Slaves in Ancient Rome: Numbers, Sources and Laws

Home | Category: People, Marriage and Society / Economics and Agriculture


a slave with his master

A typical household of a Roman citizen had one or two slaves. Wealthy people had more, including a full time cook and gardeners. The really rich had their own hairdressers and slaves that accompanied them whenever they went out. These slaves followed their masters everywhere and jumped to hold up mirrors and scratch the backs of their masters before they even had time to ask. The historian M.I. Finely observed, Romans “could not imagine a civilized existence to be possible” without slaves.

Probably over a quarter of the people living under ancient Roman rule were slaves. Because they they were suppressed little is known about them. Some estimates of slave numbers has them outnumbering freemen three to one. A slave revolt was a big worry among the upper classes (See See Separate Article on Spartacus and Slave Revolts). Slaves were not allowed to cover their heads. Freed slaves often wore a Phrygian (a cone-shaped hat) as a sign of their freedom. In the French Revolution, the idea was revived with bonnet rouge ("red cap"), or liberty cap.

Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: ““The main legal distinctions were between those who were free, and those who were slaves. All inhabitants of the empire were either free or in servitude. Slaves were either born into slavery, or were forced, often through defeat in war, into it. Slaves were the possessions of their masters and the latter had the power of life and death over them. Slavery was not, however, always a life-long state. Slaves could be - and regularly were - given their freedom. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011. |::|]

Keith Bradley of the University of Notre Dame told the BBC: “In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 B.C. and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons” — many did not even have names — “and they couldn't own anything, marry, or have legitimate families. [Source: Professor Keith Bradley, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners' social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners' powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals. |::|

“Few records have survived from Roman slaves to allow modern historians to deduce from them a slave's perception of his or her life of servitude. Rome produced no slaves-turned-abolitionist such as the African-Americans Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. Instead the evidence available comes overwhelmingly from people such as Plutarch, who represented the slave-owning classes. But that evidence does show that Roman slaves managed to demonstrate their opposition to slavery in various ways.” |::|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Roman Slave Society

Man and woman and slave making a sacrifice

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill of the University of Reading wrote for the BBC: “One element, which perhaps more than others seems to separate our world from that of the Roman Empire, is the prevalence of slavery which conditioned most aspects of Roman society and economy. Unlike American plantation slavery, it did not divide populations of different race and colour but was a prime outcome of conquest. [Source: Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Slavery required the systematic use of physical punishment, judicial torture and spectacular execution. From the crucifixion of rebel slaves in their thousands to the use of theatrical enactments of gruesome deaths in the arena as a form of entertainment, we see a world in which brutality was not only normal, but a necessary part of the system. And since the Roman economy was so deeply dependent on slave labour, whether in chained gangs in the fields, or in craft and production in the cities, we cannot wonder that modern technological revolutions driven by reduction of labour costs had no place in their world. |::|

“The system that seems to us manifestly intolerable was in fact tolerated for centuries, provoking only isolated instances of rebellion in slave wars and no significant literature of protest. What made it tolerable to them? One key answer is that Roman slavery legally allowed freedom and the transfer of status to full citizen rights at the moment of manumission. |::|

“Serried ranks of tombstones belonging to liberti (freed slaves, promoted to the master class), who flourished (only the lucky ones put up such tombs) in the world of commerce and business, indicate the power of the incentive to work with the system, not rebel against it. Trimalchio, the memorable creation of Petronius's Satyricon, is the caricature of this phenomenon. Roman society was acutely aware of its own paradoxes: the freedmen and slaves who served the emperors became figures of exceptional power and influence to whom even the grandees had to pay court.” |::|

History of Slavery in Ancient Rome

Semetic slave in ancient Egypt

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “So far as we may learn from history and legend, slavery was always known at Rome. In the early days of the Republic, however, the farm was the only place where slaves were employed. The fact that most of the Romans were farmers and that they and their free laborers were constantly called from the fields to fight the battles of their country led to a gradual increase in the number of slaves, until slaves were far more numerous than the free laborers who worked for hire. We cannot tell when the custom became general of employing slaves in personal service and in industrial pursuits, but it was one of the grossest evils resulting from Rome’s foreign conquests. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“In the last century of the Republic not only most of the manual labor and many trades but also certain of what we now call professions were in the hands of slaves and freedmen. The wages and living conditions of free labor were determined by the necessity of competition with slave labor. Further, every occupation in which slaves engaged was degraded in the eyes of men of free descent until all manual labor was looked upon as dishonorable. The small farms were more and more absorbed in the vast estates of the rich; the sturdy native yeomanry of Rome grew fewer from the constant wars, and were supplanted by foreign stock with the increase of slavery and frequency of manumission. By the time of Augustus most of the free-born citizens who were not soldiers were either slaveholders themselves or the idle proletariat of the cities, and the plebeian classes were largely of foreign, not Italian, descent. |+|

