Slavery was an important part of the ancient world, and it was an integral piece of Roman daily life and the economy. Though slavery was practiced all over the Mediterranean, and was abundant in the east, its impact in other places was not felt nearly as much as it was in Rome and her Empire. As the Romans consolidated their position on the Italian peninsula and began the systematic conquest of the Mediterranean region, millions of slaves were incorporated into Rome and the Italian countryside.
When the Romans were farmers and shepherds, slaves were used for farm work. Citizens were often away at war and slaves were necessary to keep the farms going. So the use of slaves gradually increased, until they were more numerous than free men who worked for pay. Eventually competition with slave labour determined wages and living conditions of free workmen.
Slavery was, of course, very destructive morally. It resulted in the love of luxury and indolence which later characterized a Roman. The Romans lost their old virtues of simplicity, frugality and temperance. And as they lost their strength of character in a life of ease and luxury, their sway over the civilized world decreased.
We cannot be certain of how many slaves there were in Rome at any given time. But we can interpret generalities; for example, that slaves were few in early times is shown by the fact that they were distinguished by name. However, in later times, we know that certain generals were said to dispose of huge numbers of slaves. Horace implies that even a gentleman in moderate circumstances had to have at least ten slaves (the number he possessed). We hear of some individuals who had unbelievable numbers of slaves. Sometimes slaves in a certain household were divided into groups of ten, so we know that there were hordes of these, at least during the Empire.
Most slaves were war captives. They were sold soon after they were taken in order to avoid the trouble of feeding and guarding them in a hostile country. The sale of a slaves was conducted by a quaestor, the general's paymaster and financial officer. Buyers were wholesale slave dealers, who followed an army. A spear, the sign of a sale of slaves under public authority, was set up in the ground to mark the place. Captives, like victims offered in sacrifice, had wreaths on their heads, so sub hasta venire or sub corona venire (to be sold under the spear or under the crown) came to mean to be sold into slavery. The wholesale slave dealers sold their wares in Rome to dealers or private owners. Since the slaves had been soldiers, they were usually strong men. Many preferred suicide to slavery, and slaves were often difficult to manage. Another source of slaves was the offspring of the unions between slaves. Unions between slaves were called contubernia (slaves could not be legally married). As long as slaves born of slave parents remained the property of their first master, they were called vernae. These slaves were more valuable than their counterparts taken in war, because they were acclimated and less liable to disease, and had been trained from childhood in the performance of special tasks. Sometimes they also had a natural affection for their home and their master's family.
Slave dealers usually sold their wares at public auctions, which were supervised by aediles who appointed the place and made the rules and regulations. A tax was imposed on imported slaves, who were offered for sale with their feet whitened with chalk. Slaves from the East had their ears pierced, a common sign of slavery among oriental peoples. A slave was offered for sale with a scoll around his neck describing his character, on which was written the slave's name and nationality and a statement saying that he was free from disease (especially epilepsy) and from a tendency to steal, run away, or commit suicide. If the slave had defects not shown in his guarantee, the dealer had to take him back in six months or make good the buyer's loss. A slave with no guarantee was made to wear a cap at the auction. Slaves of unusual value (especially those of remarkable beauty) were sometimes offered at private sales by owners to probable buyers. The dealer's trade was considered disreputable, but it was very profitable. The vilest dealers sold female slaves for immoral purposes.
The price of slaves varied greatly. Captives sold on a battlefield did not cost much because generals were eager for quick sales and on the trip back to Rome, dealers were sure of heavy losses from disease, fatigue and especially suicide. Some slaves fetched huge prices, however, handsome, educated boys and beautiful, accomplished girls may have cost thousands of dollars. Often slaves were matched in size and colouring.
Public slaves were owned by the State; private slaves by individuals. Public slaves cared for public buildings, served magistrates and priests, were used by quastors (financial officials) and aediles, acted as night firemen and lictors (attendants on an official), jailers, and executioners. were not as likely to be sold, were not worked as hard, and were not subject to the whims of an individual master. Private slaves were either employed in the personal service of their masters (in which case they were called familia urbana, the city household) or kept for profit (hired out or employed in their master's business affairs). Of the slaves kept for profit the oldest and most important class was that of the farm hands (familia rustica). It was considered more honourable for a master to employ his slaves in enterprises of his own than to hire them out. However, slaves were always available for any purpose in any city.
Slaves acting as unskilled labourers were indispensible in Rome, as most work now done by machinery was done by hand. Above these porters, diggers, and movers were the artisans, mechanics, and other skilled workmen: smiths, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, seamen. Shopkeepers and other professionals required assistants, who were mostly slaves.
