Duties and Life of a Roman Slave

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Romans had a society full of slaves. The number of free men and slaves were almost equal. Thus, the life of a Roman slave could vary greatly based on the tasks they were given and what their masters did. Slaves could be gladiators, mine workers, prostitutes, managers, potters, and so on. Virtually every Roman job could be taken by slaves. Did they also have rights and get paid?

Bas-relief of a farmer in the baths of Diocletian in Rome. Italy J
Depending on the skills, the life of a Roman slave could be pure misery or a somehow respectful life of a teacher or physician. (Image: JopsStock/Shutterstock)

The life of a Roman slave was not an ideal life, but sometimes could be somehow more convenient than expected. However, there was never a guarantee that a slave could have a good life, and the probability of having a difficult slave life was always higher.

Life of the Slaves

Normally, slaves would sleep on a heap of straw with a blanket on top, either in the kitchen or the hallway, or up in the attic. Of course, attractive girls always had to submit to the sexual desires of their masters. Sometimes, the mistress would make life very hard for female slaves just because she thought they were sleeping with her husband.

Juvenal, the satirical poet, tells of a female slave called Pescas who was regularly beaten by her mistress because her mistress thought she was servicing the sexual needs of her husband. This was not merely a hypothetical situation for a poem.

In their own defense, slaves could not do anything but to mumble a few words, steal food, spread false rumors, and similar small things.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Ancient roman mosaic of a farmer collecting produce from the ground and carrying it in a panier hung from a pole. Part of the UNESCO listed basilica of Aquileia in Italy.
Roman slaves had no legal rights whatsoever. They were properties of their owners and could be treated as their owners pleased. (Image: mountainpix/Shutterstock)

Legal rights meant nothing in the life of a Roman slave. They did not even have the legal right to marry. They could be entitled as a domestic to establish a family unit, but the master could separate the couple or sell one if they wanted to. The children born of this establishment were the property of the master as well and could be sold and separated from their parents.

In the 5th century A.D., the Law Code of Theodosius decreed that from then on, if slaves were separated from their families, they had to be reunited and placed with one owner.

However, slaves could be appointed to high positions like managers, bailiffs, debt collectors, captains of merchant ships, etc. Then, they could have a more independent life, but it did not prevent the severe punishments that followed inefficiency.

Slave Jobs

Romans employed slaves to manage the affairs of their master or mistress as managers, bailiffs, debt collectors, or captains of merchant ships. One of the reasons why the Romans employed slaves in these roles was because they could punish them severely if they were dishonest or incompetent, which they couldn’t have done to citizens. Another is that Romans were unwilling to forfeit their independence by placing themselves at the service of an employer.

There were lots of other jobs that could be performed semi-independently as a slave. A qualified Greek slave could easily become a physician or teacher. Greeks had extremely good reputations in these two positions, and the Romans thoroughly trusted them.

They could also work as a potter, painter, or other kinds of craftsman. For women, prostitution was also a common job. Prostitutes usually lived in nightmarish conditions. They started working before puberty and were subjected to all manner of verbal and physical abuse. Perhaps, most of them hoped that one of the wealthy clients would fall in love with them and free them. A character called Ascyltus in Petronius’ novel Satyrikon reports that he freed a female slave who had shared his bed, to save her from other men. As bitter as it seems, some jobs were even worse.

Learn more about being a Greek woman.

The life of a Roman slave was at its worst if they ended up in agriculture, mining, or quarries. Agricultural slaves usually slept in chains in an ergastulum – a prison – and were literally worked to death. Pliny the Elder, who owned over 4,000 agricultural slaves, prided himself on the fact that he did not keep them in chains.

magnificent ancient byzantine mosaic of a shepherd milking a goat and another farmer coming to collect it in a large jar. From the remains of the great palace in constantinople
Life of an agricultural slave was among the worst ones, as they slept in chains in prisons and were expected to work to death. (Image: mountainpix/Shutterstock)

That was enough reason for agricultural slaves to make up the majority of rebellions. Agricultural slaves from southern Italy made up the bulk of Spartacus’ army in the greatest slave revolt of all, from 73 to 71 B.C. The size of his rebel army must have been between 70,000 to 120,000. Mining slaves had such a terrible living and working condition that they did not have the strength to revolt.

Some slaves were properties of the state, to do tasks, such as repairing the roads, maintaining the aqueducts and loading and unloading cargo in ports like Ostia at the mouth of the River Tiber. Most of these slaves also slept in chains.

Learn more about being a Greek slave.

Punishment for Slaves

A master could kill his slaves with no trial. They even had expert crucifixion teams that had all the equipment: planks, ropes, chains, nails, and other necessities. They also had a team of whipmen, who will strip the slave, flog him till he bleeds, and then nail him to a cross. They would break the slave’s legs so that he feels acute pain all the time as he tries to stand.

The life of a Roman slave in such a situation could end after at most 48 hours. The body was left for vultures and dogs for a while, as a warning to other slaves. Burning alive and being fed to lions were less excruciating deaths. A slave’s life could vary in terms of misery and end very painfully.

Common Questions about Life of a Roman Slave

Q: Where would the Roman slaves sleep?

At night, slaves usually slept on a heap of straw with a blanket on top, either in the kitchen, the hallway, or in the attic. Attractive female slaves also had to submit to the sexual desires of their masters. Comfort did not have a high place in the life of a Roman slave.

Q: Could slaves marry?

No, slaves had no legal rights and could not marry, but if there was a partner in the life of a Roman slave, they would be entitled as a domestic to establish a family unit of sorts. However, the masters owned all of their children.

Q: Could slaves have jobs?

Yes, the life of a Roman slave could somehow get independent when they worked as a potter, painter, or craftsman. They had to pay most of the income to the master, but they were still more independent than other slaves.

Q: Were Romans allowed to kill their slaves?

Yes, the masters could decide to end the life of a Roman slave without a trial even, just the same way that they could sell or buy them with no limitations. They could also treat them as they pleased.

Keep Reading
The Principles of Slavery in Ancient Greece
Daily Life in the Ancient World
How Pompeii Graffiti Preserved the Ordinary Voices of Ancient Rome