Classics and Ancient History


In what respects could Roman Italy be described as a ‘slave society’?

By Louisa Pannifer

Edited by Nia Morris


In the ancient, Rome emerged as the superpower of western civilisation continually conquering surrounding lands and expanding their own territories. Whilst the military and politics were at the forefront of the action, there were those in the background of Roman society who were no less quintessential to the identity of Rome. They could be found in all aspects of Roman life, from the domestic to the agricultural spheres. Paradoxical to their impact on society, but coinciding with their status, they remained largely ignored in ancient literature. These figures were slaves, unpaid for their labour and the property of their owners who could do with them what they wished. This work explores the contribution of slaves to Roman society and the extent to which Rome should be constituted as a ‘slave society’.

To fully answer whether or not Roman Italy functioned as a slave society, it is vital to begin by asking ‘what is a slave society?’. It is plausible that a society that uses slavery would not necessarily be reliant upon it, thus annulling it from the term ‘slave society’. As Bradley states, there are three main features modern historians use in order to determine a slave society; quantitative, qualitative and exploitive actions regarding slaves.[1] Throughout this essay I will demonstrate how Roman Italy fits into all of these categories, paying close attention to the different aspects of slavery in order to establish if and how Rome operated as a slave society. Also, since slavery fluctuated and declined, it is important to establish a focused period of Roman history. From the time of Diocletian onwards, ‘slavery no longer dominated large-scale production in the countryside’.[2] As a result, I will predominantly be looking at the central period of Roman history, from 200BC to 200AD.

A slave society must have a constant supply of new slaves in order to replace those who die, run away, or are freed by their masters; otherwise, the society would be left without a significant portion of its workforce. Rome had four main methods of obtaining new slaves; expansion of the empire and enslaving conquered people, taking abandoned children and raising them, kidnapping and selling to slave markets through piracy, and finally natural breeding between slaves.[3] Infant abandonment and piracy were relatively inefficient methods of obtaining slaves since only a finite number of babies would be abandoned, and piracy was combated by the Roman government. However, after conquering new land, a large volume of slaves would have been brought into Rome as plunder, thus replenishing the slave markets. Nevertheless, although initially there may have been many new slaves, the influx would end eventually due to either the inhalation of the conquered people or the suppression of them, meaning military victory was only a short-term answer to the slave supply. As it was impossible for Rome to expand constantly, the breeding of new slaves became essential for a constant supply of slaves. As Sheidel reveals, the greatest proportion of new slaves after a conquest would have been women and children as they were more likely to survive than men; this was because they did not fight in the wars.[4] As there were more women, there were more opportunities for encouraging, or forcing, sexual relations and, in turn, the breeding of slaves. Subsequently, as the masters could manipulate the production of slaves, there could always be a steady stream.

As many scholars have addressed, due to the nature of slavery and the lack of records concerning it, it is incredibly hard to quantify the slave population. Modern estimates suggest that around 35% of Italy’s population in the central period was made up of slaves.[5] This means that Roman Italy fulfilled the first requirement of a slave society as the population of slaves was over 20%.[6] Moreover, Sheidel conservatively estimates that approximately 300,000 urban slaves lived in each of Italy’s main cities and between 250,000 to 750,000 slaves worked in the Italian countryside.[7] It is perhaps without question therefore that Roman Italy functioned as a slave society simply because of the large amount of slaves in its population. Nonetheless, it is dangerous to assume this based on figures alone, especially since we are unsure of the exact figures. It is much more reliable to show Rome as a slave society through the wide variety of slave jobs and the different ways their presence was exploited under Roman rule.

