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Mare Nostrum

Slavery In Ancient Rome

by I.A.

Background: What is slavery?

According to (Grant 118) slavery is an institution of the common law of peoples by which a person is put into the ownership of somebody else, contrary to the natural order". Slavery was commonly practiced throughout all ancient history, but no other people in history owned so many slaves and depended on them so much as the Romans. Many Romans had slaves do their dirty and hard work for them. These slaves were bought and sold in the slave markets. Some slaves were soldiers who had been captured in wars, while others were the children of slave parents. If they tried to run away, they were whipped, burned with iron, and sometimes even killed. Slavery, was accepted as part of life in ancient Rome by the slaves themselves and by the society. Little credit had been given to the important contributions slave labor made to Roman civilization. However, slavery was both beneficial and disastrous to ancient Rome. The followings are on Roman slavery:

  • slaves on farms
  • slaves on business
  • slaves on public buildings
  • good treatments of slaves
  • Saturnalia festival

What were the tasks of slaves?

In the Roman system of slavery, the tasks of slaves, such as farming, businesses, and public buildings all contributed to the wealth of the Roman economy.


Slaves on Farms

On the farms, slaves produced the food and other materials on which the cities depended. Some of the most important crops produced by slaves were wheat, olives, vines and grapes which were eaten and used for making wine. According to Casson, wines were drunk before, after, between, it became their coffee, tea, and spirits. The olive oil on the other hand, was their butter, soap, and electricity. They cooked with it, put it on at the baths, and burned it in their lamps, and the grains were ground into flour (28). The slaves also worked as carpenters and blacksmiths who repaired the farm tools and carts. Others looked after the cattle, sheep and pigs. The wool from the sheep were spun and made into items which were used by the Roman army and navy. The Roman farm products such as wine, oil, tools, meat were exported to other counties. This gave Rome its greatest source of economic wealth.

Slaves on Business

Not only were the slaves working on the farms and households, they were also involved in business, such as shops and public buildings. In business, the slaves managed the shops for absentee owners. For example, in the barber shops where customers had their hair cut and their nails manicured, the slaves performed all services and aided managers. Some slaves managed shops on a full-time basis. They were in charge of duties like shopkeeping, lending of money, buying and selling of merchandise. While the slaves were managing the shops, the masters concentrated on establishing new businesses which resulted in their being very successful and consequently wealthy. As one slave master described his success "My five shops bring in four hundred thousand sestertii see?I have more stashed away in the bank, than any imperial favorite" ( Nardo 52). Slaves were not only performing the tasks but taking control of everything for their masters and making them wealthy which also helped the economy.

Slaves on public buildings

Besides working on the farms and businesses, the most famous task performed by slaves in the public buildings was working on the aqueduct systems, roads, and the arenas. Buildings were built for public use; others were built by wealthy individuals for the community. However, slaves were used to do the actual construction. The aqueducts supplied many Romans with water outlets, including public fountains in the streets from which most people fetched their water. Besides the aqueducts, the slaves also built bridges and roads which were very important because they were built mainly to allow soldiers to move quickly in war time. However, it also encouraged trading and helped the spread of Roman culture. "Therefore slave labor became one of Rome’s greatest sources of economic wealth ( Ancient Rome Online).

How good were slaves actually treated?

The good treatment of slaves in Rome was one of the positive and beneficial aspects of the slave system. For example, some slaves were given many privileges, comforts and were treated better than most people would have imagined. Nardo states "some masters treated their slaves with care and affection as their own children"(25).

"As historian L.P.Wilkinson also stated, 'normal masters could hardly fail, even if half-ashamedly, to have a soft spot for characters they had seen toddling and growing up about the place, these slaves in return ate and dressed better than poor free Romans. They were even safer and secure'" ( Nardo.25). Some slave masters showed their loyalty and how much they cared for their slaves by giving nearly complete charge of their money and business affairs to the slaves without interfering. This led to the development of saturnalia festival.

How Saturnalia was celebrated?

