Types of Slaves and Slave-like People in Ancient Rome

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Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Slaves were called servi publici and servi privati according as they were owned by the State or by individuals. The condition of the former was considered the more desirable: they were not so likely to be sold, were not worked so hard, and were not exposed to the whims of a capricious master. They were employed to take care of the public buildings and as servants of the magistrates and priests. The quaestors and aediles had great numbers of them in their service. Some servi publici were drilled as a corps of firemen to serve at night under the triumviri nocturni. Others were employed as lictors, jailers, executioners, etc. The number of public slaves, though considerable in itself, was inconsiderable as compared with that of those in private service. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Private Slaves. Private slaves were either employed in the personal service of their master and his family or were kept for gain. The former, known together as the familia urbana, will be described later. The latter may be classified according as they were kept for hire or employed in the business enterprises of their master. Of these last the most important as well as the oldest class was that of the farm laborers (familia rustica). Of the others, engaged in all sorts of industries, it may be remarked that it was considered more honorable for a master to employ his slaves in enterprises of his own than to hire them out to others. However, slaves could always be hired for any desired purpose in Rome or in any other city.” |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Industrial Slaves in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It must be remembered that in ancient times much work was done by hand that is now done by machinery. In work of this sort were employed armies of slaves fit only for unskilled labor: porters for the transportation of materials and merchandise, stevedores for the loading and discharging of vessels, men who handled the spade, pickax, and crowbar, men of great physical strength but of little else to make them worth their keep. Above these came artisans, mechanics, and skilled workmen of every kind: smiths, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, seamen, etc. The merchants and shopkeepers required assistants, and so did the millers and bakers, the dealers in wool and leather, the keepers of lodging-houses and restaurants, all who helped to supply the countless wants of a great city. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

Even the professions, as we should call them, were largely in the hands of slaves. Books were multiplied by slaves. The artists who carved wood and stone, designed furniture, laid mosaics, painted pictures, and decorated the walls and ceilings of public and private buildings were slaves. So were the musicians and the acrobats, the actors and the gladiators who amused the people at the public games. So too, as we have seen, were some of the teachers in the schools; and physicians were usually slaves. |+|

“Slaves did not merely perform these various functions under the direction of their master or of the employer to whom he had hired them for the time. Many of them were themselves captains of industry. When a slave showed executive ability as well as technical knowledge, it was common enough for his master to furnish him with the capital necessary to carry on independently the business or profession which he understood. In this way slaves were often the managers of estates, of banks, of commercial enterprises, though these might take them far beyond the reach of their masters’ observation, even into foreign countries. Sometimes such a slave was expected to pay the master annually a fixed sum out of the proceeds of the business; sometimes he was allowed to keep for himself a certain share of the profits; sometimes he was merely required to repay the sum advanced, with interest from the time he had received it. In all cases, however, his industry and intelligence were stimulated by the hope of acquiring sufficient means from the venture to purchase his freedom and eventually make the business his own.” |+|

Farm Slaves in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Familia Rustica. Under the name familia rustica are comprised the slaves that were employed upon the vast estates that long before the end of the Republic had begun to supplant the small farms of the earlier day. The very name points to this change, for it implies that the estate was no longer the only home of the master. He had become a landlord; he lived in the capital and visited his lands only occasionally for pleasure or for business. The estates may, therefore, be divided into two classes: countryseats for pleasure and farms or ranches for profit. The former were selected with great care, the purchaser having regard to their proximity to the city or other resorts of fashion, their healthfulness, and the natural beauty of their scenery. They were maintained upon the most extravagant scale. There were villas and pleasure grounds, parks and game preserves, fish ponds and artificial lakes, everything that ministered to open-air luxury. Great numbers of slaves were required to keep these places in order. Many of them were slaves of the highest class: landscape gardeners, experts in the culture of fruits and flowers, experts even in the breeding and keeping of birds, game, and fish, of which the Romans were inordinately fond. These had under them assistants and laborers of every sort. All the slaves were subject to the authority of a superintendent or steward (vilicus), who had been put in charge of the estate by the master. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Farm Slaves. But the name familia rustica is more characteristically used of the drudges upon the farms, because the slaves employed upon the countryseats were more directly in the personal service of the master and can hardly be said to have been kept for profit. The raising of grain for the market had long ceased to be profitable in Italy; various industries had taken its place upon the farms. Wine and oil had become the most important products of the soil, and vineyards and olive orchards were found wherever climate and other conditions were favorable. Cattle and swine were raised in countless numbers, the former more for draft purposes and the products of the dairy than for beef. Pork, in various forms, was the favorite meat dish of the Romans. Sheep were kept for the wool; woolen garments were worn by the rich and by the poor alike. Cheese was made in large quantities, all the larger because butter was unknown. The keeping of bees was an important industry, because honey served, so far as it could, the purposes for which sugar is used in modern times. Besides these things that we are even now accustomed to associate with farming, there were others that are now looked upon as distinct and separate businesses. Of these the most important, perhaps, as it was undoubtedly the most laborious, was the quarrying of stone. Important, too, were the making of brick and tile, the cutting of timber and working it up into rough lumber, and the preparing of sand for the use of the builder. This last was of much greater importance relatively then than now, on account of the extensive use of concrete at Rome. |+|