Slaves were by law divided into two main groups; the familia urbana, the domestic slaves, or the familia rustica, the labouring slaves.[8] Rather than according to their place of employment, the slaves were divided up depending on the type of work they did, for example a rural slave who worked as a secretary would still fall under the familia urbana grouping. Both categories held many different job titles and different ways of life for the slaves. As slaves permeated all aspects of both the domestic and agricultural spheres of Roman life, Roman Italy can fit the qualitative aspect of slavery as there was a vast range of jobs, in many different locations, with plenty of different masters.[9]

The jobs bequeathed to the domestic slaves were perhaps the most diverse out of the two groups. One high status individual whose household was well documented was Livia Drusilla, the wife and advisor of the emperor Augustus and mother of the emperor Tiberius. In Livia’s household, there was a whole host of slaves ranging from a ‘servant in charge of purple’ to a ‘masseuse’, totalling in all fifty different job titles.[10] The range of jobs reflects the abundance and reliance upon slaves within the household, suggesting that their zealous use led to a reliance upon them. However, in poor households, it was common for the same slaves to perform all the household tasks and so not all households developed such a strong reliance.[11] The disparity in the use of slaves perhaps insinuates that, instead of slaves simply being used practically as a means of improving Roman life, slaves functioned as a symbol of their owner’s authority and power. Thus, perhaps Livia’s list of slaves was extensive not merely because she was the figurehead of the imperial familia but so that she could flaunt the empire’s wealth. In this way, wealth and extravagance went hand in hand in the competitive society encouraged by Rome. Moreover, ‘as beings deprived of honour, slaves serve to bolster the honour of their masters’.[12] This was achieved, not only by providing a large entourage, but also by implying the intelligence of their owner, hence the abundance of slaves named after Grecian mythological figures such as Achilles or Ajax, and beautiful slaves being used to impress guests at dinner parties. Indeed, it has been argued that domestic slaves, rather than supplying economic benefit through their work, actually consumed the wealth of their master as they needed to be bought, kept and fed.[13] The master benefited instead by a perceived increase in prestige among their social peers and a life of luxury free of menial tasks. In this way it could be seen that the use of slaves coincides with the third aspect of a slave society. Although it was possible for the Roman elite to use paid labour or less slave labour within their homes, they chose to use as many slaves as possible, who were not receiving compensation, in order to demonstrate their power.[14]

Within a Roman household, the slaves were allowed to form distinctive family structures called familiae. Although they had no rights, the slaves were encouraged to marry within their household and produce children in order to give the slaves a sense of purpose and the master a means of acquiring new slaves. It was possible under larger Roman households for there to be several familiae coexisting alongside each other.[15] This in turn created tension between members of the different familiae as they competed for the master’s favouritism in order to advance up the hierarchy of slaves and obtain special treatment for their familia and hopefully their freedom.[16] The complexity of the familiae suggests that slaves were so entrenched in Roman society; they began to form their own micro-societies under Roman domination. These familia also acted as surrogate families for the young nobles of the house, acting as playmates, wet nurses and teachers until the child matured enough to join adult society.[17] Due to this close proximity, Romans would likely not be able to perceive a world without slavery as they were so assimilated with it from their early life.

Although they were perhaps more important to the Roman way of life than the domestic slaves, the agricultural slaves are referenced less in Roman literature. Nevertheless, we are still aware of a vast number of jobs the slaves were forced to perform such as grain farming, viniculture and arable cultivation.[18] These slaves were used in a more practical way in order to produce a surplus off the land to feed the urban population and generate profit. However, due to the hard labour required, it goes without saying that the lives of the rustic slaves were much harder than those of the domestic slaves. Indeed, Edmondson argues that being sent from the master’s urban home to country villa acted as a punishment for the slave in question as it not only forced upon them a harder way of life, but also made it harder to climb up their familia and earn freedom as they no longer shared a close proximity to their master.[19] These two very prominent groups of slaves signify the two opposite aspects of slavery in the central period, the functional ‘officia’ and the luxurious and skilled ‘artificia’.[20]