Saturnalia was a traditional celebration like Christmas in which slaves and masters switched places. In this celebration, the master became the slave and performed all the tasks of the slave, and the slaves did the opposite. Slaves and masters showed loyalty to each other in many ways. Therefore...

"Masters participated in the Saturnalia’s festivals to show their appreciation for the slaves’ service which led them to realize that by treating slaves with respect and care it was in their best interest, as well as those of the slaves (Nardo 26)".

In simpler terms, both slaves and masters were supposed to be thankful for each other and enjoyed peaceful time together.

How was slavery disastrous to Rome?

  • How was slavery bad for Rome:
  • How bad were slaves actually treated:
  • How did slavery weakened the government:
slave trade

How was slavery bad for Rome?

Even though slavery was advantageous to Rome, it was also disastrous in many ways. The manipulation, the degrading, and the dependency of slaves played some role in the fall of Roman civilization. The cruel and inhumane treatments which some Romans gave their slaves partly led to its downfall. For example, the condition in which slaves were kept after being captured was very humiliating. When slaves were first captured, they were brought to auction blocks stripped naked as the buyers examined and placed cards on the slaves that listed all the qualifications of the slave. Other ways in which masters degraded their slaves was by selling them into prostitution, especially, the females.


How bad were Slaves actually treated?

According to ( Pomeroy 192), some masters owned businesses in which they bought young females into prostitution to increase their wealth. Some masters physically abused their slaves. In a play by Plautus, a character called Bollio is depicted roaring and whipping his slaves. Some slaves became combat fighters known as gladiators and chariot racers. The gladiators had to fight strong and vicious animals such as lions, tigers and other animals in an arena so that the Roman citizens could entertain themselves. In most cases, the gladiator was killed by the animals. One of the most famous gladiators was Spartacus, who led a slave revolt in which he destroyed seven Roman armies and later was killed along with many of his men. Due to the cruel and inhumane treatment by some masters, slaves usually resented their masters which resulted in chaos.

How did slavery weakened government?

Many factors such as military, social, economic, political and Roman dependency on slavery combined, resulted in the fall of the Roman civilization. It was estimated that an average wealthy Roman such as Nero owned 400 slaves in his town house alone, and according to one writer, some wealthy people owned from 10,000-20,000 slaves (Tingay and Badcock 128). Grant stated that the Romans were so dependent on the slave labor that even the simplest task such as getting dressed, holding a towel while going to the bath, and cooking were all done by slaves. Because wealthy owners had slaves working on everything, the lower class could not compete with the freed laborers and were forced out of jobs. So they became dependent on the government to take care of them. The wealthy were forced to pay high taxes on slaves and were expected to help the community at the same time, so they started freeing their slaves.

Meanwhile, the "cost of repairing and maintaining public baths, temples became heavy expenditures on the government" ( Ancient Rome Online ). The government spent the majority of its money on the lower class. The lower class was given free grain like bread oil wine and free entertainment. The government also spent money on the maintenance of the city. Because the government spent its funds on the lower class, there was not enough money to support military. As a result, no one enlisted in the army wanted to fight which weakened and finally led to the breakdown of the Republic. Rome’s dependency on slave labor contributed to the decline of the greatest civilization in the history of mankind.


  • Ancient Rome. 2 Oct 1999.Online. 20 Oct.1999.
  • Casson,Lionel. Daily life in Ancient Rome. New York: American Heritage, 1975.
  • Cowell,F.R. Cicero And The Roman Republic. New York: Chanticleer, 1984.
  • Cowell,F.R. Everyday Life In Ancient Rome. London: Batsford,1961.
  • Grant,Micheal. The World of Rome. New York: Word, 1960.
  • Nardo,Don. Life Of A Roman Slave. California: Lucent Books, 1998.
  • Pomeroy,Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken, 1975.
  • Tingay,G.I.F. and Badcock J. The Romans. Great Britain: Dufour, 1972.

History and Thought of Western Man
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This page was created by I.A. Last revised 3/21.00.

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