Notes on the History of Slavery: Roman Empire

If you haven’t read my previous Notes on the History of Slavery, you really should! Once you know about the way slavery was handled elsewhere, little will surprise you about Roman slavery.

Some tidbits about Roman slavery are kind of interesting, though. I will pick only the best, most interesting stuff from  “The Roman Institution of Slavery,” a paper by the scholar of religion studies Moses Maka Ndimuka from Bugema University in Kampala, Uganda. For example:

Although there were various shades of slavery and kinds of slaves, these can be summed up into two broad types: the chattel slave, who was a slave for life; and a temporary slave, who may have been born as a free citizen but fell into slavery because of various reasons, but still had a privilege of being free again. The exact condition of slaves in the ancient Near East varied greatly. Some slaves were allowed to marry; others were not. Some were grossly exploited and treated as animals; others were treated with dignity and owned some property. Some slaves served in private households; others served in temples, palaces, farms, orchards and in construction. Their real condition varied from time to time, and from place to place.

This is important because some scholars specializing in others regions tend to make the comparison that, while in the Grecorroman world slavery was a fixed, unchangeable institution, many varieties of bonded labor and unfreedom existed in, say, ancient India or China — in reality, such was the case also in the Roman Empire and, as we’ll see in a future post, in Ancient Greece. Debt slavery, Maka adds, wasn’t a Roman innovation either, as some appear to assume:

In early Mesopotamian periods, debt slavery had become so rampant that an edict had to be later issued by King Amemisaduqa to release all inhabitants that had been forced into slavery due to debts.1 Others were kidnapped into slavery, as seen in many of the ancient Near Eastern codes legislations against the practice (CH 14: [ca. 1750 B.C.]), and the Hittite Laws (HL 19-21: [ca. 1650-1500 B.C.]). (The source cited is David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands?: Wealth and Poverty in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009)

The Hammurabi code stipulated that debt slavery was not to exceed three years (CH 14), although in other places one could be enslaved for up to 50 years in service of a loan debt. In the Middle East in the 2th millennium BC, Maka notes, slave women were distinguished from ordinary ones by their lack of a veil, and so were the prostitutes.

Maka the religious scholar is most eloquent when describing the effect of Christianity on the Roman institution of slavery:

The letter of Paul to Philemon (vv. 1-25) concerning the run-away slave Onesimus is one of the masterpieces that express the New Testament spirit concerning the institution of slavery. In it, Paul states the master’s obligation as well as that of the slave.  In the epistle, Paul writes that he is returning Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to his master, Philemon. Paul also entreats Philemon to regard Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ. Cardinal Dulles points out that, “while discreetly suggesting that he manumit Onesimus, [Paul] does not say that Philemon is morally obliged to free Onesimus and any other slaves he may have had.”1  He does, however, encourage Philemon to welcome Onesimus “not as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (v. 16). Paul further asserts that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). As Herb Vander Lugt accurately observed, “Jesus and the apostles didn’t go on an anti-slavery crusade, because doing so would have been futile and a hindrance to their primary mission.” He goes on to say that the priority of Jesus was the provision of salvation. For the apostles it was the proclamation of the gospel. But both Jesus and the apostles undermined the basis for slavery by making it clear that God equally loves rich and poor, free and slave, male and female.

Slavery was, as it’s well known, key to the Roman economy. Maka concludes that, at the time of Augustus (31 BC – AD 14), as many as 35% of the people in Italy were slaves, making Rome/Italy one of core historical “slave societies” in which slaves constituted at least one-third of the entire population. Maka remarks that estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. However, on the whole, estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30% to 40% in the 1st century B.C. For details, he suggests Keith R. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Most of these slaves were put to work on menial, hard tasks, but a significant number were used a tutors and in scribe work. Just before Augustus, Cicero makes this comment in a letter to Atticus, dated June 24, 54 BC:

Moreover, it is now known that there isn’t a pennyweight of silver in that island, nor any hope of booty except from slaves, among whom I don’t suppose you can expect any instructed in literature or music.

As I’ve written before, it’s no wonder that a huge influx of slaves (most were non-Italian war captives) created enormous social tensions with low-class freemen that resulted in the rise of Catiline-Trump.

It is said that a proposal in the Roman Senate that slaves be required to wear a distinctive garb was defeated “lest the slaves learn how numerous they were. (The quote is from Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989)… Augustus is said to have imposed a 2% tax on the sale of slaves, estimated to generate annual revenues of about 5 million Roman Sesterces – a figure that indicates some 250,000 annual sales of slaves.

This is powerful and, I think, right:

It was estimated that an average wealthy Roman such as Nero owned 400 slaves in his town house alone, and that some wealthy people owned from 10,000-20,000 slaves. Grant states that the Romans were so dependent on the slave labor that even the simplest task such as getting dressed, holding a towel while going to the bath, bathing, as well as washing of the feet and hands before the meal, were all done by slaves. Because wealthy owners had slaves working on everything, the lower classes of society were rendered idle, disorderly and indolent. Because of the infiltration of slaves in every menial and skilled aspect of Roman life, the Roman Empire populace became one of the laziest lots in all human history. Therefore, upon the freedom of the slaves, the Roman government suffered one of the greatest socio-economic blows with the irreplaceable vacuum of economic labor force. Rome’s dependency on slave labor contributed to the decline of the greatest civilization in the history of mankind.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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