen who was willing to sacrifice his own life for the survival of the city. It was these farmers who made the Roman army and who were expected to leave their land and families to protect their way of life, for long periods of warfare. They provided the basis for the Roman society, but their position evolved over a period of history and their displacement almost became a reality. Somewhere along the way, the Romans lost their understanding of the cherished traditions and ancestral convictions that were so important to their foundation. What happened to the Horatius Cocles' of Rome was interwoven with the intrigues of money, power, and the institution of slavery.

The last king of Rome was expelled in 509 BC and the Roman Republic was born. The next two hundred and fifty years saw the expansion of the Romans into Latium and eventually the entire Italian peninsula, and the social and political organization of its people. The divisions between the patricians and the plebeians caused many internal struggles and precipitated the writing of laws and the introduction of a constitution. These challenges helped Rome develop into a state and made it a great power in the Mediterranean, but it had contenders in the fight for domination, who fought strongly. The competitors who changed Rome forever were the Carthaginians and the wars with them marked the beginning of Rome's expansionism outside Italy, which became the makings of an empire.

The Punic Wars were of central importance to the history of Rome because they marked the beginning of provincial acquisitions and changes in Italy. In Southern Italy there was an expansion in ranching on large leased estates that had been confiscated from communities which had helped Hannibal. The need for leather products such as army boots also increased due to Roman wars and these ranches used slave labor.(5) The Punic Wars began a trend of rapid expansion and development of what would layer constitute a large portion of the Roman Empire. With the takeover of Sicily, Spain, Sardinia, and Corsica there came changes in Rome. Imperial booty filtered into the city and made it rich and prosperous, which was a new experience for the people. From humble beginnings, Rome was being transformed: Pergamum was bequeathed to Rome and Cilicia, Africa, Macedonia, Asia, a part of Gaul, and Illyricum were added by 133 BC.(6) By the end of the first century BC, Rome's population had topped one million.(7) A part of the war booty that continually flowed into Italy were the captured slaves from all over their world. In the Digest of Justinian there was a direct connection made between slavery and warfare:

Slaves (servi) are so called because commanders generally sell the people they capture and thereby save (servare) them instead of killing them. The word for property in slaves (mancipia) is derived from the fact that they are captured from the enemy by force of arms (manu capiuntur).(8)

In 210 BC Livy reports that Rome punished the people of Capua by enslaving its people.(9) In 167 BC Aemilius Paullus captured 150 000 people in Epirus;(10) and in 146 BC, 30 000 men and 25 000 women were enslaved after the destruction of Carthage.(11) Many would be sold directly after capture to slave traders who seemed to have followed Roman military campaigns;(12) others would be kept by the commanding officers and given to the soldiers as a bonus for their services.(13) In 166 BC, Delos was made a free port and it became one of the main market places for slaves in the eastern Mediterranean.(14) Strabo tells how a massive slave trade sprung out of the collapse of the Seleucid Empire. Large numbers of the slaves eventually found their way to Italy where they were purchased by wealthy landowners who needed huge numbers of slaves to work on their estates. How did the rich Romans acquire such large tracts of land?

In large part, the land was considered public land which was taken over by the government after political insurrection or conquest. The other source was the displacement of peasant farmers, who having fought foreign wars for numbers of years, came back to Italy unwilling or unable to resume their agricultural practises. Sometimes their land had been expropriated by the government and given to a victorious general's soldiers in lieu of services rendered. A number of farmers had undoubtedly been squeezed out of the market as a result of foreign provincial imports and goods that could be produced quicker and cheaper on the highly organized latifundia. The emergence of these latifundia was an interesting phenomenon that led to a change in crop production.(15) No longer were staple foods necessarily produced, and that brought about dependence on supplies from outside Rome. Since sea travel was much cheaper, food items came from long distances away.(16) This change in self-sufficiency caused hardships for the Romans when supplies were halted for any reason.

The slave revolts in Sicily in 135 BC and 104 BC caused shortages in the most important crop for the poor which was grain and an escalation of prices. The urban poor were to live through many such shortages, and while the lower classes suffered, the rich turned into the extremely rich. The landowning families must have become overwhelmed by the financial rewards possible in agriculture during this time. In Consequences and Slaves, Dr. Keith Hopkins writes that wealth in Italy had always been an outcome of land investment and agricultural production.(17)The growth in the population of Rome and the subsequent increase in demand for products such as meat, olive oil, wheat, wine, and cloth helped change the subsistence economy into a market economy.(18) The prospects for increased financial rewards drove the wealthy to expel small farmers off their land and to develop large estates which cultivated cash crops. The use of slaves also seems to have caused a depletion in good agricultural soil as a result of poor cultivation practises.(19) What were some of the social, political, and demographic outcomes due to the presence of slaves?