“Ruinous as were the economic results of slavery, the moral effects were no less destructive. To slavery more than to any other one factor is due the change in the character of the Romans in the first century of the Empire. With slaves swarming in their houses, ministering to their love of luxury, pandering to their appetites, directing their amusements, managing their business, and even educating their children, it is no wonder that the old virtues of the Romans, simplicity, frugality, and temperance, declined and perished. And with the passing of Roman manhood into oriental effeminacy began the passing of Roman sway over the civilized world.” |+|

Plight of Slaves and Ordinary People in Roman Society

In a review of Robert Knapp’s “Invisible Romans”, Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker: “Even slaves, Knapp shows, were not without hopes and ambitions: “A slave identity was a combination of what was imposed upon him and what he could fashion for himself,” for instance, by saving money or learning a valuable skill in order to bargain for his freedom. Knapp wants to remind us that a Roman slave “remained a thinking, feeling, active human being”—a fact that few would deny but which is easy to forget when reading about the exploits of their owners. [Source: Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker, January 2, 2012]

ancient Greek slave helping a vomiting drunk man

“Still, these are meagre sparks of light in an overwhelmingly dark picture. “Invisible Romans” is full of anecdotes and quotations that speak volumes about Roman attitudes toward women, slaves, and the cheapness of human life in general. There is the story told by Pliny the Elder about an auctioneer who was selling a hugely expensive candelabra; to sweeten the deal, he “threw in as a free bonus a slave named Clesippus, a humpbacked fuller, and a fellow of surpassing ugliness.” There is the skeleton discovered in North Africa wearing a slave collar inscribed “This is a cheating whore! Seize her because she escaped from Bulla Regia!” And the casual aside in one of Cicero’s speeches in defense of his friend Plancius: “They say you and a bunch of young men raped a mime in the town of Atina—but such an act is an old right when it comes to actors, especially out in the sticks.”

“In general, the lot of the ordinary Roman was no different from that of the vast majority of human beings before the modern age: powerlessness, bitterly hard work, and the constant presence of death. The thing that strikes Knapp most about Roman popular wisdom is its deep passivity in the face of these afflictions, which feels so alien to moderns and especially to Americans. The Romans, he writes, had no concept of progress: “The implication is that the order of the universe is static, that social perspectives do not change; they must be the way they are. The ‘is’ and ‘ought to be’ of the world are the same.”

“Thus, a slave might dream of manumission but hardly of abolition. For women, “there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered—no inkling that Romano-Grecian women ever conceived of a world different from the one they were born into.” In such a harsh world, being a soldier—one of the legionaries Polybius mentions, slicing up humans and animals—was actually one of the easier fates: “The army was the only institution in the Roman world that could more or less guarantee social as well as financial advancement if one worked hard and lived long enough.” Even the amenities of the Roman world, like the famous public baths, lose their lustre in Knapp’s grimly realistic portrait: “The baths offered not only social interaction but a lack of hygiene shocking even to contemplate . . . whatever dirt, grime, bodily fluids, expulsions, and germs people brought with them to the baths, the water quickly shared with other bathers.”

Numbers of Slaves in the Roman Empire

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “We have almost no testimony as to the number of slaves in Italy, none even as to the ratio of the free to the servile population. We have indirect evidence enough, however, to make good the statements in the preceding paragraphs. That slaves were few in early times is shown by their names; if it had been usual for a master to have more than one slave, such names as Marcipor and Olipor would not have sufficed to distinguish them. An idea of the rapid increase in the number of slaves after the Punic Wars may be gained from the number of captives sold into slavery by successful generals. Scipio Aemilianus is said to have disposed in this way of 60,000 Carthaginians, Marius of 140,000 Cimbri, Aemilius Paulus of 150,000 Greeks, Pompeius and Caesar together of more than a million Asiatics and Gauls. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The very insurrections of the slaves, unsuccessful though they always were, also testify to their overwhelming numbers. Of the two in Sicily, the first lasted from 134 to 132 B.C., the second from 102 to 98 B.C., in spite of the fact that at the close of the first the consul Rupilius had crucified 20,000, whom he had taken alive, as a warning to others to submit in silence to their servitude. Spartacus defied the armies of Rome for two years, and in the decisive battle with Crassus (71 B.C.) left 60,000 dead upon the field. Cicero’s orations against Catiline show clearly that it was the calling out of the hordes of slaves by the conspirators that was most dreaded in the city. |+|

“About the number of slaves under the Empire we may get some idea from more direct testimony. Horace implies that ten slaves were as few as a gentleman in even moderate circumstances could afford to own. He himself had two in town and eight on his little Sabine farm, though he was a poor man and his father had been a slave. Tacitus tells us of a city prefect who had four hundred slaves in his mansion. Pliny the Elder says that one Caius Caecilius Claudius Isodorus left at his death over four thousand slaves. Athenaeus (170-230 A.D.) gives us to understand that individuals owned as many as ten thousand and twenty thousand. The fact that house slaves were sometimes divided into “groups of ten” (decuriae) indicates how numerous slaves were. We have, indeed, no means of determining the free population of Rome at any period.” |+|

U.S. history offers enlightening parallels. The famous 18th century Virginian slave owner, “King” Carter, at is said to have used about a thousand slaves on his 300,000-acre estate. On his plantations slaves were worked in groups of thirty or fewer with a slave foreman and a white overseer. Nathaniel Heyward of South Carolina, who died in 1851, possessed 14 plantations and 2087 slaves.