“In some of these tasks, intelligence and skill were required as they are today, but in many of them the most necessary qualifications were strength and endurance, as the slaves took the place of much of the machinery of modern times. This was especially true of the men employed in the quarries, who were usually of the rudest and most ungovernable class, and were worked in chains by day and housed in dungeons by night. |+|

“The Vilicus. The management of such a farm was also intrusted to a vilicus, who was proverbially a hard taskmaster, simply because his hopes of freedom depended upon the amount of profits he could turn into his master’s coffers at the end of the year. His task was no easy one. Besides overseeing the gangs of slaves already mentioned and planning their work, he might have under his charge another body of slaves, only less numerous, employed in providing for the wants of the others. On the large estates everything necessary for the farm was produced or manufactured on the place, unless conditions made only highly specialized farming profitable. Enough grain was raised for food, and this grain was ground in the farm mills and baked in the farm ovens by millers and bakers who were slaves on the farm. The mill was usually turned by a horse or a mule, but slaves were often made to do the grinding as a punishment. Wool was carded, spun, and woven into cloth, and this cloth was made into clothes by the female slaves under the eye of the steward’s consort, the vilica. Buildings were erected, and the tools and implements necessary for the work of the farm were made and repaired. These things required a number of carpenters, smiths, and masons, though such workmen were not necessarily of the highest class. It was the touchstone of a good vilicus to keep his men always busy, and it is to be understood that the slaves were alternately plowmen and reapers, vinedressers and treaders of the grapes, perhaps even quarrymen and lumbermen, according to the season of the year and the place of their toiling. |+|

Cato the Elder: How to Manage Farm Slaves in Ancient Rome

William Stearns Davis wrote: “Cato the Elder passed as the incarnation of all worldly wisdom among Romans of the second century B.C. The precepts here given were undoubtedly put into effect on his own farms. During the early Republic, when the estates were small, there seems to have been a fair amount of kindly treatment awarded the slaves; as the farms grew larger the whole policy of the masters, by becoming more impersonal, became more brutal. Cato does not advocate deliberate cruelty — he would simply treat the slaves according to cold regulations, like so many expensive cattle.”

Cato the Elder wrote in Agriculture, chs. 56-59: “Country slaves ought to receive in the winter, when they are at work, four modii [Davis: One modius equals about a quarter bushel] of grain; and four modii and a half during the summer. The superintendent, the housekeeper, the watchman, and the shepherd get three modii; slaves in chains four pounds of bread in winter and five pounds from the time when the work of training the vines ought to begin until the figs have ripened. [Source: Cato the Elder, Agriculture, chs. 56-59,William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 90-97]

“Wine for the slaves. After the vintage let them drink from the sour wine for three months. The fourth month let them have a hemina [Davis: about half a pint] per day or two congii and a half [Davis: over seven quarts] per month. During the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth months let them have a sextarius [Davis: about a pint] per day or five congii per month. Finally, in the ninth, tenth, and the eleventh months, let them have three hemina [Davis: three-fourths of a quart] per day, or an amphora [Davis: about six gallons] per month. On the Saturnalia and on Compitalia each man should have a congius [Davis: something under three quarts].