Hopkins makes the interesting point that military conquest and the subsequent introduction of incredible wealth and slaves into Italy had the same effects as widespread and rapid technological innovations. Huge numbers of people, values, and resources flowed into Italy and the existing political structure had no way of absorbing or administrating it all.(20) The consequences included the breakdown of traditional society. Two facts from Moses Finley's work should be included here: first, that slaves never became the dominant form of labor in the Italian heartland; and secondly, the number of slaves used depended on the demand.(21) As Appian explains in Roman Civil Wars, "the slaves did not liberate the peasant farmer to take part in democratic politics, but to fight to conquer an empire."(22) Some Italian farmers never came home alive again from foreign conquests and others wanted a different lifestyle and better financial rewards. Jobs in areas such as bricklaying and carpentry were available, but the wages were low.(23)

In reality, the existence and availability of large numbers of slaves released some of the poor from agricultural work, but many were displaced by slave gangs and went to Rome to live off some wealthy patron or find work. This caused horrendous overpopulation problems with the accompanying food shortages, violence, disease, and the endemic problems of housing and fires.(24) As the native population left the farms for the city, their replacements were coming into Italy by the tens of thousands in the form of slaves. Some of these went to Rome itself and were employed in all manner of work: brought by the city to work on cleaning crews for buildings like the public baths and temples or to keep the city streets clean. City-employed slaves also worked on construction projects that built roads and the important Roman aqueduct system. Still others were employed in factories and shops under detestable conditions.(25) In The Golden Ass by Apuleius, Lucius (a man turned into an ass) describes what he saw at a flour mill:

Good guys, what scrawny little slaves there were! Their skin was embroidered with purple welts from their many beatings ... All of them, decked out in rags, carried brands on their foreheads, had their heads half-shaved, and wore chains around their ankles ... (26)
Slaves could be found working as cooks, barbers, hairdressers, nurses, tutors, secretaries, butlers, laundrywomen, housecleaners, seamstresses, and paedagogues.(27)

In An Essay About Friendships, Cicero writes of nurses and paedagogue and the long relationships which many Romans had with them and their entrenchment in Roman society.(28) Highly educated slaves were found working in professions such as accounting, medicine, and education (29) and became a conduit for the transmission of culture, largely Greek culture. The fact that slaves had infiltrated so many areas of work meant that Roman citizens were not hired for these positions. An example is that instead of a rich Roman hiring a small catering company to oversee a dinner party, they used slaves instead. In fact, many large households "were in many ways almost as self-sufficient as a medieval manor."(30) Also, if a slave was freed by his master, he often continued working in the same job, which meant no new openings for the lower-class citizens.(31) This spelled terrible hardships for many displaced Romans who could only hope for part-time work with unreliable sources of income.(32) This led to a further dependence on their patrons and politicians.(33)

All of these conditions led Tiberius Gracchus to make some changes when he became tribune in 133 BC. While journeying to the Spanish provinces he had passed through the Tuscany area and later remarked that all the herdsmen and farmers he had seen there were foreign slaves.(34) The greatest political problem resulting from these agricultural changes was the declining numbers of men available for the Roman army. Tiberius Gracchus wanted to remedy the situation. The Roman military system was based on land ownership and since so many citizens had been displaced, the valuable source for soldiers was dwindling. Tiberius realized that if public land was distributed fairly among the non-rich classes, then the landless peasants and the urban proletariat would have new homes. He proposed the Lax Agraria which he hoped would increase the numbers of small landowners (who could then be drafted for military service), and decrease Rome's dependence on outside grain by reducing the number of latifundia.(35) But Tiberius Gracchus' reforms had limited success and although some lower-class families received small allotments of land, over time very little changed. Ten years later, Gaius Gracchus established a large colony on the site of Carthage which gave war veterans and peasant farmers sizeable pieces of land.(36)

Foreign wars and mass enslavements provided great amounts of land in many of the Roman provinces. As soldier-farmers and other citizens were being displaced from farms and with troubles in Rome escalating, the practise of founding new colonies in remote parts of Italy and in overseas provinces grew.(37) Programs such as these would be developed in many Roman provinces into the late Republic and continue into the era of the emperors. Besides providing land, military recruits, and new possibilities for the Roman people, colonization also helped to extend the Roman area of influence and secure it. The presence of Roman citizens in far-flung areas, and the garrisons which often went along with the construction of colonies provided stability in the empire. Keith Hopkins stresses that Italians peasants had to be expelled in large numbers off the land to allow the lucrative, large estates to flourish.(38) The rich families disagreed with the land commissions which called for a reorganization of land back into the ownership of the poor. As he suggests, colonies in Roman provinces provided land and "served the same function for the poor as land-allotments in Italy did."(39) But with colonization, the wealthy estate owners kept their land and continued to use slave labor.(40)