The number of slaves kept by a Roman in his city household depended on the demands of fashion and the amount of his wealth. In the early days there would be a sort of butler, who later had other slaves under him, and eventually these slaves came to have more slaves under them. Each part of the house had its special staff of slaves, often divided into groups of ten, with a separate superintendent for each group - one for kitchen, another for dining rooms, etc. City slaves, who had only one specific task to perform, were the envy of farm slaves. A city slave's particular duty might be to guard the entrance door, to care for his master's feet, to tend to a baby, or to accompany a son to school. Often a master was accompanied by his nomenclator, who prompted him with the names of those greeting him. A slave took care of his master's sandals while he ate. Slaves who were musicians, actors, readers, dancers, jesters, dwarfs, misshapen freaks, and children amused and entertained the master and his guests, especially during and after meals. Slaves of the highest class were the confidential assistants of their master, secretaries, accountants, and agents through whom he collected his income, audited the reports of his managers, made investments, and transacted all sorts of business. Men of wealth had hordes of slaves to cater to their every fancy. Persons with good taste had only slaves who could be profitably employed.
The master's power over the slave was called (dominica potestas), and it was absolute. Torture, degradation, unwarranted punishment, and even killing a slave when he was old or sick, in the eyes of the law, slaves were property who could not legally hold property, make contracts, or marry, and could testify in court only under torture. The death of his master did not free a slave. Under the Empire laws were passed stating that a slave could not be sold to fight wild beasts in the amphitheater; he could not be put to death by his master simply because he was old or ill; if her were 'exposed', or turned out on the streets to die, his was freed by the act; and he could not be killed without due process of law. But these laws were generally disregarded, and only the influence of Christianity changed the condition of slaves for the better.
Romans were not a kindly people, but they did not often forget that a slave was valuable property. Much depended on the individual master. Vedius Pollio, notorious for cruelty, once ordered a slave to be thrown alive into a pond as food for the fish because he had broken a goblet. But Cicero had great affection of his slave Tiro. The Elder Cato tells us something about the treatment of farm slaves. He held that slaves should always be at work except for the hours - few enough at best - allowed them for sleep. Slaves were not well fed, but it must be remembered that the diet suggested by Cato (grain, fallen olives or salf fish and sour wine) was very similar to that of the poor Romans. A slave received a tunic every year and a cloak and pair of wooden shoes every two years. Worn-out clothing was returned to the slave manager to be made into patchwork quilts.
If a slave escaped, he had to live the life of an outlaw, with organized bands of slave hunters on his track. A fugitive slave was a criminal, for he had stolen himself. If he was caught, he was branded on the forehead with the letter F, for fugitivus, and sometimes he had a metal collar riveted around his neck. One of these collars, 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".
A slave could not legally own property, but he often had peculium, unofficial possessions. Often an industrious, thrifty slave could scrape together a little fund of his own if his master permitted it. City slaves had more chance to do this, collecting tips from his master's friends and guests or receiving presents from students if he was a teacher. Sometimes a master would allow a slave to have a trade and keep part of the earnings. A thrifty slave's ultimate goal was to buy his freedom. Sometimes a slave would buy his own slave to hire out. A slave of a slave was called a vicarius. A slave's property went to his master upon the slave's death.
Slaves were often punished. The most common one for neglect of duty or petty misconduct was a beating or a flogging with a lash (called a flagrum or a flagellum). Sometimes slaves were punished by having to wear a heavy forked log around his shoulders with his neck in the fork and his arms fastened to the ends projecting in front. This is where the term of abuse furcifer came from. Minor punishments were inflicted at the order of the master or his manager by a fellow slave, called for the time carnifex(executioner). Occasionally a slave would be assigned to harder labour than he was accustomed to. Utterly incorrigible slaves were sold to be gladiators. Punishments were severe for actual crimes, always a possibility since slaves were so numerous and had such free access to their master. Nothing was so much dreaded throughout all Italy as an uprising of slaves. For an attempt on a master's life or for taking part in an insurrection, the penalty was death for the criminal and his family in a most agonizing form - crucifixion. Pompey erected six thousand crosses along the road to Rome, each bearing a survivor of the final battle in which their leader, Spartacus, fell. The word crux (cross) was used amoung slaves as a curse, especially in the expression [I] ad [malam] crucem ([Go] to the [bad] cross).
A slave might buy his freedom, or he might be freed as a reward for faithful service or some special act of devotion. A formal act of manumission often took place before or praetor, but it was only necessary for his master to declare him free before witnesses. A new-mad freedman set on his head the cap of liberty. A freedman was called libertus as an individual or in reference to his master, and libertinus as one of a class. His former master became his patron.
There was a noticeable change in the course of slavery as the empire aged. The spread of the Christian church played a role, as many leading Christians were opposed to the institution. Though the church and its priests owned slaves as well, the church was at times vocal against the institution and that certainly was a factor on the psyche of the people. More importantly, however, the high cost to purchase slaves, the crumbling economic conditions, and the devalued currency, made employment of the masses a better alternative to maintaining large properties of slaves. The gradual shift from Imperial rule to feudalism and the role of the serf or peasant in middle age Europe eventually did away with the practice in name. However, the role of the serf offered little benefit over Roman slavery, as people forcibly worked for the lords or kings with little opportunity for personal advancement.