“To feed the slaves. Let the olives that drop of themselves be kept so far as possible. Keep too those harvested olives that do not yield much oil, and husband them, for they last a long time. When the olives have been consumed, give out the brine and vinegar. You should distribute to everyone a sextarius of oil per month. A modius of salt apiece is enough for a year.

“As for clothes, give out a tunic of three feet and a half, and a cloak once in two years. When you give a tunic or cloak take back the old ones, to make cassocks out of. Once in two years, good shoes should be given.

“Winter wine for the slaves. Put in a wooden cask ten parts of must (non-fermented wine) and two parts of very pungent vinegar, and add two parts of boiled wine and fifty of sweet water. With a paddle mix all these thrice per day for five days in succession. Add one forty-eighth of seawater drawn some time earlier. Place the lid on the cask and let it ferment for ten days. This wine will last until the solstice. If any remains after that time, it will make very sharp excellent vinegar.”

Familia Urbana: Urban Household Slaves

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The number of slaves kept by the wealthy Roman in his city mansion was measured not by his needs, but by the demands of fashion and his means. In the early days a sort of butler (atriensis), or major-domo, had relieved the master of his household cares, had done the buying, had kept the accounts, had seen that the house and furniture were in order, and had looked after the few slaves who did the actual work. Under the late Republic all this was changed. Other slaves, the procurator and dispensator, relieved the atriensis of the purchasing of the supplies and the keeping of the accounts, and left to him merely the supervision of the house and its furniture. The duties of the slaves under him were, in the same way, distributed among a number many times greater than the slaves of early days. Every part of the house had its special staff of slaves, often so numerous as to be distributed into decuriae, with a separate superintendent for each decuria: one for the kitchen, another for the dining-rooms, another for the bedrooms, etc. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The very entrance door had assigned to it its special slave (ostiarius or ianitor), who was some times chained to it like a watchdog, in order to keep him literally at his post. The duties of the several sets were again divided and subdivided; each slave had some one office to perform, and only one. The names of the various functionaries of the kitchen, the dining-rooms, and the bedchambers are too numerous to mention, but an idea of the complexity of the service may be gained from the number of attendants that assisted the master and mistress with their toilets. The former had his ornator, tonsor, and calceator (who cared for the feet), the latter her hairdresser (ciniflo or cinerarius) and ornatrix; besides these, each had no fewer than three or four to assist with the bath. The children, too, had each his or her own attendants; these included, for both boy and girl, the nutrix, and, in the case of the boy, the paedagogus and the pedisequi. |+|

“When the master or mistress left the house, a numerous retinue was deemed necessary. If he or she walked, slaves (anteambulones) went before to clear the way, and pages and lackeys followed, carrying wraps or the sunshade and fan of the mistress, and ready to perform any little service that might be necessary. The master was often accompanied out of the house by his nomenclator, who prompted him in case he had forgotten the name of anyone who greeted him. If the master did not walk, he was carried in a litter (lectica), somewhat like a sedan chair. The bearers were strong men, by preference Syrians or Cappadocians, all carefully matched in size and dressed in gorgeous liveries. As each member of the household had his own litter and bearers, this one class of slaves made an important item in the family budget. When master or mistress rode in this way, the same attendants accompanied him as when they walked. At night, as there were no street lights, torches had to be carried by some of the attendants to light the way. |+|

“When the master dined at the house of a friend, his slaves attended him at least as far as the door. Some remained with him to care for his sandals, and others (adversitores) returned at the appointed hour to see him home. A journey out of the city was a more serious matter and called for more pomp and display. In addition to the horses and mules that drew the carriages of those who rode, there were mounted outriders and beasts of burden loaded with baggage and supplies. Numerous slaves followed on foot, and an occasional Roman even had a band of gladiators to act as escort and bodyguard. It is not too much to say that the ordinary train of a wealthy traveler included dozens, perhaps scores, of slaves. |+|

