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Old May 17th, 2018, 01:12 PM   #1

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Roman slavery


What exactly did slavery from Roman times look like? My general impression is that it was much like American slavery pre-Civil War, but without any emphasis on race and that slaves were utilised in a larger variety of positions - e.g., there were laws passed in America to prevent slaves from learning how to read at all, but Roman slaves could be scribes (like Tiro) or philosophers (like Epictetus). I suspect, though, that this impression stems mainly from the fact that most of the resources I've found focus on American slavery, with little discussion of slavery in other times and places. Is my impression right, or does anyone have any resources to suggest that offer a clearer picture?
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Old May 17th, 2018, 01:15 PM   #2
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What exactly did slavery from Roman times look like? My general impression is that it was much like American slavery pre-Civil War, but without any emphasis on race and that slaves were utilised in a larger variety of positions - e.g., there were laws passed in America to prevent slaves from learning how to read at all, but Roman slaves could be scribes (like Tiro) or philosophers (like Epictetus). I suspect, though, that this impression stems mainly from the fact that most of the resources I've found focus on American slavery, with little discussion of slavery in other times and places. Is my impression right, or does anyone have any resources to suggest that offer a clearer picture?
It ranged. Some slaves lived short and horrible lives, filled with chains, violent punishments, poor food and living conditions, horrible work conditions. Others were nearly members of the family, utterly trusted to run the estate, to manage finances, and were paid salaries, and were gifted with citizenship. So it varied, a lot.
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Old May 17th, 2018, 01:45 PM   #3
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Luck of the draw. If you were really unlucky you could end up spending the rest of your (short) life chained up underground, mining sulphur or whatever; never to see the light of day again.


You could be a slave in the ownership of a wealthy man, working your way up to be a trusted member of his household and running his affairs. Or if you were educated you might be a teacher, accountant or even doctor.

As the majority of slaves were uneducated, you were probably most likely to be a labourer, spending your days toiling in the fields. Not great food, not great working conditions , fairly harsh treatment and a relatively short life.

If you were lucky, you had a kind master who would feed and clothe you, reward you for good work and free you on his death, or after a long period of good service. It was probably better to be a house slave in the house of a kind,rich master than living on the streets as a freeman.

If you were unlucky (depending on the period you were living) you could be regularly beaten and abused for the amusement of your owner and worked to death on starvation rations.
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Old May 17th, 2018, 02:12 PM   #4

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What exactly did slavery from Roman times look like? My general impression is that it was much like American slavery pre-Civil War, but without any emphasis on race and that slaves were utilised in a larger variety of positions - e.g., there were laws passed in America to prevent slaves from learning how to read at all, but Roman slaves could be scribes (like Tiro) or philosophers (like Epictetus). I suspect, though, that this impression stems mainly from the fact that most of the resources I've found focus on American slavery, with little discussion of slavery in other times and places. Is my impression right, or does anyone have any resources to suggest that offer a clearer picture?
On countrary it depended on race too , For Example if a slave was from Greek ethnicity it would be more probably sold as house slave, tutor, or educated ones... On countrary others likely from primitive countries would be more adapt for labour works, more warrior societies like Northern europeans would work as pitfighters and gladiators or personal guards and so on.
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Old May 17th, 2018, 05:47 PM   #5
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One critical correlation between Roman slavery and American Civil War-era slavery was manumission. As has already been noted, that's the right of the owner to free his or her slave to become a freedman or freedwoman.

And this was an essential thing for the Romans, for many slaves eventually became freed and then themselves or their descendants full-standing citizens, contributing to the wealth and welfare of the people. It was the carrot offered to the enslaved, keeping them peaceful and docile and cooperative, hoping for freedom and a share in the benefits of Roman rule.

Now, this did happen in American slavery too, masters did free their slaves on their deathbeds and for good service, much like the ancient Romans did. But freed, they were never considered equal by the white-dominated establishment, and could never participate in the American Dream as a citizen until the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. This was the critical difference between the two slaveries, that one incorporated freed individuals, but the other excluded, due to sheer racism.
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Old May 17th, 2018, 09:29 PM   #6
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I think it was rare for a slave to be freed in the USA, at least in the Deep South. There was a huge demand for slaves that wasn't being met because the Brits (in 1807) and the USA (in 1808) outlawed the trading in slaves. Slave ships thereafter were pursued by the Royal Navy and the US Navy. The scarcity of slave ships making it to port afterwards was countered by forcing slave women to have 10 kids or more on the plantations.

Also I think something to be considered is many of the Roman slaves were highly educated victims of Roman conquest. Teachers, doctors, artists, etc. This is contrasted with the almost total lack of literacy amongst slaves in the US South. They didn't require an education to do unskilled physical labor, and didn't generally get any education. The point being that most slaveowners in the USA considered their slaves to be little more than draft horses and worked them accordingly. If one considers his slave to be little more than property, or a brute animal laborer, it would make it more unlikely that the slave would be freed by his master.

Some American slaves had skills, such as carpenters, musicians, muleskinners, etc. Some slaves were allowed to own some property of their own and to make what money they could, generally, and they could eventually buy their freedom (sometimes).

Last edited by Strontium90; May 17th, 2018 at 09:33 PM.
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Old May 18th, 2018, 01:02 AM   #7

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Weren't there also laws in Rome (from Augustus forward anyway) regulating the mistreatment of slaves? Sure, it would be far-fetched to claim this was on humanitarian grounds (it was probably more along the lines of making sure future property was not damaged, safeguarding vital resources for the economy as a whole).

