Roman Slavery


Brendan Patrick Sheridan

Miami University

Slavery was a widespread practice in the ancient world even during the times of Plautus (c. 254-184 B.C.E.). As Rome expanded and conquered its foreign neighbors, the slave population grew. The practice of slavery became more common especially around the city of Rome, where the slave population grew to be a third of the population by the end of the Republic (Madden, 1996). Many laws concerning slavery were then developed throughout this period, dealing with the establishment of the status "slave," to the treatment which a master could give this slave.

Becoming a Slave

A person became a slave in a number of different ways. According to Rudolph Sohm, there were three basic methods for becoming a slave (Sohm, 1970:167). One way to become a slave was to be convicted of a criminal charge ranging from stealing, evasion of taxes or military service, falling into an unpaid debt, to murder (Pritchard, 1961: 78). Pritchard remarks that the result of the court case would determine the harshness of the penalty, which could be, for example, working in the dreaded slave mines, like the silver mines in Spain. The decision could also condemn a person to death, at which time that person was considered a servus poenae (the belief being that a person was a slave from the end of the decision until the moment of death) (Pritchard, 1961: 72). The second way in which a person became a slave was considered one of two iura gentium , "international laws," which Romans considered "natural laws." Romans upheld foreign countries' recognition of slavery in accordance with this belief of "natural laws" (Pritchard, 1961: 73). According to Watson, the first ius gentium declared that a person's citizenship relied upon the citizenship of the person's mother at the time of birth. If a mother was a slave (servus), her child was a slave; and if the mother was a freedperson (liberta ) or freeperson (ingenua ), the child was a freeperson. This way of defining citizenship, resulting from the mother's status, arose due to problems in finding the father and his citizenship (Watson, 1987:10). The final way of becoming a slave (and second ius gentium ), according to Sohm, was whether a person, regardless of past history or citizenship, was taken prisoner by a hostile people (Sohm, 1970:167). In this way, a Roman civis serving in the military, who was then captured and enslaved by the enemy, would become a slave (Pritchard, 1961: 73). Madden includes in this method both piracy and kidnapping. Watson also adds to these three categories the practice of a freeborn or freed family selling one of its members, usually a new-born, into slavery. This manner was called the "across the Tiber" method, but eventually died out during the later stages of the Republic with the influx of a multitude of foreign slaves (Watson, 1987: 16).

Other Types of Slaves

On top of these specifically mentioned slaves, Pritchard (1961:83-85) adds a list of "quasi-slaves," whose rights and social standing were similar to those of a slave:

1. Statuliberi - Slaves made free by their master's will. These slaves remained slaves to their master's heir until the heir set the slave free, but they were protected from cruel treatment by law.

2. Servi sub usufructu manumissi - Slaves made free by will remaining as slaves to their usufructuary until their usufruct ended.

3. Bona fide servientes - Freepersons acting as slaves to a master.

4. Auctorati - Free men who were professional gladiators, and under a gladiator-master contract.

5. Redempti - Freemen captured in war and ransomed back by a non-relative. These men remained endentured servants until they had worked off their debt to their master.

6. Coloni adscripti glebae - Freepersons or freedpersons who were tenant farmers.

Rights of a Slave

Once a person was classified as a slave the person's rights were diminished immensely. The slave was not a person but a property, or a thing of its master, and the slave had no lawful place other than to benefit the master (Sohm, 1970:165-166). The slave, however, did retain a couple of humane rights with regard to a peculium and in accordance with the ius sacrum . The slave, viewed as a human, was allowed to manage some personal property called a peculium (Sohm, 1970:165). This peculium could consist of a myriad of things including money and a slave's slave called a vicarius (Watson, 1987:99). The peculium could be used by the slave in many ways, but the slave was restricted in that all contracts entered by the slave involved the master, and the slave could not give his peculium to someone else so that the other person might use it to buy the slave's freedom (Watson, 1987: 95-101). The slave could save peculium and buy its freedom, but this usually only happened when the peculium outweighed the slave's value. The ius sacrum , on the other hand, allowed the slaves to practice certain aspects of religion, to be properly buried and to join certain religious associations (Sohm, 1970: 166).

Rights of a Master

In turn, masters had certain rights in dealing with their slaves. From the very beginning, masters had rights to protect themselves in transactions with slaves. In the agreements made with a slave dealer, the buyer was guaranteed by law that the slave had neither defects nor was currently in the possession of another person (Watson, 1987: 49). Since the slave was regarded as the property of the master, a master could then inflict upon the slave as much or as little abuse as he or she found necessary. Being property, a master also owned everything the slave acquired while serving this master, including the slave's peculium (Pritchard, 1961: 71). Thus, the little amount that a slave could acquire as personal property was, in legal terms, not even the slave's but rather the master's. Along with this, because the slave was property to a master, if a third party committed any harm to a master's slave, this person was able to be prosecuted under the laws relating to the damaging of another's property (Watson, 1987: 54).

Workplaces Regarding Rights

Under these guidelines, a slave began work in the area to which he or she was assigned. Work, on the whole, was hardest in the mines where the servi poenae toiled (Pritchard, 1961: 72). These slaves suffered immeasurably while working in the mines, and many preferred to die rather than go on working there. The next hardest division of labor came in the fields. Rural slaves also worked on latifundia in chains and harsh conditions, and, as a result, these ranches experienced significant dissension like that of Spartacus in 73-71 B.C.E.(Dilke, 1975: 55). The slaves of the city were divided into two groups: public and private. The public slaves, on the other hand, had the most rights of all divisions of slaves. These slaves generally had a better legal status than other slaves, earned a salary, and in some cases had a right to half of their peculium (Barrow, 1928:131). Some of these public slaves, however, did not enjoy a better legal status such as the slaves put to work as oarsmen on ships in the navy (Barrow, 1928: 148).


