Slavery is often described from the dimension of segregation between the slave-owners and the enslaved people. However, within the institution of slavery, the slave community has been ignored by most existing literature and documentation of slavery. This essay’s main objective is to explore the social stratus within the slaves’ community in ancient Rome.
Slavery is characterized by the power that enslavers had over their slaves. As Keith Bradley rightly puts it in“The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life,” the power held by enslavers in Rome was equivalent to “the power of life and death” (pp. 55); hence, slavery in itself was perceived in numerous perspectives as “a state of living death” (pp. 55). In contrast, the effect of living in a suspended death state was that enslaved people had no privileges or rights (Bradley 56). By definition, slaves had no relatives and were prohibited from lawfully having any familial bonds. Furthermore, they had no right to possess any property, living in slavery. Therefore, living in slavery was to be disempowered. The enslaved person’s lack of rights and demeaning manifested in many ways, though it was more visible or presented heavily in physical abuse and sexual exploitation.
These two aspects have characterized social order in Rome’s Slave community. On one side, Bradley argues that the lack of power, their isolation, and being demeaned (pp.57) were the key characteristics of servitude that allowed enslavers to use their rights to enslave people as right to use them for whichever reason they chose (pp. 56). This is to the extent that, without question, slaves could and were objects of sexual gratification for both the men and women slave owners. This was among the ownership privileges, while for the servile, the atrocities and the length to which they were owned is an important factor to consider when examining the social structure and slave status in Roman society.
Job description was one defining factor of the enslaved community’s social status. Apart from the military, where the enslaved were uniquely and legally barred from participating, slaves worked in all other occupations, including public service. For instance, In first-century Rome, no less than 700 enslaved people worked on maintaining the capital’s aqueducts – paid for by the public treasury and the emperor (British Museum para 15). Slaves are said to work in a range of occupations, including message boys, secretaries, clerks, readers, menservants, accountants, attendants, workers, and cooks, to mention but a few. Similarly, in “Slaver in Ancient Rome,” as documented by the British Museum, it is evident that slaves served in many occupations. However, the majority participated in hard manual labour under strict control, while others served in various specialized jobs with greater autonomy. In some job categories, the autonomy was significantly high to the extent of being allowed to manage other enslaved people (British Museum, para 11).
Skilled slaves, mainly Greek decedents, occupied prestigious positions because their skill and acquisition price were equally high. Akin, it was estimated that in Italy, there were between 15 and 2 million slaves at around the mid-first century BCE, constituting approximately 20% of the entire population (Beard 329). Based on these figures, it is clear that they were working in all sectors and were owned only by a handful who could afford the high price. Working for the high-ranking members of society was another element that gave prestige to the enslaved. In addition, being enslaved by a master with a heart and a sense of morals equally reprieved the enslaved from some suffering, especially regarding physical harm.
A category of the enslaved population was the formerly enslaved people. However, despite being free, it is argued that they remained loyal and accountable to their master. This is founded on the fact that freeing slaves was mostly for the wrong reasons. For instance, some masters argued that it was cheaper to free a slave than to keep one after reaching an unproductive age (Beard 330). Slave owners continued to keep track of their freed slaves mainly because they thought of them as a threat. Slaves of high rank, for example, held many secrets of their masters. Given that it was customarily believed that “All slaves were enemies,” slave owners remained cautious; hence even the formerly enslaved people remained watched.
Structures and hierarchy in enslaved communities were mainly based on the job description, the social status of the master, skills and knowledge, and the legal status (free or enslaved). Given that the methods used to free an enslaved person were either through manumission or marriage, women were more likely to gain freedom earlier than men. More so, enslavement favoured women because they were considered a weaker gender that could not work in labour-intensive sectors. Thus, most women’s job descriptions were considered prestigious if taken by a man.
Beard, Mary. “Human Property.” SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Profile, 2015, pp. 328–333.
Bradley, Keith. “Slaves and Society in Rome.” The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life, 1: The Ancient World to the Reformation, Earl McPeek, 2000, pp. 54–58.
The British Museum. “Slavery in Ancient Rome.” The British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/nero-man-behind-myth/slavery-ancient-rome#:~:text=Under%20Roman%20law%2C%20enslaved%20people,from%20texts%20written%20by%20masters.