20120227-Slave Mosaique_echansons_Bardo.jpg
Slaves serving their masters on a Tunisian mosaic

Guessing the Number of Slaves in the Roman Empire

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: “Though slavery was a prevailing feature of all Mediterranean countries in antiquity, the Romans had more slaves and depended more on them than any other people. It is impossible, however, to put an accurate figure on the number of slaves owned by the Romans at any given period: for the early Empire with which we are concerned conditions varied from time to time and from place to place. Yet, some estimates for Rome, Italy, and the Empire are worth attempting. The largest numbers were of course in Italy and especially in the capital itself. In Rome there were great numbers in the imperial household and in the civil service - the normal staff on the aqueducts alone numbered 700. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~]

“Certain rich private individuals too had large numbers - as much for ostentation as for work . Pedanius Secundus, City Prefect in A.D. 61, kept 400 slaves, Gaius Caecilius Isidorus, freedman of Gaius Caecilius, left 4116 in his will in 8 B.C., while some owners had so many that a nomenclator had to be used to identify them. However, there is evidence to suggest that these cases were not typical - even for great houses. Sepulchral inscriptions for the rich noble gens the Statilii list a total of approximately 428 slaves and freedpersons from 40 B.C. to A.D. 65. When these figures are analysed, the number of slaves and freedpersons definitely owned by individual members of the gens is small, e.g. Statilius Taurus Sisenna (consul of A.D. 16) and his son had six, Statilius Taurus Corvinus (consul ordinarius of A.D. 45) had eight, and Statilia Messalina, wife of Nero, four or five. Seneca, a man of extraordinary wealth, believed he was travelling frugally when he had with him one cartload of slaves (most likely four or five). References in Juvenal and the Scriptores Historiae Augustae suggest that many non-plebeian Romans had either no slave or merely one or two. From evidence such as this Westermann, Hopkins and others are understandably cautious when attempting to come to a total figure for slaves in the city of Rome in the 1st century AD. Hopkins' estimate of 300,000-350,000 out of a population of about 900,000-950,000 at the time of Augustus seems plausible. ~~

“The same kind of caution needs to be exercised in attempting to arrive at a figure for slaves in Italy for the same period. Passages in the Satyricon would suggest that some households had vast numbers. But that work is of course fiction - though the references to slave numbers there can only have point if certain private individuals did own a lot of slaves. Overall, a figure of around two million slaves out of a population of about six million at the time of Augustus would perhaps seem right (again we follow Hopkins). If so, approximately one in every three persons in Rome and Italy was a slave. ~~

“And what of the Empire as a whole for this period? It is impossible to give any kind of accurate figure. We have neither statistics for the total area nor for the provinces separately. And of course the number of slaves in each province depended on the particular circumstances prevailing there. Some provincial locations had a high number of slaves: Pergamum in the 2nd century A.D. (we deduce this from Galen De Propr. Anim. 9) had 40,000 adult slaves and these formed (as at Rome) one third of the adult population. At Oea (Tripoli) in Africa also in the 2nd century A.D. the wife of Apuleius owned a familia of slaves well in excess of four hundred . However, other areas in the Empire had comparatively few slaves. The evidence from papyri suggests that in all likelihood slaves in Egypt never rose much above 10% of the population and in poorer areas there dropped to as low as 2%. And in other regions, particularly perhaps in the more backward provinces of the West, slaves may never have comprised a significant segment of the work force at all. What then might we assume as an approximate number of slaves in the entire empire in this period? The attractive hypothesis of Harris is ten million, i.e. 16.6%-20% of the estimated entire population of the Empire in the first century AD, i.e. one in every five or six persons would have been a slave. This of course is not a computation, merely a conjecture.” ~~

20120227-Slave Carthage_museum_mosaic_1.jpg
Depiction of slaves on a Carthage mosaic

