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Social Classes and Slavery in Ancient Rome

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 1 year, 2 months ago

Roman woman with metal mirror and slave. Photo: Linda Spashett

Roman woman with metal mirror and slave.

Photo: Linda Spashett   



Focus Question:  What were the characteristics of social classes and slavery under the Romans?



Topics on the Page


Slavery in the Roman World

Roman Slave Laws

  • Women and Slavery


Roman Gladiators

  • Female Gladiators


Slaves in Roman Society

Treatment of Slaves


Resistance and Slave Revolts

  • Spartacus


Link here for an overview of the Beginnings of slavery in North America in the 1600s and 1700s



Slavery in the Roman World

Though slavery was a widespread institution throughout the ancient world, ancient Rome was the most reliant on slave labor and had the most slaves among its population.


  • Estimates of the percentage of the ancient Roman population that was enslaved vary, but many sources estimate that between one-fifth and one-third of the population. 
    • Slaves were needed to keep Roman society stable because they were such a high percentage of the population.


  • Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade many centuries later, Roman slavery was not based on race.
    • Roman slaves included prisoners of war, sailors who were captured by pirates, and slaves purchased outside Roman territory.


  • Additionally, impoverished Roman citizens sometimes sold their children into slavery to make money.

Source:  (Public Broadcasting Service. (2006). The Roman Empire in the First Century: Slaves and Freemen. Retrieved February 7, 2010.

Slaves in Rome

Slavery under the Romans was slowly replaced with new economic force during the late empire-- wage workers who provided cheap labor without initial cost that slave owners had to pay for slaves.

  • At one point, more than half of Rome were slaves.


  • Slavery did not disappear, but it became much less common as they legally turned into serfs and colonies. 



Roman Slave Laws

Slavery was a part of daily Roman life. In the second century AD, Gaius, a Roman juror wrote a textbook detailing Roman law pertaining to slaves. The laws he recorded dealt with multiple concerns surrounding Roman slavery including:


  • What legally defined a slave and a free man.


  • That freed slaves will never have distinguished status, unless manumitted.


  • Manumission, either formal or informal, was the ability for slaves to be freed by their owners, or through buying their freedom.


  • How a slave could become a Roman citizen.




Women and Slavery in Ancient Rome



Roman Gladiators


Who Were the Gladiators of Ancient Rome?


  • Most gladiators were bought from the slave market, chosen for their strength and good looks and forced to compete in a variety of violent games for the public's entertainment


  • Fights to the death happened but were uncommon, many gladiators reached fame and celebrity status if they were good enough at fighting 
    • Those who were not as skilled or popular did not have the same amount of glory and were at the bottom of roman society 


  • This article also contains profiles of some of the most famous Roman gladiators including Flamma and Spartacus


The Roman Gladiator


10 Things You May Not Know about Roman Gladiators from the History Channel


  The Colosseum Virtual Walking Tour in 4k 

  • Take a virtual tour of the Colosseum in Rome, where gladiatorial competitions took place in Ancient Rome 


 Female Gladiators?


Gladiators were primarily male. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that not all Gladiators were male. The famed Roman Historian, Dio Cassius, discusses these female gladiators when talking about the transgressions of Emperor Nero.

"There was another exhibition...when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem…; they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will." Click here to see full quote.

More evidence of female gladiators can be found in the archaeological record. To your right there is a statue of a woman holding some kind of tool in a loin cloth.
external image Mujer-gladiadora.jpg 

This is odd to say the least as James Owen from National Geographic points out.

  • The pose of the statue is in the victory pose which is the classical depiction of Gladiators.
  • Furthermore, she is wearing a loin cloth with nothing to cover her chest which excludes the possibility of bathing as the subject matter. Being bare chested was required by law for Gladiators.
  • Lastly, the tool in her hand is more reminiscent of a weapon rather than a bathing tool. All of these elements suggest that there were indeed female gladiators.

Link here for full article


Click here for Smithsonian Depiction of Female Gladiators

These female gladiators are suspected of being used as a way to bring something exotic to the coliseum.

This trend was clearly suspected within the historical community because a female gladiator makes an appearance in Ridley Scott's Oscar winning film, Gladiator.

  Click Here for Interactive Gladiator Learning game by BBC

Focus Question: What roles did slaves play in ancient Roman society?

Slaves served a number of functions. The institution of slavery impacted all areas of life in ancient Rome.


  • Slave were status symbols for the wealthy.


  • Slaves were forced to do manual labor (e.g. farming) in horrible working conditions.


  • Due to the constant warfare of the Roman empire it was hard for them to grow enough food to sustain everyone in the empire. To balance this, they often took the prisoners of war and made them grow food so they could continue to be at war.


  • Slaves were forced to do household labor as cooks, waiters, cleaners, and gardeners.


  • Slaves were forced to work on public works projects such as the construction of buildings and aqueducts.


  • Slaves were also forced to be gladiators, and participate in ritualized public violence in which men and women literally fought their deaths for the entertainment of spectators


(Public Broadcasting Service. (2006). The Roman Empire in the First Century: Gladiators. Retrieved February 7, 2010 from http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/gladiators.html)


  • Greek slaves were used as tutors, musicians, doctors, artists, and shopkeepers.

