7 of The Most Fascinating Facts About Slavery in The Roman World

Listening to today’s leftists, one could easily get the impression that the United States is one of the only nations on earth to ever practice slavery, and that despite the institution being extinct for more than a century and a half, America is so eeevil that we’d bring it back if given a chance.

The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of Earth’s human cultures are guilty of having enslaved their fellow man at one point or another throughout history. Case in point: Cristian Violatti at Listverse has compiled a fascinating list of ten facts about the ancient Roman Empire’s practice of slavery. Here are highlights from seven of them:

10. Slave Population

The proportion of slaves was so significant that some Romans left written accounts on the dangers of this situation: “It was once proposed in the Senate that slaves should be distinguished from free people by their dress, but then it was realized how great a danger this would be, if our slaves began to count us” [Seneca, On Mercy: 1.24].

Modern estimations on slave population in Italy give us a figure of about 2 million by the end of the Republican period, a slave-to-free ratio of about 1:3 (Hornblower and Spawforth 2014: 736).

9. Slave Revolts

There are many slave uprisings recorded in Roman history. A Syrian slave named Eunus was the leader of one of these revolts during the 135–132 BC period, which took place in Sicily. It is said that Eunus presented himself as a prophet and claimed to have a number of mystical visions.

According to Diodorus Siculus [The Library: 35.2], Eunus managed to persuade his followers with a trick that made sparks and flames come out of his mouth. The Romans defeated Eunus and crushed the revolt, but this example might have inspired another slave rebellion in Sicily in 104–103 BC.

8. Versatile Lifestyles

The living conditions and expectations of slaves in ancient Rome were versatile, strongly linked to their occupations. Slaves involved in exhausting activities such as agriculture and mining did not enjoy promising prospects. Mining, in particular, had a reputation of being a brutal activity […]

Household slaves, on the other hand, could expect a more or less humane treatment, and in some cases, they had opportunities to keep and manage some money and other forms of property for themselves. This property, known as “peculium,” would legally be owned by the slave’s master, but in practical terms, the slave would be allowed to use the money for his or her own purposes.

6. Slave Ownership

Owning slaves was a widespread practice among Roman citizens, no matter their social status. Even the poorest Roman citizens could own a slave or two. In Roman Egypt, it is probable that artisans had about two or three slaves each. The wealthiest could own a lot more. We know that Nero owned about 400 slaves who worked at his urban residence. It is recorded that a wealthy Roman named Gaius Caecilius Isidorus had 4,166 slaves at the time of his death (Hornblower and Spawforth 2014: 736).

4. Slave Procurement

Slaves were acquired in four main ways: as war captives, as victims of pirate raids and brigandage, by trade, or by breeding. During different stages of Roman history, some of these methods were more relevant than others. During the early expansion of the Roman Empire, for example, a significant number of war captives were turned into slaves.

The pirates from Cilicia in present-day southern Turkey were expert suppliers of slaves, and the Romans were used to doing business with them. Cilician pirates typically brought their slaves to the island of Delos (Aegean Sea), which was considered to be the international center of the slave trade.

3. An Unquestioned Institution

Slaves were considered to be the reverse of free people, a necessary social counterbalance. Civic freedom and slavery were two sides of the same coin. Even when more humane rules were introduced that improved the living conditions of slaves, this did very little to reduce slavery. It simply made it more tolerable (Hornblower and Spawforth 2014: 736-737).

1. Slave Freedom

In Roman society, a slave owner had the option of granting freedom to their slaves. This process was known as manumission. This could be achieved in different ways: It could be granted by the slave owner as a reward for the slave’s loyalty and service, it could be earned by the slave by paying the master a sum of money and therefore buying his freedom, or in some cases, the master would find it convenient to free a slave […]

In some cases, the freedom of the slave could be complete, and in other cases, the former slave would still have a duty to provide services to his former master. Former slaves who were skilled in some profession were expected to provide their professional services free of charge to their former masters. Former slaves even had the possibility of becoming Roman citizens, and sometimes, they would (ironically) become slave owners.

There’s a lot more information at the link, so be sure to check it out!