As many of the previous posters have pointed out, roman slavery was much more varied than in the Deep South. In fact, my impression of it (I am no expert though) is that it was very little like that in the deep south. Often slaves were allowed to own some property and earn money, and could buy their own freedom. It was also, if I am not wrong, common for the paterfamilias to free his house-slaves when he died, with them adopting his name.

Sure, ancient slavery could be really brutal (mining was supposed to be a virtual death sentence for many), but it could also be not very different from say, how many industrial workers lived in the Western world during the 1800s. There was comparatively much social mobility. The richest man in Athens was at one point born a slave, and the Athenians were not as liberal in their view on slavery as the Romans were.
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Old May 18th, 2018, 05:29 AM   #8
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What exactly did slavery from Roman times look like? My general impression is that it was much like American slavery pre-Civil War, but without any emphasis on race and that slaves were utilised in a larger variety of positions - e.g., there were laws passed in America to prevent slaves from learning how to read at all, but Roman slaves could be scribes (like Tiro) or philosophers (like Epictetus). I suspect, though, that this impression stems mainly from the fact that most of the resources I've found focus on American slavery, with little discussion of slavery in other times and places. Is my impression right, or does anyone have any resources to suggest that offer a clearer picture?
Slave is a legal term. You can not compare that to what we understand in a popular perception by slavery (like in the US).
In the outcome there are some things blending, but that is not the same thing.

The major difference is that the slavery in the US or America in general only worked because these people were not on the same education level and development level.
In Europe that was different. So far up was Rome not that you could capture a German from the forests and put him in Rome on a field.

That popular picture you sometimes have in America of those regarding cultures in Europe by comparing it to white settlers and American natives is misguiding.
Educational these people come on eye-height. Rome has a higher civilization development, but that's it.
You could not integrate African people (who been just brought into America) into a US-military and attack f.e. Canada.
That is exactly what the Romans did and shows the difference in the level of development here.
So big was the gap not.
So slave is mainly a legal term that has legal (and in consequence social) importance.
You can compare it to what happens today in Asia, while the slavery we had in the US is more comparable to how human-traffickers work.

They argue even the same way. Africans/natives are not good for anything so working here is actually an upgrade for them. So it is something good for them.
This is exactly how human-traffickers argue their doing and position towards their actions of exploiting humans.

From a foreign position, that might seem even be the case for Rome, but that is a modern stance.
Guys in Poland were happy living in Poland doing Polish things the Polish way and were very successful doing so, at least so successful that the Romans had a lot of respect for them.

This is more similar to what happens with exploiting work forces like in Asia.
In theory you can say some (or maybe a big number of some^^) Chinese workers are like slaves of the antiquity with more rights on paper.
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Old May 18th, 2018, 06:59 AM   #9

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Okay, so what I'm getting is that:
  • There was a wide variety of conditions a slave could be in, from a short life in the mines to a house-slave considered near-family;
  • Most slaves were field labourers;
  • Slaves from a more "civilised" nation like Greece would be more likely to be house slaves or educated; more "barbarous" slaves (Germans, Africans, etc.) would be labourers or warriors;
  • Manumission was common in Rome, and manumitted slaves were considered equal to any citizen;
  • There were laws regulating mistreatment of slaves, at least to some extent;
  • It was common to free house-slaves on death, and they would adopt the family name;
  • One of the reasons for a difference in the two types of slavery is that there was a smaller gap in technological development between Rome and the nations slaves came from than there was between colonial America/the early United States and Africa;
  • And a more apt comparison might be to look at modern exploitation of workers in Asia - sweatshops and the like.

Thanks!
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Old May 18th, 2018, 09:20 AM   #10
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Okay, so what I'm getting is that:
  • There was a wide variety of conditions a slave could be in, from a short life in the mines to a house-slave considered near-family;
  • Most slaves were field labourers;
  • Slaves from a more "civilised" nation like Greece would be more likely to be house slaves or educated; more "barbarous" slaves (Germans, Africans, etc.) would be labourers or warriors;
  • Manumission was common in Rome, and manumitted slaves were considered equal to any citizen;
  • There were laws regulating mistreatment of slaves, at least to some extent;
  • It was common to free house-slaves on death, and they would adopt the family name;
  • One of the reasons for a difference in the two types of slavery is that there was a smaller gap in technological development between Rome and the nations slaves came from than there was between colonial America/the early United States and Africa;
  • And a more apt comparison might be to look at modern exploitation of workers in Asia - sweatshops and the like.

Thanks!
Manumitted slaves were not equal, their legal status was "freedman", they had legal protection but no voting rights. Also, they were still tied heavily to whomever freed them, that extremely strong patron client relationship was why they weren't allowed to vote.

The reason some nations produced slaves of higher quality had to do with skills they possessed. The more the skill, the higher the price, the better job they had. Greeks from good families that were enslaved were educated. They could be teachers, as the Roman nobility were fanatics about Greek culture, literature, history, etc. A slave learned in a skilled trade was a prized possession, they can make someone a lot of money. A slave with no skills has little value. A slave with an attitude problem has little value. A slave whose only skill is in arms (as a warrior) might be useful as a gladiator, as a bodyguard, but if they are even remotely rebellious they are a liability, those sort ended up in the mines. At a time when there was a glut of slaves on the market (like immediately after a large war), prices drop so even quality slaves might end up doing menial labor.

There is no modern comparison, the more you try to find similarities, the more you'll find just as many differences. Understanding of what they were and how they were treated can only be understood by a study of the period and culture.
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