Treatment and Living Conditions of Slaves in Ancient Rome

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The Slave Market

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Slave dealers usually offered their wares at public auction sales. These were under the supervision of the aediles, who appointed the place of the sales and made rules and regulations to govern them. A tax was imposed on imported slaves. They were offered for sale with their feet whitened with chalk; those from the East had their ears bored, a common sign of slavery among oriental peoples. When bids were to be asked for a slave, he was made to mount a stone or platform, corresponding to the “block” familiar to the readers of our own history. From his neck hung a scroll (titulus), setting forth his character and serving as a warrant for the purchaser. If the slave had defects not made known in this warrant, the vendor was bound to take him back within six months or make good the loss to the buyer. The chief items in the titulus were the age and nationality of the slave, and his freedom from such common defects as chronic ill-health, especially epilepsy, and tendencies to thievery, running away, and suicide. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“In spite of the guarantee, the purchaser took care to examine the slaves as closely as possible. For this reason they were commonly stripped, made to move around, handled freely by the purchaser, and even examined by physicians. If no warrant was given by the dealer, a cap (pilleus) was put on the slave’s head at the time of the sale, and the purchaser took all risks. The dealer might also offer the slaves at private sale. This was the rule in the case of all slaves of unusual value and especially of those with marked personal beauty. These were not exposed to the gaze of the crowd, but were exhibited only to persons who were likely to purchase. Private sales and exchanges between citizens without the intervention of a regular dealer were as common as the sales of other property, and no stigma was attached to them. The trade of the mangones, on the other hand, was looked upon as utterly disreputable, but it was very lucrative and great fortunes were often made in it. Vilest of all the dealers were the lenones, who kept and sold women slaves for immoral purposes only. |+|

“Prices of Slaves. The prices of slaves varied as did the prices of other commodities. Much depended upon the times, the supply and demand, the characteristics and accomplishments of the particular slave, and the requirements of the purchaser. Captives bought upon the battlefield rarely brought more than nominal prices, because the sale was in a measure forced, and because the dealer was sure to lose a large part of his purchase on the long march to Rome, through disease, fatigue, and, especially, suicide. There is a famous piece of statuary representing a hopeless Gaul killing his wife and then himself. We are told that Lucullus once sold slaves in his camp at an average price of eighty cents each. In Rome male slaves varied in value from $100 paid for common laborers in the time of Horace, to $28,000 paid by Marcus Scaurus for an accomplished grammaticus. Handsome boys, well trained and educated, sold for as much as $4000. Very high prices were also paid for handsome and accomplished girls. It seems strange to us that slaves were matched in size and color as carefully as horses were once matched, and that a well-matched pair of boys would bring a much larger sum when sold together than when sold separately.” |+|

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

Names of Roman Slaves, Freedmen and Citizens

probably from a slave, as slaves usually only had one name

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Slaves had no more right to names of their own than they had to other property, but took such as their masters were pleased to give them, and even these did not descend to their children. In the simpler life of early times the slave was called puer, just as the word “boy” was once used in this country for slaves of any age. Until late in the Republic the slave was known only by this name, corrupted to por and affixed to the genitive of his master’s praenomen: Marcipor (Marci puer), “Marcus’s slave,” Olipor (Auli puer), “Aulus’s slave.” When slaves became numerous, this simple form no longer sufficed to distinguish them, and they received individual names. These were usually foreign names, and often denoted the nationality of the slave; sometimes, in mockery perhaps, they were the high-sounding appellations of eastern potentates, such as Afer, Eleutheros, Pharnaces. By this time, too, the word servus had supplanted puer. We find, therefore, that toward the end of the Republic the full name of a slave consisted of his individual name followed by the nomen and praenomen (the order is important) of his master and by the word servus: Pharnaces Egnatii Publii servus. When a slave passed from one master to another, he took the nomen of the new master and added to it the cognomen of the old modified by the suffix -anus: when Anna, the slave of Maecenas, became the property of Livia, she was called Anna Liviae serva Maecenatiana. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The freedman regularly kept the individual name which he had had as a slave, and received the nomen of his master with any praenomen the latter assigned him, the individual name coming last as a sort of cognomen. It happened naturally that the master’s praenomen was often given, especially to a favorite slave. The freedman of a woman took the name of her father, e.g., Marcus Livius Augustae l Ismarus; the letter l stood for libertus, and was inserted in all formal documents. Of course the master might disregard the regular form and give the freedman any name he pleased. Thus, when Cicero manumitted his slaves Tiro and Dionysius, he called the former, in strict accord with custom, Marcus Tullius Tiro, but to the latter he gave his own praenomen and the nomen of his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, the new name being Marcus Pomponius Dionysius. The individual names (Pharnaces, Dionysius, etc.) were dropped by the descendants of freedmen, who were, with good reason, anxious to hide all traces of their mean descent. |+|