“Among the familia urbana must be numbered also those who furnished amusement and entertainment for the master and his guests, especially during and after meals. There were musicians and readers, and, for persons of less refined tastes, dancers, jesters, dwarfs, and even misshapen freaks. Under the Empire little children were kept for the same purpose. |+|

“Lastly may be mentioned the slaves of the highest class, the confidential assistants of the master, the amanuenses who wrote his letters, the secretaries who kept his accounts, and the agents through whom he collected his income, audited the reports of his stewards and managers, made his investments, and transacted all sorts of business matters. The greater the luxury and extravagance of the house, the more the master would need these trained and experienced men to relieve him of cares, and by their fidelity and skill to make possible the gratification of his tastes and passions. |+|

“Such a staff as has been described belonged, of course, only to a wealthy and ostentatiously fashionable man. Persons with really good sense had only such slaves as could be profitably employed. Atticus, the friend of Cicero, a man of sufficient wealth and social position to defy the demands of fashion, kept in his service only vernae, and had them so carefully trained that the meanest could read and write for him. Cicero, on the other hand, could not think it good form to have a slave do more than one kind of work, and Cicero was not to be considered a rich man.” |+|

Clients — Slave-Like Dependents — in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The word cliens is used in Roman history of two very different classes of dependents, who are separated by a considerable interval of time and may be roughly distinguished as Old Clients and New Clients. The former played an important part under the Kings, and especially in the struggles between the patricians and plebeians in the early days of the Republic, but had practically disappeared by the time of Cicero. The latter are first heard of after the Empire was well advanced, and never had any political significance. Between the two classes there is absolutely no connection, and the student must be careful to notice that the later class is not a development of the earlier. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The Old Clients. Clientage (clientela) goes back beyond the founding of Rome to the most ancient social institutions of the Italian communities. The gentes that settled on the hills along the Tiber had as a part of their familiae numerous free retainers, who farmed their lands, tended their flocks, and did the gentes certain personal services in return for protection against cattle thieves, raiders, and open enemies. These retainers, though regarded as inferior members of the gens to which they had severally attached themselves, had a share in the increase of the flocks and herds (peculium), and received the gens name, but they had no right of marriage with persons of the higher class and no voice in the government. They were the original plebs, while the gentiles were the populus, or governing body, of Rome.

“Rome’s policy of expansion soon brought within the city a third element, distinct from both gentiles and clientes. Conquered communities, especially those dangerously near, were made to destroy their own strongholds (oppida) and move to Rome. Members of communities that were organized into gentes were allowed to become a part of the populus, and these, too, brought their clientes with them. Those who had no such organization either attached themselves to the gentes as clients, or, preferring personal independence, settled here and there, in and about the city, to make a living as best they might. Some were possessed of means as large perhaps as those of the patricians; others were artisans and laborers, hewers of wood and drawers of water; but all alike were without political rights and occupied the lowest position in the new state. Their numbers increased rapidly with the expansion of Roman territory, and they soon outnumbered the patricians and their retainers, with whom, of course, they, as conquered people, could have no sympathies or social ties. To them also the name of plebs was given, and the old plebs, the clientes, began to occupy an intermediate position in the state, though politically included with the plebeians. Many of the clientes, owing perhaps to the dying out of ancient patrician families, gradually lost their dependent relation and became identified in interests with the newer element. |+|

“The New Clients. The subject of the new clients need not detain us long. They came in with the upstart rich, who counted a long train of dependents as necessary to their state as a string of high-sounding names, or a mansion that was crowded with slaves. These dependents were simply needy men and women, usually obscure, who toadied to the rich and great for the sake of the crumbs that fell from their tables. There might be among them men of perverted talents, philosophers or poets like Martial and Statius, but they were, for the most part, a swarm of cringing, fawning, time-serving flatterers and parasites. It is important to understand that there was no personal tie between the new patron and the new client, no bond of hereditary association. A striking difference is in the fact that the new client did not attach himself for life to one patron for better or for worse; he frequently paid his court to several at a time and changed his patrons as often as he could hope for better things. The patron in like manner dismissed a client when he had tired of him.” |+|

