Roman Slavery: Who Were the Roman Slaves?

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Roman slaves were mainly Greek due to the numerous wars between Rome and Greece and the Roman victories. However, war captives were not the only slaves in Rome and even Romans themselves could be enslaved. The stranger fact is that they could even voluntarily turn into slaves!

Hieroglyphics depicting slaves at the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel.
Roman slaves were mainly Greek, but could also be Roman if they were criminals or poor enough to voluntarily become slaves. (Image: Niall O’Donoghue/Shutterstock)

Slavery was a common attribute of the ancient world. There was even a big market for it, and rich people could have up to hundreds of slaves. As cruel and inhumane as it was, not all Roman slaves had miserable lives. How did Romans enslave people?

Learn more about being a rich Roman.

Being Captured in Wars

Image of a black knitted slave. Antique mosaic from the house of Dionysus. The third century BC. Paphos Archaeological Park. Cyprus.
Most of the Roman slaves were Greeks captured in different wars, and the highest influx was when half a million Gauls were brought in. (Image: Sytilin Pavel/Shutterstock)

The most regular way of acquiring Roman slaves was turning war captives into slaves. Usually, wars resulted in tens of thousands, or more, of new slaves for the country. As most of the wars were with Greece, naturally, the majority of Roman slaves were Greek.

The first great influx of Greek slaves into Rome happened when the Macedonians were defeated at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. Next, about 250,000 Carthaginians were enslaved in 146 B.C., when their city was destroyed. Another large influx occurred after the Mithradatic Wars in the 80s B.C.

None of these wars could break the record of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the 50s B.C. evidently, about 500,000 Gauls were enslaved after this war. These numbers are far larger than at any other time of human history. Still, Rome needed more slaves!

Violent criminals were also enslaved and that is how Roman people could also become Roman slaves. Usually, they would work in the mines or quarries or be even trained as gladiators. Working in mines has always been among the most difficult jobs, but in the ancient world, it was much more unbearable.

The next type of slaves was the vernae, who were house-born and grew up in a Roman family. Lastly, Romans who faced financial difficulties could sell themselves into slavery to survive. This was another way that Romans themselves could be enslaved. However, this last method became less popular by the first century A.D.

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.

The Slave Industry

Owning slaves was a birthright for the Romans, and there was no limit for it. Wealthy people could have hundreds of them. For example, Pedanius Secundus, prefect of Rome under Emperor Nero, had, at least, 400 slaves in his townhouse. Perhaps, only the senators had about 200,000, which makes the number of slaves and free people easily equal.

The cost of a slave varied considerably, according to his or her looks, age, education, and ethnicity.

The vast population of Roman slaves shows how great a business slave trading was. It was an extremely regulated market, complying with the best traditions of Roman bureaucracy. There was a tax on buying slaves, and a record of every sale had to be kept in the public archives.

Further, if the buyer discovered a problem like epilepsy in a newly-purchased slave, and the vendor had not mentioned it upon purchase, the buyer had to get a full refund. Greek slaves were not just the most common, but the most popular as well since they were smart.

However, there were no rules on how the slaves should be treated.

Learn more about being a poor Roman.

How the slaves got treated

Vedius Pollio was a knight that wanted to toss a slave into a pond full of lampreys just because of breaking a crystal goblet. Emperor Augustus was there as well, and he was so disgusted by Pollio’s cruelty that he ordered him to smash all his crystal goblets and have his pool filled in.

Slaves working in a field.
A slave’s skills were very important in how they were treated. The positions that involved trust were usually safe. (Image: marcovarro/Shutterstock)

Generally, the skills of the slaves mattered a lot in the position they gained. A literate one could become a secretary or paidagôgos to look after the master’s sons and even teach them. A physically strong slave could become the janitor or doorkeeper.

The highest position a female slave could gain was becoming a nurse or personal attendant to her mistress. Roman mothers were not at all keen on childrearing, perhaps, because they wanted complete independence from their children.

All of the positions mentioned here are positions of trust and normally brought along a decent behavior. Other positions include the chief cook, the cleaners, the gardeners, the handymen, the fetchers, the carriers, and so forth.

The fetchers and carriers were also important as perishable things could not be preserved from rotting. A fairly quick-witted girl might be sent out to the market each morning around dawn to do the shopping, and be careful not to pay higher than the normal price. Bringing water was also important as few houses had their own water supplies.

So, the Roman slaves may not be the happiest people but they could lead a decent life.

Common Questions about Roman Slaves

Q: Did the Romans have Greek slaves?

Yes. The majority of Roman slaves were from Greece because of the numerous wars between the two countries and Roman victories. The first great influx of Greek slaves into Rome occurred after the defeat of the Macedonians at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.

Q: Were Romans slaves only prisoners of war?

No. even violent criminals were enslaved. Usually, these Roman slaves were condemned to working in the mines, quarries, or by being trained to fight as gladiators.

Q: Were Roman slaves traded illegally?

Not at all. The slave industry was well regulated and according to the best traditions of Roman bureaucracy. One had to pay a sales tax upon purchasing a slave, and a record of every sale had to be kept in the public archives.

Q: What was the highest position for a female slave?

For female Roman slaves, the best position to hold was that of a nurse or personal attendant to the mistress. Most well-to-do households had nurses since Roman mothers strongly preferred being independent of their children.

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