When a foreigner received the right of citizenship, he took a new name, which was arranged on much the same principles as have been explained in the cases of freedmen. His original name was retained as a sort of cognomen, and before it were written the praenomen that suited his fancy and the nomen of the person, always a Roman citizen, to whom he owed his citizenship. The most familiar example is that of the Greek poet Archias, whom Cicero, in the well-known oration, defended; his name was Aulus Licinius Archias, He had long been attached to the family of the Luculli, and, when he was made a citizen, he took as his nomen that of his distinguished patron Lucius Licinius Lucullus; we do not know why he selected the praenomen Aulus. Another example is that of the Gaul mentioned by Caesar (B.G., I, 47), Gaïus Valerius Caburus. He took his name from Caius Valerius Flaccus, the governor of Gaul at the time that he received his citizenship. To this custom of taking the names of governors and generals is due the frequent occurrence of the name “Julius” in Gaul, “Pompeius” in Spain, and “Cornelius” in Sicily.” |+|

Food and Dress of Roman Slaves

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Slaves were fed on coarse food, but, when Cato tells us that besides the monthly allowance of grain (about a bushel) they were to have merely the fallen olives, or, if these were lacking, a little salt fish and vinegar, We must remember that this allowance corresponded closely to the common food of the poorer Romans. Every student of Caesar knows that grain was the only ration of the sturdy soldiers that won his battles for him. A slave received a tunic every year, and a cloak and a pair of wooden shoes every two years. Worn-out clothes were returned to the vilicus to be made up into patchwork quilts. We are told that the vilicus often cheated the slaves by stinting their allowance for his own benefit; and we cannot doubt that he, a slave himself, was more likely to be brutal and cruel than the master would have been. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“But, entirely apart from the grinding toil and the harshness and insolence of the overseer, and, perhaps, of the master, the mere restraint from liberty was torture enough in itself. There was little chance of escape by flight. In Greece a slave might hope to cross the boundary of the little state in which he served, to find freedom and refuge under the protection of an adjoining power. But Italy had ceased to be cut up into hostile communities, and, should the slave by a miracle reach the border or the sea, no neighboring state would dare defend him or even hide him from his Roman master. |+|

“If he attempted flight, he must live the life of an outlaw, with organized bands of slave hunters on his track, with a reward offered for his return, and unspeakable tortures awaiting him as a warning for others. It is no wonder, then, that slaves sometimes sought rest from their labors by a voluntary death. It must be remembered that many slaves were men of good birth and high position in the countries from which they came, many of them even soldiers, taken on the field of battle with weapons in their hands.” |+|

Peculium: Property of a Slave

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “We have seen that the free man in patria potestate could not legally hold property, and that all he acquired belonged strictly to his pater familias. We have seen, however, that property assigned to him by the pater familias he was allowed to hold, manage, and use just as if it were his own. The same thing was true in the case of a slave, and his property was called by the same name (peculium). His claim to it could not be maintained by law, but was confirmed by public opinion and by inviolable custom. If the master respected these, there were several ways in which an industrious and frugal slave could scrape together bit by bit a little fund of his own; his chance of doing so depended in great measure, of course, upon the generosity of his master and his own position in the familia. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“If the slave belonged to the familia rustica, the opportunities were not so good, but, by stinting himself, he might save something from his monthly allowance of food, and he might do a little work for himself in the hours allowed for sleep and rest, tilling, for example, a few square yards of garden for his own benefit. If he was a city slave, there were, besides these chances, the tips from his master’s friends and guests, and perhaps a bribe for some little piece of knavery or a reward for its success. We have already seen that a slave teacher received presents from his pupils. It was not at all uncommon, as has been said, for a shrewd master to teach a slave a trade and allow him to keep a portion of the increased earnings which his deftness and skill would bring. Frequently, too, the master would furnish the capital and allow the slave to start in business and retain a portion of the profits. |+|