Sources of Slaves in the Roman Empire

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Under the Republic most slaves brought to Rome and offered there for sale were captives taken in war. An idea of the magnitude of this source of supply has already been given. The captives were sold as soon as possible after they were taken, in order that the general might be relieved of the trouble and risk of feeding and guarding such large numbers of men in a hostile country. The sale was conducted by a quaestor; the purchasers were the wholesale slave dealers that always followed an army, along with other traders and peddlers. A spear (hasta), which was always the sign of a sale conducted under public authority, was set up in the ground to mark the place of sale, and the captives had garlands on their heads, as did victims offered in sacrifice. Hence the expressions sub hasta venire and sub corona venire came to have practically the same meaning, “to be sold as slaves.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The wholesale dealers (mangones) assembled their purchases in convenient depots, and, when sufficient numbers had been collected, marched them to Rome, in chains and under guard, to be sold to local dealers or to private individuals. The slaves obtained in this way were usually men and likely to be physically sound and strong for the simple reason that they had been soldiers. On the other hand they were likely to prove intractable and ungovernable, and many preferred even suicide to servitude. It sometimes happened, of course, that the inhabitants of towns and whole districts were sold into slavery without distinction of age or sex. |+|

“Under the Empire large numbers of slaves came to Rome as articles of ordinary commerce, and Rome became one of the great slave marts of the world. Slaves were brought from all the provinces of the Empire: blacks came from Egypt, swift runners from Numidia, grammarians from Alexandria; those who made the best house servants came from Cyrene; handsome boys and girls, and well-trained scribes, accountants, amanuenses, and even teachers, came from Greece; experienced shepherds came from Epirus and Illyria; Cappadocia sent the most patient and enduring laborers. |+|

“Some of the slaves were captives taken in the petty wars that Rome was always waging in defense of her boundaries, but they were numerically insignificant. Others had been slaves in the countries from which they came, and merely exchanged old masters for new when they were sent to Rome. Still others were the victims of slave hunters, who preyed on weak and defenseless peoples two thousand years ago much as slave hunters are said to have done in Africa until very recent times. These man-hunts were not prevented, though perhaps not openly countenanced, by the Roman governors. |+|


“A less important source of supply was the natural increase in the slave population as men and women formed permanent connections with each other, called contubernia. This became of general importance only late in the Empire, because in earlier times, especially during the period of conquest, it was found cheaper to buy than to breed slaves. To the individual owner, however, the increase in his slaves in this way was a matter of as much interest as the increase in his flocks and herds. Such slaves would be more valuable at maturity, for they would be acclimated and less liable to disease, and, besides, would be trained from childhood in the performance of the very tasks for which they were destined. They would also have more love for their home and for their master’s family, since his children were often their playmates. It was only natural, therefore, for slaves born in the familia to have a claim upon their master’s confidence and consideration that others lacked, and it is not surprising that they were proverbially pert and forward. They were called vernae so long as they remained the property of their first master.” |+|

Determining Where Roman Slaves Came From

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: “Whence came these slaves? Some have presupposed that because two of the more important sources of slaves in the Republic - war and piracy - had become significantly restricted in the Empire there was a gradual diminution in the number of slaves during the first three centuries AD. However, there is no statistical proof of this, and for that reason Harris rejects it (rightly I believe), preferring to think that there was no serious drop in the number of slaves or in the demand for them - at least until A.D. 150. And since there is no evidence either that the cost of slaves spiralled upwards during this period, it seems sensible to infer that the supply of slaves needed annually to replenish the normal depletion of their numbers was more or less available without too much difficulty. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~]

“This raises two obvious but interesting questions: What number of new slaves was needed from year to year? Where did these replacements come from? “To answer the first of these questions we need to know the average length of time the slave spent as slave. This however, depends in turn on the average life expectancy of a slave. It has been estimated by Keith Hopkins that for the entire population the average life expectancy at birth was 20-30 years. Combining this figure with evidence from Roman tombstones Harris in turn estimates that the average life expectancy of a slave at birth in the Empire was unlikely to be more than 20 years. This seems reasonable, and since the average length of a slave's time as slave would be shorter than his average life expectancy at birth - partly because some slaves were manumitted and partly because some were not initially slaves but made so subsequently -it follows, if the number of slaves was to remain more or less constant as we have assumed, that the need for new slaves was exceptionally great. On these hypotheses Harris suggests that more than half a million were required annually for the first century and a half of the Empire. ~~

“Where did these slaves come from? The jurist gives a general answer: servi aut nascuntur, aut fiunt ['slaves are either born or made']. During the Republican period one of the principal sources (if not the principal source) of slaves had been prisoners of war. However, with the establishment of the principate under Augustus and the extension of the pax Romana across the Empire the significance of this source decreased. Yet, not completely of course: wars still continued but on a smaller scale. And there were even some major influxes of slaves from this source. The number of Jews enslaved as a result of the crushing of the Jewish rebellion by Vespasian and Titus (A.D. 66-70) was put (reliably, it would seem) at 97,000 by Josephus. The steady expansion in Britain continued to supply British slaves onto the market. Great numbers of prisoners of war reached Rome from the Dacian wars of Trajan is, however, an exaggeration). And after the Jewish revolt led by Bar-Cochba in A.D. 132-35 a large amount of Jews - well over 100,000, it is estimated - were sold as slaves in the East. ~~