In Cato’s De Agricultura, Cato lists methods for the slave owner to get the most out of his slaves. Alongside mistrusting all slaves, it is also apparent that, to the master, a slave is little more than a tool or an ox as, when sickly or old, they are deemed as superfluous and warrant being sold like old tools.[21] As Joshel states, as soon as the slave stops being useful, they become valueless.[22] As opposed to the domestic sphere, in the agricultural world a slave had no function if it was not productive. Furthermore, it was suggested to landowners where the land was unreliable to lease it to freeborn Roman farmers instead of risking money on slave operations. As a result, we see the exploitation of more than one means of labour in order to receive profit, showing Rome falls under the third measure of a slave society again.[23]

Moreover, there is another prominent group of slaves that is essential to the functioning of Roman life and their economy, the mining slaves. Relatively little is known about these slaves in comparison to their domestic and agricultural counterparts; however, we do know that they were put to work in the mines extracting ore, working water powered machinery or other similar tasks.[24] The conditions in the mines were abysmal, which, meant that predominantly slaves were sent to the mines alongside some convicts ‘as a form of essentially capital punishment’.[25] This illustrates why slaves were a key part of Roman society as they were made to do roles freeborn men wouldn’t, as their lives in the eyes of Roman society were little better than death. Since the demand for metal in the Roman world was high due to the need for weapons, coins and metalwork, the use of slaves in mines suggests a reliance on slavery as a whole as they had few other ways of obtaining the metal they needed. Perhaps the reason we know relatively little about mining is because of the use of slaves, for whom there was no way of communicating their lives due to illiteracy.

Therefore, Roman Italy was, without a doubt, a slave society. It housed a vast number of slaves, used slaves for all different types of work and only exploited them in a way most practical for themselves. Slaves were so much involved in Roman society that they were included in the household’s offerings to its public cult and often provided with tombstones after they died.[26] They occur within all forms of Roman literature, have the Saturnalia festival dedicated to them and also appear within the decorative frescos in Roman houses. Moreover, the biggest show of power in Rome, the triumph, is made so spectacular by the parade of conquered people whom Rome had subjugated into slavery. As a result of the inescapable nature of slavery within Roman Italy, it is fair to call it a slave society.

[1] Bradley (1994), 12-13.

[2] Ibid. 14.

[3] Ibid. 32-38.

[4] Sheidel (2005), 72.

[5] Morley (2011), 265.

[6] Bradley (1994), 12.

[7] Scheidel (2005), 67-71.

[8] Bradley (1994), 58.

[9] Ibid. 12.

[10] Treggiari (1975), 48-77.

[11] Bradley (1994), 57.

[12] Fitzgerald (2005), 5.

[13] Bradley (1994), 15.

[14] Ibid. 13.

[15] Edmondson (2011), 343.

[16] Bradley (1994), 69-70.

[17] Edmondson (2011), 357-359.

[18] Sheidel (2005), 69-70.

[19] Edmondson (2011), 340-341.

[20] Bradley (1994), 66.

[21] Cato, 2.2-7.

[22] Joshel (2011), 216

[23] Bradley (1994), 12-13.

[24] Craddock (2009), 97.

[25] Ibid. 100.

[26] Edmondson (2011), 338.


Primary Sources

Cato, ‘De Agricultura’, in W.D. Hooper & H.B Ash (trans.), Cato and Varro on Agriculture, Loeb Classical Library, 1934.

Secondary Sources

Bradley, K. (1994), Slavery and Society at Rome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Craddock, P.T. (2009), ‘Mining and Metallurgy’, in J.P. Oleson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 63-120.

Edmondson, J. (2011), ‘Slavery and the Roman Family’ in K. Bradley & P. Cartledge (edd.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 337–361.

Fitzgerald, W. (2000), Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joshel, S.R. (2011), ‘Slavery and Roman Literary Culture’, in K. Bradley & P. Cartledge (edd.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 214-240.

Morley, N. (2011), ‘Slavery Under the Principate’, in K. Bradley & P. Cartledge (edd.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 265–286.

Scheidel, W. (2005), ‘Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Slave Population’, Journal of Roman Studies 95, 64-79.

Treggiari, S. (1975), ‘Jobs in the Household of Livia’, Papers of the British School at Rome 43, 48–77.


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