bill of sale for a slave, AD 3rd century

“For the master such action was undoubtedly profitable in the long run. It stimulated the slave’s energy and made him more contented and cheerful. It also furnished a means of control more effective than the severest corporal punishment, and that without physical injury to the chattel. To the ambitious slave the peculium gave at least a chance of freedom, for he hoped to save enough in time to buy himself from his master. Many, of course, preferred to use their earnings to purchase little comforts and luxuries nearer than distant liberty. Some upon whom a high price was set by their owners used their peculium to buy for themselves cheaper slaves, whom they hired out to the employers of laborers already mentioned. In this way they hoped to increase their savings more rapidly. The slave’s slave was called vicarius, and legally belonged to the owner of his master, but public opinion regarded him as a part of the slave-master’s peculium. The slave had only a life interest in his savings: a slave could have no heirs, and he could not dispose of his savings by will. If he died in slavery, his property went to his master. Public slaves were allowed as one of their greatest privileges to dispose by will of one-half of their property. |+|

“At the best the accumulation of a sum large enough to buy his liberty was pitifully slow and painful for the slave, all the more because the more energetic and industrious he was the higher the price that would be set upon him. We cannot help feeling a great respect for the man who at so great a price obtained his freedom. We can sympathize, too, with the poor fellows who had to take from their little hoards to make to the members of their masters’ families the presents that were expected on such great occasions as the marriage of one of them, the naming of a child (dies lustricus), or the birthday of the mistress.” |+|

Legal Status of Roman Slaves

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The power of the master over the slave, dominica potestas, was absolute. The master could assign to the slave laborious and degrading tasks, punish him even unto death at his sole discretion, sell him, and kill him (or turn him out in the street to die) when age or illness had made him incapable of labor. Slaves were mere chattels in the eyes of the law, like oxen or horses. They could not legally hold property, they could not make contracts, they could testify in court only on the rack, they could not marry. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The free person in patria potestate was little better off legally, but there were two important differences between the son, for example, and the slave. The son was relieved of the potestas on the death of the pater familias, but the death of the master did not make the slave free. Again, the condition of the son was ameliorated by pietas and public opinion, but there was no pietas for the slave, and public opinion operated in his behalf only to a limited degree. It did enable him to hold as his own his savings, and it also gave a sort of sanction to the permanent unions of male and female slaves called contubernia, but in other respects it did little for his benefit. |+|

“Under the Empire various laws were passed that seemed to recognize the slave as a person, not a thing; it was forbidden to sell him to become a fighter with wild beasts in the amphitheater; it was provided that the slave should not be put to death by the master simply because he was too old or too ill to work, and that a slave “exposed” should become free by the act; at last the master was forbidden to kill the slave at all without due process of law. As a matter of fact, these laws were very generally disregarded, much as are our laws for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and it may be said that it was only the influence of Christianity that at last changed the condition of the slave for the better. |+|

How a Faithful Slave Should Act

William Stearns Davis wrote: “What a slave of about 200 A.D. had to do in order to save himself from constant cuffs and stripes is here set forth somewhat humorously, but with a serious undercurrent of grim truth. There was no high motive for a slave to behave himself — simply a fear of cruel punishment if he did not. There might be a hope of ultimate freedom, but that depended entirely on the caprice of the master.

Plautus wrote in Menaechmi, Act V, Sc. 4: “Messenio, a slave, soliloquizes: Well, this is the proof of a good servant: he must take care of his master's business, look after it, arrange it, think about it; when his master is away, take care of it diligently just as much as if his master were present, or be even more careful. He must take more care of his back than his appetite, his legs than his stomach — if he's got a good heart. Just let him think what those good-for-nothings get from their masters — lazy, worthless fellows that they are. Stripes, fetters, the mill, weariness, hunger, bitter cold — fine pay for idleness. That's what I'm mightily afraid of. [Source: Plautus, Menaechmi, Act V, Sc. 4., 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].