“Roman soldiers involved in frontier wars and rebellions would have had many chances to buy prisoners of war as slaves at disposal auctions. Although this is not mentioned in the contemporary literature, it can be deduced from papyri which reveal slaves in the ownership of soldiers and veterans in Egypt. However, when Hadrian decided on a border plan of continuous defence along natural or man-made boundaries, these opportunities must have become far fewer. The effect on slave numbers of these various military episodes though significant was yet more short than long term. Harris, for example, thinks it improbable that in an average year for the period A.D. 14-150 more than 2%-3% (i.e. 10,000-15,000) of the slave requirement was supplied from prisoners of war. ~~

“Accordingly, we must turn our attention to the other sources of slaves in the early centuries of the Empire. Some have taken the view that, since the slave body at this period was already very great, the bulk of new slaves required each year would have been provided from their own class, i.e. that the slave body would have been almost self-propagating. Vernae (i.e. slaves born at home and kept within the familia - in Roman law any infant born to a slave woman was in turn a slave) - are certainly mentioned frequently in our sources. They were normally preferred by the Romans, who tended to get on well with them: their background was known, they spoke Latin from the beginning, they were accustomed to slavery knowing no other life, and they could be taught whatever skill their master intended for them. In particular, we have indications that they were encouraged to marry and have children, and in fact for our period the slave's type of marriage - contubernium - is well documented. Surely then, the argument goes, the number of new slaves needed annually would come for the most part from reproduction among the slaves themselves? ~~

“However, on closer analysis, this reasoning is flawed. True, some of the more fortunate city slaves and certain rural ones as well enjoyed a secure home life. And undoubtedly these together with the many female slaves who had children by their masters (or other free men) will have contributed considerably to the number of new slaves entering the system each year. Nevertheless, the belief that the total slave-body was more or less self-propagating is unsound. There are a number of reasons for this.” ~~

Were There More Male Slaves in the Roman Empire?

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: “One is the likelihood that the slave-body was disproportionately male. There is of course no clear statistical confirmation of this. However, if we allow for differences from one area to another and exclude entirely perhaps Roman Egypt the overall picture from the accessible evidence seems consistent. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~]

Selling Slaves in Rome by Jean Leon Gerome

“First of all it is clear that males were in the majority where work was difficult and weighty - in building, in mining, in numerous types of industry, in a wide variety of services such as loading and unloading at docks, portage, transportation, etc. In agriculture also male slaves would have been more in demand. Small landowners would have to be content with whatever slaves were available irrespective of their sex, while large landowners would undoubtedly have needed some female slaves e.g. for weaving, cloth making, cooking. However, it is clear from passages in Varro and Columella, where the question of which of the more reliable agricultural slaves should be allowed a female companion is treated, that permission for such a partner was a special concession. Varro recommended that praefecti ['overseers'], as an incentive to their faithfulness, should be granted female slaves with whom they could have children, while lesser slaves should have to do with less. In Columella, on the other hand, it is the vilicus ['steward'] who should be given a female partner. In the ergastula - the private prisons belonging to many Roman farms where slaves were forced to work in fetters - the inmates would have been very largely male. It is evident from this that among agricultural slaves males surely outnumbered females. ~~

“When we turn to domestic staff the evidence suggests that there too male slaves were more numerous. S. Treggiari in her analysis of the 79 members of the city household staff of Livia has noted that 77% were male (the percentage was similar among freedpersons and slaves). This is a very revealing figure since we would expect a domina to have a higher number of female staff than a dominus. And in her study of the city familiae of the Statilii and the Volusii Treggiari has shown that about 66% of the freedpersons and slaves were male, while of the thirty child slaves whose names were inscribed on the tombs of these two families 80% at a minimum were male. P.R.C. Weaver in his examination of the burial places of the imperial household stationed in Carthage calculated that 76% were males. One of the Oxyrhynchus papyri provides evidence of a big urban slave familia in Roman Egypt. It belonged to the wealthy Titus Julius Theon in Alexandria (died A.D. 111) and of fifty-nine slaves (at least) recorded as belonging to it a mere two were female. ~~

“In literature also there are occasional indications that it was more usual for private individuals to have male rather than female slaves : e.g. Horace, Sat. 1.6.116, has his meal served "by three servant boys" (pueris tribus); Naevolus in Juvenal, Sat. 9.64-7, owns "one servant boy" (puer unicus) and will have to get a second; in Lucian, Merc. Cond. (=On Salaried Posts in Great Houses) 32 both the cook and lady's hairdresser seem to be male; in the Cena of the Satyricon male slaves appear to be almost everywhere, c.f. e.g.. 27;28; 31;34. It would seem safe to conclude that in general, whenever slaves were bought, males outnumbered females, and that this was the pattern also for the total slave body of the Empire. Incidentally, there are, as Harris points out, parallels for this from the later Atlantic slave trade. For the period 1791-1798 there were 230 male slaves brought to Cuba compared to 100 female. And for Jamaica for the same period the ratio was 183 males to 100 females. ~~

“A second reason for the slave body's inability to propagate itself is linked to manumission. There is some evidence to suggest that female slaves were manumitted more often than males and marriageable females (it would seem) most often of all. The principal reason for this is thought to be marriage. Since the children of such a marriage were usually free, the emancipation of these nubile slaves would have removed the very individuals who were essential for the continuation of the class.” ~~

Did the Roman Slave Population Reproduce Itself?