The resulting relationships between slaves and their masters varied considerably. Nonetheless, if a master and his or her slave were on good terms, the slave had earned enough money to buy freedom (i.e. the slave's peculium was greater than or equal to the slave's worth), and/or the slave had grown too old to serve, then the master might free the slave through the process of manumission (Sohm, 1970: 167-168). Sohm discusses three possible forms of manumission: The first form is called Manumissio vindicta . In this, the most commonly practiced form of manumission, the master, the slave, a third party, and a praetor gather to manumit the slave. The third party member lays a freedom rod, called a vindicta , on the slave pronouncing the slave free. The master then follows suit by placing his or her vindicta on the slave while the praetor witnesses both performing this action to the slave. The second form of manumission is the Manumissio testamento . In this form one of two things can happen: In the first condition, a slave is set free by a proclamation to do so in the master's will. In the second condition, the master entrusts his slave to another freeperson on the grounds that upon doing so, the slave be set free by the new master. In the second condition, the slave may not be immediately set free because the slave will only be freed when the new master frees him or her, and, until the slave is freed, the slave is classified as a statuliber. The third and final form of manumission is the Manumissio censu . In this form the slave goes before the censor and proclaims to be a freedperson, at which time, if the censor agrees, the censor will record the slave's name down as a freedperson, and thus the slave will be manumitted (Sohm, 1970: 167-168).


As a result of manumission, the slave is now a freedperson. Freedpersons (libertus ) had more rights than the slave, but still had less rights than a Roman freeperson (ingenuus ). The freedperson had the rights of a restricted citizen in that the freedperson can only vote in the city assemblies, is not eligible for the cursus honorum , and can not enter a legion (Sohm, 1970: 169-170). However, the children born to a freedperson (libertus ) are classified as freepersons (ingenui ), and thereby gain access to the aforementioned privileges (Sohm, 1970: 170). Watson mentions that freedpersons and their former masters also enter a new relationship, typically as a client-patron relationship. The old masters as patrons must respect the right of succession, right to respect, and the reasonable amount of days worked. In terms of succession, if the freedperson has male heirs, the patron will get no money, but if the freedperson does not have any male heirs, the patron will get half of the acquired fortune. The right to respect merely refers to the fact that the former master must treat the freedperson as a freedperson and not a slave, while the proper amount of days worked varied, but should not be overly strenuous (Watson, 1987:35-41). The former master may also take on the role of the paterfamilias to the newly freedperson (Sohm, 1970: 70).

Athenian Comparison

These Roman practices of slavery are not entirely unique, however. Ancient Athens also had a similar code of slavery, but theirs was seemingly more humane. According to Harrison, Athenians followed the same iura gentium the Romans did in classifying their slaves, and their public slaves also had more rights than an average slave; they had a house, could bring a suit to trial, and were reportedly paid well. The major difference is in the master's treatment of the slave. A slave was not allowed to be beaten inside the city, even if it were a master occasionally. The result would lead to an indictment of hybris (grajh Ñ'ubrewV). A master could also not kill a slave, whereas in Rome a master could do whatever he wanted to his slave until the empire when a slave could take refuge at a temple or statue of an emperor (Bradley 124-125). The result in Athens would be an indictment of impiety (grajh 'asebeiaV). In contrast with Roman practices of manumission, however, freedpersons in Athens could not bear freeperson children, could not partake in the government, and had to pay a special tax (Harrison, 1968: 164-184).

Plautine Relevance

Finally, there was always an impending fear for the Romans that slaves were going to revolt due to their large numbers and mistreatment. This fear manifested itself in the death of Pedanius Secundus at the hands of one of his slaves in C.E. 61. As a result all 400 of his slaves were executed in order to frighten other slaves from resisting their masters as well (Shelton, 1988:178). Slavery depicted in Plautus and especially the Aulularia gives a brief insight into the public's beliefs about slavery and the treatment of slaves. Bradley believes Plautus is playing with the audience's fears of such uprisings with the use of his stock character of the crafty slave (Bradley, 1987:28-29). Lyconidis servus in the Aulularia depicts this crafty slave who steals Euclio's gold in ll.708-709, and assists with the miserly Euclio's paranoia.

Plautus further shows how slavery was practiced in the Republic with the characters of Strobilus, Staphyla, and even the cooks. By the time of the Aulularia slavery was growing and continued to do so after Plautus' life. While this practice seems cruel to a modern audience, to an ancient one it seemed natural. And while one reads the Aulularia one must keep the social conditions of that time period in mind, not modern ones. One must fully understand the legal relationships between the slave and master to comprehend motivations behind Staphyla, Strobilus, et al.


Barrow, Reginald Haynes. 1928. Slavery in the Roman Empire . New York: Dial Press.

Bradley, K.R. 1987. Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire . New York: Oxford U. Press.

Dilke, O. A. W. 1975. The Ancient Romans: How They Lived and Worked . Great Britain: DuFour Editions, Inc.

Harrison, A.R.W. 1968. The Law of Athens . Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Madden, John. 1996. "Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins." Classics Ireland 1996 vol. 3. U. College, Dublin, Ireland.

Pritchard, A.M. 1961. Leage's Roman Private Law . New York: St. Martin's Press.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. 1988. As the Romans Did . New York: Oxford U. Press.

Sohm, Rudolph. 1970. The Institutes: History and System of Roman Private Law . Trans. James Crawford Ledlie. South Hackensack, NJ: Rothman Reprints, Inc.

Watson, Alan. 1987. Roman Slave Law . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press.