“Surely, then, it's much better to be good than to be bad. I don't mind tongue lashings, but I do hate real floggings. I'd rather eat meal somebody else grinds, than eat what I grind myself. So I just obey what my master bids me; and I execute orders carefully and diligently. My obedience, I think, is such as is most for the profit of my back. And it surely does pay! Let others do just as they think it worth while. I'll be just where I ought to be. If I stick to that, I'll avoid blunders; and I needn't be much afraid if I'm ready for my master, come what may. The time's pretty close when for this service of mine, my master will give his reward.”

Treatment of Slaves in the Roman Empire

Some slaves were treated poorly and held in low regard, One Roman nobleman reportedly feed his slaves to his eels. A wooden tablet found in Britain read: "turn that slave girl into cash." Some were highly thought of and at least desired. At Pompeii a beautiful gold armband was found with the inscription: “From the master to his slave-girl." University of Maryland classics professor Judith Hallett told Smithsonian magazine, “Throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, slaves had to cater to the whims of the elite. I think all slaves, male and female, were on duty as potential sex partners for their male masters. If you were a slave you could not say no."

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “There was nothing in the stern and selfish character of the Roman that would lead us to expect from him gentleness or mercy in the treatment of his slaves. At the same time, he was too shrewd and sharp in all matters of business to forget that a slave was a piece of valuable property, and to run the risk of the loss or injury of that property by wanton cruelty. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Much depended, of course, upon the character and temper of the individual owner. The case of Vedius Pollio, in the time of Augustus, who ordered a slave to be thrown alive into a pond as food for the fish because he had broken a goblet, may be offset by that of Cicero, whose letters to his slave Tiro disclose real affection and tenderness of feeling. If we consider the age in which the Roman lived, and pass for a moment the matter of punishments, we may say that he was exacting as a taskmaster rather than habitually cruel to his slaves. |+|

“Of the daily life of the town slave we know little except that his work was light and that he was the envy of the drudge upon the farm. Of the treatment of the latter we get some knowledge from the writings of the Elder Cato, who may be taken as a fair specimen of the rugged farmer of his time (234-149 B.C.). He held that slaves should always be at work except in the hours, few enough at best, allowed them for sleep, and he took pains to find plenty for his to do even on the public holidays. He advised farmers to sell immediately worn-out draft cattle, diseased sheep, broken implements, aged and feeble slaves, “and other useless things.” |+|

Plautus on the Conduct and Treatment of Slaves

William Stearns Davis wrote: “A Roman playwright, Plautus, writing about the time of the end of the Second Punic War (201 B.C.), gives this picture of an inconsiderate master, and the kind of treatment his slaves were likely to get. Very probably conditions grew worse rather than better for the average slave household, for at least two centuries. As the Romans grew in wealth and the show of culture they did not grow in humanity.

Plautus wrote in Pseudolus, Act. I, Sc. 2: [Ballio, a captious slave owner, is giving orders to his servants.] Ballio: Get out, come, out with you, you rascals; kept at a loss, and bought at a loss. Not one of you dreams minding your business, or being a bit of use to me, unless I carry on thus! [He strikes his whip around on all of them.] Never did I see men more like asses than you! Why, your ribs are hardened with the stripes. If one flogs you, he hurts himself the most: [Aside.] Regular whipping posts are they all, and all they do is to pilfer, purloin, prig, plunder, drink, eat, and abscond! Oh! they look decent enough; but they're cheats in their conduct. [Source: Plautus, Pseudolus, Act. I, Sc. 2; 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]

[Addressing the slaves again.] Now, unless you're all attention, unless you get that sloth and drowsiness out of your breasts and eyes, I'll have your sides so thoroughly marked with thongs that you'll outvie those Campanian coverlets in color, or a regular Alexandrian tapestry, purple-broidered all over with beasts. Yesterday I gave each of you his special job, but you're so worthless, neglectful, stubborn, that I must remind you with a good basting. So you think, I guess, you'll get the better of this whip and of me — by your stout hides! Zounds! But your hides won't prove harder than my good cowhide. [He flourishes it.] Look at this, please! Give heed to this! [He flogs one slave] Well ? Does it hurt ? . . . Now stand all of you here, you race born to be thrashed! Turn your ears this way! Give heed to what I say. You, fellow! that's got the pitcher, fetch the water. Take care the kettle's full instanter. You who's got the ax, look after chopping the wood.