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: ““Another reason for thinking that the slave population did not reproduce itself in sufficient numbers is that female slaves, on the available evidence (limited admittedly), do not seem to have been very prolific. Columella e.g. who refers to favours (such as a break from work) which he has granted to feminae fecundiores ['more fertile women'], includes mothers of three in this category. The implication is that in Italy the greater proportion of slave mothers gave birth to and reared at most two children. For the provinces unfortunately there is little reliable information. Even in Egypt the picture is obscure: the papyri do not seem to have been properly analysed with this question in mind. However, three or more children would appear to have been well above average for a slave woman there. P.Mich. V.326 mentions one slave mother of five children, but that is quite unusual. This apparently low fertility rate for Egypt is significant. There slaves brought in from abroad must have cost comparatively more than in the majority of other places across the empire. We would accordingly have expected even greater encouragement to procreation among slaves in Egypt than elsewhere. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~]

Captives in Rome by Charles Bartlett

“Another reason for doubting that the slave body was likely to reproduce itself is that even free peoples at certain periods found it hard to do so. Polybius e.g. discusses the decline of the population of Greece in his own day (mid 2nd century B.C.) and attributes this to two factors, childlessness and the scarcity of men. Much of southern Italy also experienced a decrease in its numbers towards the end of the Republic. Indeed, it is remarkable - given the prevalence of child-exposure, the limitations of obstetrics, diet and medicine, and the effects of wars, famines and the like - how buoyant the numbers of free peoples in general remained. ~~

“The evidence from slave populations elsewhere in history perhaps deserves mention here. In general this favours the argument that slave populations do not normally reproduce themselves. In the United States the reverse was true (there slave numbers increased after importation was banned in 1808), but that was a special case. For example, Brazil and the Caribbean imported more African slaves than North America, yet the slave body in both areas experienced a natural decline in numbers - up to 5% per annum depending on time and place. Why the United States was different is not clear, but a plausible suggestion is that the working and environmental conditions affecting the lives of slaves were more favourable there than elsewhere. It is unlikely that comparable conditions were to be found in the Roman Empire, and so we would expect the trend there to resemble that which prevailed later outside the U.S.A. ~~

“If these arguments are correct, vernae on their own will have failed by a significant amount to meet the annual requirements for new slaves. This shortfall, Harris, taking everything into account, estimated at several hundred thousand per year. ~~

“How was this shortfall made good? Where did the required number of new slaves originate? We must turn again to those who were made slaves. As well as prisoners of war there were other groups who belonged to this category. First, there were those who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Both Augustus and Tiberius took measures against kidnapping. Augustus put a curb on grassatores ['bandits'] who used to capture travellers (both free and slave) and hand them over to landowners for retention in ergastula. However, in spite of the efforts of the two emperors kidnapping was not eradicated and persisted down to the next century. Yet, it would not have been so frequent and widespread that it could be considered a major source of new slaves in the early empire.” ~~

Were Pirates and Barbarians Major Sources of Slaves?

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: “The same can be said of piracy. This practice was considerably restricted when Pompey crushed the pirates after the passing of the Lex Gabinia in 67 B.C. and later when the moves against the piratical Illyrians came to a successful conclusion at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Thereafter, the major section of the Mediterranean was rendered safe for journeying and commerce for the following two centuries by the creation and continued upkeep of the imperial fleet. However, some instances of piracy still occurred in the Mediterranean, cf. e.g. Lucian De Merc. Cond. 24. Outside the Mediterranean, where the auxiliary imperial squadrons were less active, pirates would have had more opportunities, cf. e.g. Strabo 11.496 for the Heniochi in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, it is improbable that piracy could ever have contributed a sizeable fraction of the slave numbers needed in the early centuries of the empire. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~]

“Another source of slaves was purchase from over the boundaries of the empire. Presumably this happened at all major limites, but its extent is impossible to determine. M. Crawford has made an attractive case for a series of such purchases in the late Republic. He argues that hoards of Republican denarii found in Dacia in the lower Danube basin are best explained as payments from c. 65 to 30 B.C. (i.e. after a hitherto significant source - piracy - had been suppressed by Pompey in 67 B.C.) by slave dealers/merchants to the local aristocracy. These latter (Crawford suggests) in exchange for sought-after commodities of the Mediterranean world such as silver and wine, sold off "perhaps [their] own humble dependants and certainly the humble dependants of others captured in internal raiding". ~~