Mutual Obligations, Duties and Rewards of Clients

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The relation between patrician patrons and plebeian clients is not now thoroughly understood; the problems connected with it seem beyond solution. We know that it was hereditary and that the great houses boasted of the number of their clients and were eager to increase them from generation to generation. We know that it was regarded as something peculiarly sacred, that the client stood to the patron as little less than a son. Vergil tells us that a special punishment in the underworld awaited the patron who defrauded a client. We read, too, of instances of splendid loyalty to their patrons on the part of clients, loyalty to which we can compare in modern times only that of Highlanders to the chief of their clan. But when we try to get an idea of the reciprocal duties and obligations of clients and patrons, we find little in our authorities that is definite. The patron furnished means of support for the client and his family, gave him the benefit of his advice and counsel, and assisted him in his transactions with third parties, representing him if necessary in the courts. On the other hand the client was bound to advance the interests of his patron in every way. He tilled his fields, herded his flocks, attended him in war, and assisted him with money in emergencies. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“It is evident that the value of this relation depended solely upon the predominant position of the patron in the state. So long as the patricians were the only full citizens, so long, that is, as the plebeians had no civil rights, the client might well afford to sacrifice his personal independence for the sake of the countenance and protection of one of the mighty. In the case of disputes over property, for example, the support of his patron would assure him justice even against a patrician, and might secure more than justice were his opponent a plebeian without another such advocate. It is evident that the relation could not long endure after patricians and plebeians became politically equal. For a generation or two patron and client might stand together against their old adversaries, but sooner or later the client would see that he was getting no equivalent for the service he rendered, and his children or his children’s children would throw off the yoke. The introduction of slavery, on the other hand, helped to make the patron independent of the client, and, though we can hardly tell whether its rapid growth was the cause or the effect of declining clientage, it is nevertheless significant that the new relation of patronus and libertus marks the disappearance of that of patronus and cliens in the old and better sense of the words. |+|

“Duties and Rewards. The service rendered by the new clients was easy enough. The chief duty was the salutatio: the clients, arrayed in the toga, the formal dress for all social functions, assembled early in the morning in the great man’s atrium to greet him when he first appeared. This might be all that was required of them for the day, and there might be time to hurry through the streets to another house to pay similar homage to another patron, perhaps to several, for some of the rich slept late. On the other hand, the patron might command their attendance in the house or by his litter, if he was going out, and keep them at his side the whole day long. Then there was no chance to wait upon the second patron, but every chance to be forgotten by him. And the rewards were no greater than the services: a few coins for a clever witticism or a fulsome compliment, a cast-off toga occasionally, for a shabby dress disgraced the levee, or an invitation to the dinner table if the patron was particularly gracious. One meal a day was always expected; this was felt to be the due of the client. But sometimes the patron did not receive, and the clients were sent away empty. Sometimes, too, after a day’s attendance the hungry and tired clientes were dismissed with a gift of cold food distributed in a little basket (sportula), a poor and sorry substitute for the good cheer they had hoped to get. From this basket the “dole” itself, as we should call it now, came to be called sportula. In the course of time an equivalent in money, fixed finally at about twenty-five cents a day, took the place of the food. But it was something to be admitted to the familiar presence of the rich and fashionable; there was always the hope of a little legacy, if the flattery was adroit, and even the dole would enable one to live more easily than by work, especially if one could please several patrons and draw the dole from each of them.” |+|


Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Finally we come to the hospites, though these in strictness ought not to be reckoned among the dependents. It is true that they were often dependent on others for protection and help, but it is also true that they were equally ready and able to extend like help and protection to others who had the right to claim assistance from them. It is important to observe that hospitium differed from clientship in this respect, that the parties to it were actually on the footing of absolute equality. Although at some particular time one might be dependent upon the other for food or shelter, at another time the relations might be reversed and the protector and the protected change places. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Hospitium, in its technical sense, goes back to a time when there were no international relations, to a time when there were not two different words for “stranger” and “enemy,” but one word (hostis) denoted both. In this early stage of society, when distinct communities were numerous, every stranger was looked upon with suspicion, and the traveler in a state not his own found it difficult to get his wants supplied, even if his life was not actually in danger. Hence the custom arose for a man engaged in commerce, or in any other occupation that might compel him to visit a foreign land, to form previously a connection with a citizen of that country, who would be ready to receive him as a friend, to supply his needs, to vouch for his good intentions, and to act if necessary as his protector. Such a relationship, called hospitium, was always strictly reciprocal: if A agreed to entertain and protect B when B visited A’s country, then B was bound to entertain and protect A if A visited B’s country. The parties to an agreement of this sort were called hospites, and hence the word hospes has a double signification, at one time denoting the entertainer, at another the guest. |+|