“Slave: But this ax's edge is blunted.

“Ballio: Well; be it so! And so are you blunted with stripes, but is that any reason why you shouldn't work for me? I order that you clean up the house. You know your business; hurry indoors. [Exit first slave]. Now you [to another slave] smooth the couches. Clean the plate and put in proper order. Take care that when I'm back from the Forum I find things done — all swept, sprinkled, scoured, smoothed, cleaned and set in order. Today's my birthday. You should all set to and celebrate it. Take care — do you hear — to lay the salted bacon, the brawn, the collared neck, and the udder in water. I want to entertain some fine gentlemen in real style, to give the idea that I'm rich. Get indoors, and get these things ready, so there's no delay when the cook comes. I'm going to market to buy what fish is to be had. Boy, you go ahead [to a special valet], I've got to take care that no one cuts off my purse.”

Slave Resentment in Sicily

Diodorus Siculus wrote: “Because of the superabundant prosperity of those who exploited the products of this mighty island, nearly all who had risen in wealth affected first a luxurious mode of living, then arrogance and insolence. As a result of all this, since both the maltreatment of the slaves and their estrangement from their masters increased at an equal rate, there was at last, when occasion offered, a violent outburst of hatred. So without a word of summons tens of thousands of slaves joined forces to destroy their masters. Similar events took place throughout Asia at the same period, after Aristonicus laid claim to a kingdom that was not rightfully his, and the slaves, because of their owners' maltreatment of them, joined him in his mad venture and involved many cities in great misfortunes. [Source: Diodorus Siculus (wrote 60-30 B.C.), Bibliotheke Books 34/35. 2. 1-48]

“In like fashion a each of the large landowners bought up whole slave marts to work their lands; . . . to bind some in fetters, to wear out others by the severity of their tasks; and they marked all with their arrogant brands. In consequence, so great a multitude of slaves inundated all Sicily that those who heard tell of the immense number were incredulous. For in fact the Sicilians who had acquired much wealth were now rivalling the Italians in arrogance, greed, and villainy. And the Italians who owned large numbers of slaves had made crime so familiar to their herdsmen that they provided them no food, but permitted them to plunder.

“The Italians who were engaged in agriculture purchased great numbers of slaves, all of whom they marked with brands, but failed to provide them sufficient food, and by oppressive toil wore them out .. . their distress. Not only in the exercise of political power should men of prominence be considerate towards those of low estate, but so also in private life they should — if they are sensible — treat their slaves gently. For heavy-handed arrogance leads states into civil strife and factionalism between citizens, and in individual households it paves the way for plots of slaves against masters and for terrible uprisings in concert against the whole state. The more power is perverted to cruelty and lawlessness, the more the character of those subject to that power is brutalized to the point of desperation. Anyone whom fortune has set in low estate willingly yields place to his superiors in point of gentility and esteem, but if he is deprived of due consideration, he comes to regard those who harshly lord it over him with bitter enmity.”

If a Slave-Owner Is Murdered by His Slave, Should All the Household Slaves Be Killed?

The Murder of Pedanius Secundus by Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.): relates to the murder of a slave-owner by his slave, possibly because of jealously, and a discussion by the Senate on whether all the slaves in the house should be killed. Tacitus wrote: “Shortly afterwards, the city prefect, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his own slaves; either because he had been refused emancipation after Pedanius had agreed to the price, or because he had contracted a passion for a catamite, and declined to tolerate the rivalry of his owner. Be that as it may, when the whole of the domestics who had been resident under the same roof ought, in accordance with the old custom, to have been led to execution, the rapid assembly of the populace, bent on protecting so many innocent lives, brought matters to the point of sedition, and the senate house was besieged. [Source: “The Annals,” Book 14, “Tacitus” Vol. V of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1937]