“For the Empire Tacitus gives an instance for the lower Rhine in the reign of Domitian. Evidence for the practice can also be extrapolated from the Periplous Maris Erythraei , Strabo and two tariff inscriptions, one from Palmyra (A.D. 137), the other from Numidia (A.D. 202) . Yet, it is remarkable that when the place of origin of slaves is indicated in Roman literature, this is almost invariably from within rather than from without the Empire. And the papyri and inscriptions suggest the same pattern. Thus it is unlikely that slaves bought from beyond the frontiers would have been plentiful enough to meet a significant portion of the total slave needs of the early Empire. ~~

“What of the other sources of slaves? The sale of their own offspring by parents was one of these. This occurred particularly in hard times when parents attempted to ease their burden. The evidence for it, whether in literature or inscriptions, is sparse, yet we can presume that it did take place during the first centuries of the empire. However, the practice is unlikely to have been widespread. Philostratus says that it was a custom for the Phrygians "even to sell their children" - the inference being that this was rather exceptional. Tacitus tells how the Frisians in Lower Germany on being subjected to an excessive tribute by the Romans were forced eventually to sell their wives and children into slavery. This too however, would have been unusual. In general it is unlikely that even the most impoverished parents, once they had initially resolved to bring up a baby, would sell that baby into servitude - unless there was some very special provocation. ~~

“A few other methods of enslavement should also be mentioned here. The first was self-sale. Hermeros, for example, rather than remain a tribute-paying provincial and hoping subsequently to become a Roman citizen (i.e. tribute-free), seems to have sold himself into slavery. A second method was for debt. Here a debtor who was unable to pay could be "given up" (addictus ) to his creditor. A third method was penal enslavement i.e. slavery arising from conviction in law. Punishment for grave crimes could entail the removal of personal rights - the guilty being usually condemned to work as slaves in quarries or mines or as gladiators. However, it seems unlikely that any one of these methods, or indeed all three together, could have provided a significant number of slaves for our period. In fact, in the case of self-sale, its legality was never formally acknowledged in Roman law. ~~

“We can now pause here and take stock. Of all the sources so far discussed vernae were the most important. But even they, it has been suggested, left on average an annual deficit of several hundred thousand slaves. Since none of the other sources mentioned made significant dents in this number, we must ask "From where then did the main bulk of the remainder come?" Evidence points to "foundlings" - a source which, we may surmise, supplied considerably more slaves for our period than had been usually thought.” ~~

Abandonment of Infants: A Major Source of Roman Slaves?

John Madden of the University College Galway wrote: “The abandonment of infants was widespread over much of the Roman world, and, no doubt, occurred even more frequently whenever circumstances became especially difficult. The custom was not made illegal until A.D. 374. Abandoned children usually either died or were made slaves, but the percentage in each group is beyond recall. In the case of the latter the owners themselves sometimes found the infants (either by accident of design); at other times they received them from finders who knew of their need. But there are also signs in the papyri of the availability of infants on request i.e. that individuals who were part of the slave trade nexus either collected abandoned babies for later sale themselves or bought them from others who found them. Sometimes owners engaged nurses under contract (a number of the relevant documents survive among the papyri) to look after foundlings in their early months. Occasionally foundlings were recovered by their parents. At other times if they could provide proof of their original citizen status and obtain a champion - an assertor - they could themselves initiate legal proceedings. [Source: “Slavery in the Roman Empire Numbers and Origins” by John Madden, University College Galway, Classics Ireland, 1996 Volume 3, University College Dublin, Ireland ~~] “Evidence for the practice of child-exposure in Rome and across the Empire is considerable. In his Roman Antiquities 2.15 Dionysius of Halicarnassus refers to a law of Romulus which obligated the Romans to raise all infant boys and the first-born infant girl, and prohibited the killing of any child under the age of three unless it was maimed or abnormal from birth. The likelihood is that this was not a real law but an invention in the late Republic in response to the worrying level of child-abandonment at the time. Tacitus considered it deserving of comment that the Germans and the Jews held it wrong to kill an unwanted child - the implication being that the Romans thought otherwise. Even the Roman aristocracy exposed children. Dio Cassius says that there were far more males than females among the nobility in Rome (in 18 B.C.), a ratio that can best be explained (given the number of males killed in the civil wars) by the abandonment of females at birth. This hypothesis receives support in Pliny, Pan. 26.5-27, where it is clear that not only did the poor need incentives to bring up their children but the rich did as well. Augustus would not allow the child born to Julia the Younger to be acknowledged and reared. ~~

“Elsewhere in many areas of the Roman world, we find child exposure widespread. It is securely documented for Roman Egypt, where two graphic phrases from the papyri deserve mention. The first is the legal description of the practice: " to rescue from the dung-pile for enslavement"; the second, the infamous advice of a husband in a letter to his wife in 1 B.C. :"If you do give birth, if it is male, let it live, if it is female, cast it out". (Needless to say, not all Egyptian-Greek couples thought like the husband here: infant boys too were abandoned there.) ~~