Throughout the years of the late Republic, men like Caesar and Pompey extended Rome's borders even more. Pompey enlarged the empire in the east incorporating Asis Minor and Syria; and Julius Caesar annexed Gaul, where he reportedly enslaved more than one million people.(41) As dictator, Caesar set up overseas colonies in an effort to alleviate Rome's overcrowding, and the expense of feeding the urban poor.(42) He sent 70 000 men to colonies overseas and it is estimated that one hundred more colonies were settled between 45 and 8 BC.(43) With the dissolution of the Republic and the era of Pax Romana under Augustus, warfare and slavery declined but neither was extinguished. Augustus was known to have sold a number of Cantabrians into slavery (44) and his wife Livia had corps of slaves as her personal assistants.(45)

In times of peace, the Romans must have relied more heavily on home-born slaves (vernae). Cicero's friend Pomponius Atticus did in the Republic.(46) Can it be said that warfare provided the biggest source for slaves in the Republic and breeding the main source in the Imperial Age? In Classical Slavery, Keith Bradley suggests that it is probably more correct to look at the maintenance of a slave class in terms of a combination of sources: warfare, trade, and breeding.(47) Warfare did provide slaves, but since there were no guarantees that enough would be captured, traders had to be counted on. But traders had their own problems acquiring slaves, and so, "breeding remained the only dependable possibility for providing a steady source of new slaves over time."(48)

Roman slavery had many ramifications for the history of the world. It was a practise that grew primarily out of warfare, and it had a direct influence on the building of the empire. It cannot be proven that the Romans fought wars in the expectation of capturing slaves, but it seems likely that the material and physical booty were considered important aspects of warfare, providing incentives. Slavery not only transported people to Rome, it also brought their cultures and religions. It can be speculated that the transmission of Christianity was partially due to the institution of slavery. It is a fact that educated Greeks had a tremendous effect on the civilization of Rome. Roman slavery continued throughout the Empire and was a dominant factor in Roman society.

Related Papers

Ancient Athenian Women: A Look at Their Lives
Annotated Bibliography of Women in Classical Mythology
Humble Beginnings, Glorious Destiny: A Look at Roman Art
Ancient Roman Women: A Look at Their Lives
Roman and Etruscan Wall Paintings of the Tarquinia Tombs and Pompeii


1William Blair, Slavery Amongst the Romans (Edinburgh: Treuttel, Wurtz, & Richter, 1947), p. 3.


3Livy, A History of Rome, as translated by Jo-Ann Shelton, p. 3 (As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook).


5Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 27.

6Henry C. Boren, Roman Society (Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), p. 64.

7Hopkins, p. 2.

8K.R. Bradley, Classical Slavery (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1987) p. 44.

9Ibid., p. 51.

10Ibid., p. 45.

11Ibid., p. 51.

12Ibid., p. 46.

13Ibid., p. 44.

14Strabo, 14, 5.2, as translated by Thomas Wiedemann, p. 110 (Greek and Roman Slavery).

15Boren, p. 69.

16Ibid., p. 94.

17Hopkins, p. 6.

18Ibid., p. 3.

19Columella, 1,7, as translated by T. Weidemann.

20Hopkins, p. 2.

21C.R. Whittaker, Classical Slavery (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.) p. 89.

22Appian, Roman Civil Wars 1,1, as translated by Thomas Weidemann, 1981, p. 133.

23Jo-Ann Shelton, p. 170.

24Ibid., p. 69.

25Ibid., p. 170.

26Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.12, as translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.

27Shelton, p. 170.

28Cicero, An Essay About Friendship 20.74, as translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.

29Boren, p. 200.


31Shelton, p. 191.

32Boren, p. 62.

33Hopkins, p. 24.

34Blair, p. 22.

35Boren, p. 96.

36Ibid. p. 97.

37Hopkins, p. 64-72.


39Ibid., p. 67.


41Whittaker, p. 97.

42Hopkins, p. 67.


44Bradley, p. 49.

45Boren, p. 200.

46Bradley, p. 48.

47Ibid., p. 59.


Copyright © 2014 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

Back to: Resume and More Papers