“Even within its walls there was a party which protested against excessive harshness, though most members held that no change was advisable. Gaius Cassius, one of the majority, when his turn to speak arrived, argued in the following strain:"I have frequently, Conscript Fathers, made one of this body, when demands were being presented for new senatorial decrees in contravention of the principles and the legislation of our fathers. And from me there came no opposition — not because I doubted that, whatever the issue, the provision made for it in the past was the better conceived and the more correct, and that, where revision took place, the alteration was for the worse; but because I had no wish to seem to be exalting my own branch of study by an overstrained affection for ancient usage. At the same time, I considered that what little influence I may possess ought not to be frittered away in perpetual expressions of dissent: I preferred it to remain intact for an hour when the state had need of advice. And that hour is come to day, when an ex-consul has been done to death in his own home by the treason of a slave — treason which none hindered or revealed, though as yet no attacks had shaken the senatorial decree which threatened the entire household with execution. By all means vote impunity! But whom shall his rank defend, when rank has not availed the prefect of Rome? Whom shall the number of his slaves protect, when four hundred could not shield Pedanius Secundus? Who shall find help in his domestics, when even fear for themselves cannot make them note our dangers? Or — as some can feign without a blush — did the killer avenge his personal wrongs because the contract touched his patrimony, or because he was losing a slave from his family establishment? Let us go the full way and pronounce the owner justly slain!

“"Is it your pleasure to muster arguments upon a point which has been considered by wiser minds than ours? But even if we had now for the first time to frame a decision, do you believe that a slave took the resolution of killing his master without p179 an ominous phrase escaping him, without one word uttered in rashness? Assume, however, that he kept his counsel, that he procured his weapon in an unsuspecting household. Could he pass the watch, carry in his light, and perpetrate his murder without the knowledge of a soul? A crime has many antecedent symptoms. So long as our slaves disclose them, we may live solitary amid their numbers, secure amid their anxieties, and finally — if die we must — certain of our vengeance amid the guilty crowd. To our ancestors the temper of their slaves was always suspect, even when they were born on the same estate or under the same roof, and drew in affection for their owners with their earliest breath. But now that our households comprise nations — with customs the reverse of our own, with foreign cults or with none, you will never coerce such a medley of humanity except by terror. — 'But some innocent lives will be lost!' — Even so; for when every tenth man of the routed army drops beneath the club, the lot falls on the brave as well. All great examples carry with them something of injustice — injustice compensated, as against individual suffering, by the advantage of the community."

“While no one member ventured to controvert the opinion of Cassius, he was answered by a din of voices, expressing pity for the numbers, the age, or the sex of the victims, and for the undoubted innocence of the majority. In spite of all, the party advocating execution prevailed; but the decision could not be complied with, as a dense crowd gathered and threatened to resort to stones and firebrands. The Caesar then reprimanded the populace by edict, and lined the whole length of road, by which the condemned were being marched to punishment, with detachments of soldiers. Cingonius Varro12 had moved that even the freedmen, who had been present under the same roof, should be deported from Italy. The measure was vetoed by the emperor, lest gratuitous cruelty should aggravate a primitive custom which mercy had failed to temper.”

Runaway Slaves in Ancient Rome

It is presumed many slaves ran away. Determining how many is pretty much impossible. But there is clear evidence it happened. Escaped slaves had to go through great lengths to hide their identity and live the life of outlaws, knowing that organized bands of slave hunters were trying to find them. A fugitive slave was a criminal, for he had stolen himself — a highly-valued thing.

The runaway was also guilty of setting a bad example to his fellow slaves; and, worst of all, runaway slaves often became bandits, and they might find a Spartacus to lead them. There were, therefore, standing rewards for the capture of fugitivi.The fugitivus was brought back in shackles, and was sure to be flogged within an inch of his life and sent to the quarries for the rest of his miserable days. Besides this, he was branded on the forehead with the letter F, for fugitivus, and sometimes had a metal collar riveted about his neck. One such collar, preserved at Rome, says in Latin, "I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you'll be rewarded".