“Child-exposure was practised in Asia Minor, on the Greek mainland and on the Aegean islands. In Bithynia-Pontus for example in A.D. 111 during the governorship of Pliny the Younger the problem of the status and maintenance costs of enslaved foundlings became so serious that Pliny felt compelled to write to Trajan himself about the matter - and received from the emperor a letter in reply. Pliny's letter also reveals that similar kinds of problems had long caused concern in Achaea, for it refers to an edict of Augustus, and to letters of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian dealing with these matters there. Aelian, V.H. 2.7, thought it noteworthy that the citizens of Thebes attempted to put a stop to child-exposure. Plutarch, De amore prolis, stated bluntly: "poor people do not rear their children". Christian apologetic writers too (even though there may be exaggeration in their censure ) indicate that the practice remained widespread: cf. e.g. Tertullian, Apol. 9.7, "you (i.e. pagans) in more cruel fashion stifle your children's breath in water, or expose them to cold and hunger and dogs".. ~~

“Granted all of this, how important are we to rate foundlings as a slave source? Here we may recapitulate and conclude. When Tiberius and his successors followed in general Augustus' advice of confining the empire within its present frontiers, one of the principal sources of slaves i.e. prisoners of war, seriously decreased. However, as far as we are aware, no major emergency in the replenishment of slave numbers occurred. The reason surely is that the considerable range of other slave sources already available were together able to make up sufficiently for the shortfall. Yet, of these sources, only two, vernae and foundlings, could, we are convinced, have been major contributors. Vernae certainly were important, yet, if the arguments and estimates given above are sound, vernae would have fallen well short of supplying the full yearly requirement. That leaves foundlings. Since we know that child exposure was a widespread phenomenon - urban as well as rural - over a considerable section of the Greek world, Asia Minor, Egypt, Italy and elsewhere in the West, we may conclude that enslaved foundlings were more or less able to make up for the shortage in the slave supply caused by the drop in the numbers of prisoners of war in the first century and a half of the empire - a shortage which vernae and the other sources could not offset.” ~~

Manumission in Ancient Rome


Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The slave might purchase freedom from his master by means of his savings, as we have seen, or he might be set free as a reward for faithful service or some special act of devotion. In either case it was only necessary for the master to pronounce him free in the presence of witnesses, though a formal act of manumission often took place before a praetor. The new-made freedman set on his head the cap of liberty (pilleus), seen on some Roman coins. He was called libertus in reference to his master or as an individual, libertinus as one of a class; his master was now not his dominus, but his patronus. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The relation that existed between the master and the freedman was one of mutual helpfulness. The patron assisted the freedman in business, often supplying the means with which he was to make a start in his new life. If the freedman died first, the patron paid the expenses of a decent funeral and had the body buried near the spot where his own ashes would be laid. He became the guardian of the freedman’s children; if no heirs were left, he himself inherited the property. The freedman was bound to show his patron marked deference and respect at all times, to attend him upon public occasions, to assist him in case of reverse of fortune, and in short to stand to him in the same relation as the client had stood to the patron in the brave days of old.” |+|

Laws on Marriage Involving Freed Roman Slaves

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Roman law developed as a mixture of laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and opinions issued by jurists. One of the most long lasting of actions” of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian' (A.D. 482-566) “was the gathering of these materials in the 530s into a single collection, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis [The Code of Civil Law]. The texts here address the issue of marriage, and date back particularly to the time of Augustus [ruled 27 B.C. - A.D. 14] who was very concerned about family matters and ensuring a large population. In the selections that follow the first part comes from the Digest and contain the opinions on marriage law of famous lawyers - Marcianus, Paulus, Terentius Clemens, Celsus, Modestinus, Gaius, Papinianus, Marcellus, Ulpianus, and Macer. Note that the most important were Papinianus (executed by the Emperor Caracalla in 212), who excelled at setting forth legal problems arising from cases, and Ulpianus (d. 223), who wrote a commentary on Roman law in his era. All these were legal scholars of the Roman imperial period whose works were considered important enough to keep in the Digest. The second section, from the Codex contain the later receipts of emperors concerning marriage law and punishments. IN the Corpus individual authors were identified, and these names have been kept here. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329]

Celsus, Digest, Book XXX: It is provided by the Lex Papia that all freeborn men, except senators an their children, can marry freedwomen. Modestinus, Rules, Book II. A son who has been emancipated can marry without the consent of his father, and any son that he may have will be his heir. Marcianus, Institutes, Book X: A patron cannot marry his freedwoman against her consent. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329]

Ulpianus, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book III: In that law which provides that where a freedwoman has been married to her patron, after separation from him she cannot marry another without his consent; we understand the patron to be one who has bought a female slave under the condition of manumitting her (as is stated in the Rescript of our Emperor and his father), because, after having been manumitted, she becomes the freedwoman of the purchaser.” [Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, the BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.