“Obligations of Hospitium. The obligations imposed by this covenant were of the most sacred character, and any failure to regard its provisions was sacrilege, bringing upon the offender, the anger of Iuppiter Hospitalis. Either of the parties might cancel the bond, but only after a formal and public notice of his intentions. On the other hand the tie was hereditary, descending from father to son, so that persons might be hospites who had never so much as seen each other, whose immediate ancestors even might have had no personal intercourse. As a means of identification the original parties exchanged tokens (tessera hospitalis: see Rich and Harper’s, s,v.), by which they or their descendants might recognize each other. These tokens were carefully preserved, and when a stranger claimed hospitium, his tessera had to be produced and submitted for examination. If it was found to be genuine, he was entitled to all the privileges that the best-known hospes could expect. These seem to have been entertainment so long as he remained in his host’s city, protection, including legal assistance if necessary, nursing and medical attendance in case of illness, the means necessary for continuing his journey, and honorable burial if he died among strangers. It will be noticed that these are almost precisely the duties devolving upon members of our great benevolent societies at the present time when they are appealed to by a brother in distress.” |+|

Freedmen (Freed Slaves) and the “Civil Service” in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It is impossible to estimate the number of freedmen at any given period of Roman history, but the practice of manumission had grown general enough to cause alarm by the end of the Republic, and Augustus limited it in some degree by legislation. In certain respects the effects of manumission were good. The prospect served to make the slave ambitious and industrious. The practice greatly increased the number of the free laboring class. On the other hand, as the slaves came from all parts of the world, a constantly increasing cosmopolitan population was thus added to the native citizen-body, which had been impoverished and weakened by the civil wars. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]


“The Greeks and Orientals, clever and industrious, were particularly successful in adapting themselves to the conditions of their slavery and in working their way to freedom. The large Oriental admixture changed the character of the free population in many respects, and for the worse, as the new citizens thus added did not have the same political traditions as the native Italians, and had no knowledge and understanding of Roman institutions. The freedmen filled the ranks of many of the trades and professions, particularly those despised by the freeborn. Some were highly trained and educated; many were masters of a craft or trade learned in slavery. |+|

“A great many became wealthy, and, though many such were often generous and highly useful citizens in their communities, the self-made man, vulgar, purse-proud, and ostentatious, was a ready subject for the satirists. Petronius, who died in Nero’s reign, has left us in “Trimalchio’s Dinner” a brilliant sketch of the wealthy and vulgar freedmen. In any case neither the freedman nor his son could attain true social equality with the free citizen. The freedmen reached their greatest wealth and power as officials in the Imperial household in the first century, holding important administrative offices that later were transferred to the equestrian order. |+|

“The free persons employed in the offices of the various magistrates were mostly libertini. They were paid by the State, and, though appointed nominally for a year only, they seem to have held their places practically during good behavior. This was largely due to the shortness of the term of the regular magistrates and the rarity of re-election. Having no experience themselves in conducting their offices, the magistrates would have all the greater need of thoroughly trained and experienced assistants.

“The highest class of these officials formed an ordo, the scribae, whose name gives no adequate notion of the extent and importance of their duties. All that is now done by cabinet officers, secretaries, department heads, bureau chiefs, auditors, comptrollers, recorders, and accountants, down to the work of the ordinary clerks and copyists, was done by these “scribes.” Below them came others almost equally necessary but not equally respected, the lictors, messengers, etc. These civil servants had special places at the theater and the circus. The positions seem to have been in great demand, as such places are now in France, for example. Horace is said to have been a clerk in the treasury department.” |+|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org 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, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, the BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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