Keith Bradley of the University of Notre Dame told the BBC: A runaway slave could “try to escape, either to return to an original homeland or simply to find safe refuge....The greatest modern historian of ancient slavery, Moses Finley, has remarked, 'fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources'. This suggests that the incidence of running away was always high. |::| [Source: Professor Keith Bradley, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“To deal with the problem, the Romans hired professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and posted advertisements in public places giving precise descriptions of fugitives and offering rewards for their capture....There is no way of knowing how many Roman slaves successfully escaped slavery by running away. But it was possible. And it helped that skin colour was no impediment. |::|

“The great orator Cicero can be heard grumbling in his correspondence about a slave named Dionysius, who was well-educated enough to have supervised Cicero's personal library and who must have been relatively well-treated. He ran away anyway. Cicero used all his considerable influence to find the man, but to no avail: Dionysius slipped away across the Adriatic and is last heard of well out of Cicero's reach - somewhere in the Balkans. |::|

“Running away was less dangerous than rebellion, but it was still a hazardous enterprise. Slave-catchers apart, Roman law forbade the harbouring of fugitives, so slaves on the run were always in danger and if caught could be savagely punished. To many therefore it must have made sense not to risk life and limb by running away, but to carry out acts of wilful obstruction or sabotage that harmed slave-owners' interests at minimal risk to themselves.” |::|

Runaway Slave Lawlessness in Sicily

slave collar

Diodorus Siculus wrote: “With such licence given to men who had the physical strength to accomplish their every resolve, who had scope and leisure to seize the opportunity, and who for want of food were constrained to embark on perilous enterprises, there was soon an increase in lawlessness. They began by murdering men who were travelling singly or in pairs, in the most conspicuous areas. Then they took to assaulting in a body, by night, the homesteads of the less well protected, which they destroyed, seizing the property and killing all who resisted. [Source: Diodorus Siculus (wrote 60-30 B.C.), Bibliotheke Books 34/35. 2. 1-48]

“As their boldness grew steadily greater, Sicily became impassable to travellers by night; those who normally lived in the country found it no longer safe to stay there; and there was violence, robbery, and all manner of bloodshed on every side. The herdsmen, however, because of their experience of life in the open and their military accoutrements, were naturally all brimming with high spirits and audacity; and since they carried clubs or spears or stout staves, while their bodies were protected by the skins of wolves or wild boars, they presented a terrifying appearance that was little short of actual belligerence.

“Moreover, each had at his heels a pack of valiant dogs, while the plentiful diet of milk and meat available to the men rendered them savage in temper and in physique. So every region was filled with what were practically scattered bands of soldiers, since with the permission of their masters the reckless daring of the slaves had been furnished with arms.

“The praetors attempted to hold the raging slaves in check, but not daring to punish them because of the power and influence of the masters were forced to wink at the plundering of their province. For most of the landowners were Roman knights in full standing, and since it was the knights who acted as judges when charges arising from provincial affairs were brought against the governors, the magistrates stood in awe of them.”

Diodorus Siculus wrote in “Book 34/35. 3. 8, 11: “The runaway "Syrian slaves cut off the hands of their captives, but not content with amputation at the wrist included arms and all in the mutilation.There was a certain Gorgus of Morgantina, surnamed Cambalus, a man of wealth and good standing, who, having gone out hunting, happened upon a robber-nest of fugitive slaves, and tried to escape on foot to the city. His father, Gorgus, chancing to meet him on horseback, jumped down and offered him the horse that he might mount and ride off to the city. But the son did not choose to save himself at his father's expense, nor was the father willing to make good his escape from danger by letting his son die. While they were still pleading with one another, both in tears, and were engaged in a contest of piety and affection, as paternal devotion vied with a son's love for his father, the bandits appeared on the scene and killed them both.”