Many slave owners truly respected their slaves, as did Cicero, whose slave became sick, on a journey. Cicero returned to Rome, but paid for the best doctor and care for him, until he returned.

Focus Question: How were slaves treated in ancient Rome?


Photo of artifact in the Archaeological Museum in Milan, Italy:  A slave brings to his master the tablets to write

A slave brings to his master the tablets to write. Photo of artifact in the # # English: Archaeological Museum in Milan, Italy


Though some masters claimed to treat their slaves humanely, this was the exception to the rule.

Slaves were subjected to severe punishments, torture, abuse, and deplorable working condition. Masters often sexually abused their female slaves.

There were strict laws that prohibited Roman citizens from hiding escaped slaves. There are reports of slaves revolting against their owners—an occurrence that sometimes resulted in the owner’s murder.

When slaves were executed by crucifixion when they were sentenced to punishment by death (Duiker, W.J. & Spielvogel, J.J. (2009). Essential World History Volume I (Enhanced 3rd Edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth).

Roman owners sometimes freed their slaves-- either outright or by allowing them to purchase their freedom.

This possibility served as an incentive to be obedient and hard working. However, slaves who received their freedom in such an informal way did not become citizens, and any property they had amassed was given over to their former owners when the manumitted slaves died.

Formal manumission (granting of freedom) was performed by a magistrate. Freed slaves were entitled to full Roman citizenship, the only exception being that they were not allowed to hold government office. Just as enslavement was inherited, the granting of formal manumission also freed former-slaves' children (Public Broadcasting Service. (2006). The Roman Empire in the First Century: Slaves and Freemen. Retrieved February 7, 2010 from http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/slaves_freemen.html).


 Click here for PBS lesson plan on the importance of slavery in the growth of the Roman Empire



 Working IX to V in Ancient Rome and Greece. Short audio clip from NPR about the odd jobs that more unusual jobs the Romans employed slaves for




Saturnalia by Antoine Callet (1783)


Saturnalia, Antoine Callet (1783)

During the winter solstice, the Romans would hold a week long festival to honor the Roman god of harvest, Saturn.


  • During this week, the typical Roman social restrictions were ignored. 


  • The slaves were treated as equals during this time.


  • They did not have to work, could wear their masters' clothes, and were allowed to gamble. In addition, the slaves were waited on by their masters, which usually entailed meals being prepared and served by the masters.



Focus Question: How did slaves resist the institution of slavery in ancient Rome?


Resistance and Slave Revolts

Toward the end of the 2nd century BCE, there were large-scale slave revolts in Sicily.


  • The most famous uprising occurred from 73-31 BCE, led by a gladiator named Spartacus. 


  • Seventy thousand slaves joined the revolt, which defeated numerous Roman armies before Spartacus was captured and killed in 71 BCE. 


  • Six thousand of his followers were crucified as punishment (Duiker, W.J. & Spielvogel, J.J. (2009) Essential World History Volume I (Enhanced 3rd Edition).Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth).


Spartacus is Killed, Nikolo Sanesi (painting before 1889)



Biography of Spartacus


The real Spartacus A documentary on Spartacus and his rebellion




  • Click here for lesson plans from World History for Us All: Roman slavery 100 BCE-450 BC. Collection of short primary source documents on Roman slavery.

"Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome"- Article by Keith Bradley in the BBC.

Additional Information:

As Roman law was inconsistent on slavery, the master had power over each slave, including the option to kill them. Slaves did not have any rights and they were considered as property. There were also people whose jobs it was to torture slaves called the carnefices. They would impose punishments such as ripping off the fingernails of the slaves and also by crushing their hands with weighty objects (click here for more information).

Some masters were very kind to their slaves, offering them rewards for loyal service. Some slave-holders treated their slaves vary humanely, as Pliny writes about his slaves:
"I am very upset by the illness among my slaves. Some of them have actually died, including even younger men. In cases like this I find comfort in two thoughts. I am always ready to give my slaves their freedom, so I don’t think their deaths so untimely if they die free men. I also permit my slaves to make a “will,” which I consider legally binding."
Pliny, //Letters// VIII.16

Other slave-holders were not as humane in their relations with their slaves. Cato gives this advice to Romans about slaves and agriculture:
"Let the farmer sell olive oil, if he has a good price, also his wine and his grain. Let him sell his surplus too: old oxen, an old plow, an old slave, a sick slave."
Cato, On Agriculture 2.3 (extracts) Advice for Keeping Slaves.

Slaves were keenly aware of their inferior positions and by way of protest sometimes tried to run away. Escaped slaves, when re-captured were branded the letters FUG (fugitīvus, runaway) on their foreheads.

Good site on the institution and functions of slavery in Rome: www.tribunesandtriumphs.org.

1. Answers Corporation, (2007). Answers.com. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/slavery-in-ancient-rome
2. Lyn , Mclean (Ed.). (1995). Ecce Romani, A Latin Reading Program. London: Longman Group Ltd.
3. Crystal, Ellie (2007). Slavery in Ancient Rome. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from Ancient Rome Web site: http://www.crystalinks.com/romeslavery.html
4. Mirza, Smair and Tsang, Jason (2006). Slavery. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from Rome Exposed Web site: http://www.classicsunveiled.com/romel/html/slavery.html
5. Saturnalia (2007). Retrieved May 11, 2013, from Encyclopedia Romana web site: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html

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