Punishments of Slaves in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It is not the purpose of the following sections to catalogue the fiendish tortures sometimes inflicted upon slaves by their masters. They were not very common, for the reason suggested in, and were no more characteristic of the ordinary correction of slaves than lynching is characteristic of the administration of justice in our own states. Certain punishments, however, are so frequently mentioned in Latin literature that a description of them is necessary in order that the passages in which they occur may be understood by the reader. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]


“The most common punishment for neglect of duty or petty misconduct was a beating with a stick or a flogging with a lash. The stick or rod was usually of elm wood (ulmus); the elm-rod thus used corresponded to the birch of England and the hickory of America, once freely used in flogging. For the lash or rawhide (scutica or lorum) was often used a sort of cat-o’-nine-tails, made of cords or thongs of leather.Another punishment for offenses of a trivial nature resembled the stocks of old New England days. The offender was exposed to the derision of his fellows with his limbs so confined that he could make no motion at all—he could not even brush a fly from his face. A variation of this form of punishment is seen in the furca, which was so common that furcifer became a mere term of abuse. The culprit was forced to carry upon his shoulders a heavy forked log, and had his arms stretched out before him with his hands fastened to the ends of the fork. This log he had to carry around in order that the other members of the familia might see him and take warning. Sometimes to this punishment was added a lashing as he moved painfully along. |+|

“Less painful and degrading for the moment, but even more dreaded by the slave, was a sentence to harder labor than he had been accustomed to perform. The final penalty for misconduct on the part of a city slave for whom the rod had been spoiled in vain was banishment to the farm, and to this might be added at a stroke the odious task of grinding at the mill, or the crushing toil of labor in the quarries. The last were the punishments of the better class of farm slaves, while the desperate and dangerous class of slaves who regularly worked in the quarries paid for their misdeeds by forced labor under the scourge and by having heavier shackles during the day and fewer hours of rest at night. These may be compared to the galley slaves of later times. The utterly incorrigible might be sold to be trained as gladiators.” |+|

“The minor punishments were inflicted at the order of the master or his representative by some fellow slave called for the time carnifex or lorarius, though these words by no means imply that he was regularly or even commonly designated for the disagreeable duty. Still, the administration of punishment to a fellow slave was felt to be degrading, and the word carnifex was often applied to the one who administered it and finally came to be a standing term of abuse and taunt. It is applied to each other by quarreling slaves, apparently with no notion of its literal meaning, as many vulgar epithets are applied today. The actual execution of a death sentence was carried out by one of the servi publici at a fixed place of execution outside the city walls.” |+|

Severe Punishments of Slaves in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “For actual crimes, not mere faults or offenses, the punishments were far more severe. Slaves were so numerous and their various employments gave them such free access to the person of the master that his property and very life were always at their mercy. It was indeed a just and gentle master that did not sometimes dream of a slave holding a dagger at his throat. There was nothing within the confines of Italy so much dreaded as an uprising of the slaves. It was simply this haunting fear that led to the inhuman tortures inflicted upon the slave guilty of an attempt upon the life of his master or of the destruction of his property.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

When offenses were more serious, bits of bone, and even metal buttons were attached to stick or floggong lash “to tear the flesh, and the instrument was called a flagrum or flagellum. It could not have been less severe than the knout of Russia, and we may well believe that slaves died beneath its blows. To render the victim incapable of resistance he was sometimes drawn up to a beam by the arms, and weights were even attached to his feet, so that he could not so much as writhe under the torture. In Roman comedies are references to these punishments, and the slaves make grim jests on the rods and the scourge, taunting each other with the beatings they have had or deserve to have. But such jests are much commoner than the actual infliction of any sort of punishment in the comedies. |+|

“For an attempt upon the life of the master the penalty was death in its most agonizing form, by crucifixion. This was also the penalty for taking part in an insurrection; we may recall the twenty thousand crucified in Sicily and the six thousand crosses that Pompeius erected along the road to Rome, each bearing the body of one of the survivors of the final battle in which Spartacus fell. The punishment was inflicted not only upon the slave guilty of taking his master’s life, but also upon the family of the slave, if he had a wife and children. If the guilty man could not be found, his punishment was made certain by the crucifixion of all the slaves of the murdered man. Tacitus tells us that in the reign of Nero four hundred slaves were executed because their master, Pedianus Secundus, had been murdered by one of their number who had not been detected. The cross stood to the slave as the horror of horrors. The very word (crux) was used among them as a curse, especially in the expression (I) A.D. (malam) crucem. |+|

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, the BBC, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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