What can a small, inscribed plate tell us about slavery in ancient Rome?
Slavery played a significant role in Roman society. Enslaved people were in the city, the countryside, households and businesses, and ownership wasn't limited to elites. Today, it's difficult to quantify their numbers. However, by exploring surviving objects we can build a picture of the difficult and varied lives those enslaved in ancient Rome endured, helping us better understand their impact.
Content warning: this story contains details of inhumane treatment of enslaved people in ancient Rome, including physical abuse and death.
What is this object?
Although seemingly just a small inscribed plate (5.8 cm in diameter), this object tells a dark and troubling story from the heart of the Roman empire. Found in Rome and dated to the 4th century AD, it's a tag for a human. Attached to a metal collar, an enslaved person was forced to wear it. Its Latin inscription reads:
Tene me ne fugia(m) et revoca me ad dom(i)num Viventium in ar(e)a Callisti
Hold me, lest I flee, and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus
The object is part of a series of inscribed collars, with or without tags, found in both Italy, particularly in Rome and North Africa. These collars (riveted so not easily removed) were used to deter enslaved people from escaping and to help with their recapture, should they try. The words on this tag, and others, are variations of 'tene me et revoca me' (hold me and return me), with instructions on how to return the fugitive. Some of the inscriptions also include statements giving details about the wearer and the master, occasionally even offering a reward.
This, and other collars, date to the late imperial period (mainly 4th century AD). It's possible they became frequently used following the emperor Constantine's law in AD 316 banning the cruel and dehumanising practice of tattooing runaways' foreheads, a previously common punishment.
It seems the unnamed wearer of this tag had tried to flee at least once before, so their master Viventius had this collar made. As instructed, whoever found the individual was to return them to the estate of Callistus, located in the Transtiberine district in Rome, on the right bank of the river Tiber.
Where did Roman enslaved people come from?
We know very little about the wearer of this tag, only that they lived in or near Rome and their master considered them difficult. We have no way of guessing if this person was born into slavery or where they came from.
In the Roman world there were many different ways someone could be forced into slavery. These included children born into slavery, people captured in war, individuals who were sold or self-sold into slavery and infants abandoned at birth. Less common were children sold by their parents, people being enslaved for debts or as punishment for crimes and people who were victims of kidnapping and piracy. We know of two slavery markets in the city of Rome. One was by the Temple of Castor in the Forum, the other near the Saepta Julia in the Campus Martius.
Capture during war saw many enslaved, especially during the Republican period (509 BC to 27 BC). As a result, origins of those enslaved shifted with Rome's geographical expansion. Augustus' pacification of the Mediterranean, at the end of the 1st century BC, reduced the number of people enslaved through warfare. Still, the supply of captives continued thanks to the conquest of new territories such as Britain and Dacia (modern-day Romania), frontier warfare, and the suppression of revolts.
Romans also traded enslaved people across and within the borders of Roman territory. In imperial times (27 BC to AD 476), imported people could come from areas just beyond the Roman frontiers – Ireland, Scotland, Eastern European countries bordering the Rhine and Danube, the Black Sea area, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. However, enslaved people could also come from within the borders of the Roman empire, for example from Thrace, Asia Minor and Syria. As mentioned by the Roman writer Varro, the city of Ephesus (on the coast of modern-day Turkey) was a centre for the Roman slave trade. When Roman authors do reference an enslaved person's origin, it's usually a province in the empire's borders, such as Cappadocia and Phrygia (both modern-day Turkey) or Syria.
The question of race and slavery in Roman times is a complex one. In the Roman world, enslaved people came from a range of ethnic backgrounds, often the same as their masters. Traders had to disclose the origin (natio) of the people they were selling, indicating Romans saw certain personal characteristics, physical strength, character and behaviour, as connected to where someone was from. These in turn could deter or encourage buyers. In a letter written during Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC, Cicero jokes about the unlikelihood of finding British enslaved peoples educated in literature or music.
How important was slavery in the Roman world?
Slavery in ancient Rome is well documented. Various literary sources, legal documents, inscriptions and artistic representations show how common enslaved people were in everyday life. Yet we don't know exact numbers, making it hard to fully understand their importance to Roman society and its economy.
Scholars estimate about 10% (but possibly up to 20%) of the Roman empire's population were enslaved. This would mean, for an estimated Roman empire population of 50 million (in the first century AD) between five and ten million were enslaved. This number would have been unequally distributed across the empire, with a higher concentration of enslaved people in urban areas and in Italy.
Surviving evidence shows that enslaved people had a wide range of occupations. Many carried out hard manual labour under strict supervision, but they could also perform more specialised activities with a higher degree of autonomy. Some were highly autonomous and were even responsible for other enslaved people, known as vicarii.
Today, it's difficult to fully appreciate the relative prevalence of these enslaved occupations or to measure exactly how much of the Roman workforce they accounted for. However, it's clear slavery played a significant role, acting as a vital component of Roman society and its economy. Enslaved people were ubiquitous in the city and countryside, in both households and businesses, and their ownership was not limited to the elite.
How much did enslaved individuals cost?
The price of an enslaved person in ancient Rome varied considerably depending on the sex, age, and skills of the individual. Based on literary and documentary sources, the average price for an unskilled or moderately skilled enslaved person in the first three centuries AD was about 2,000 sesterces. To give a sense of scale, in the first century AD, a legionary (a Roman foot soldier) received a salary of 900 sesterces per year – amounting to less than 600 following deductions for rations, boots, and hay. An ordinary centurion (a legionary's commander) was paid 15 times more, only needing to set aside wages for a few months in order to afford an enslaved person.
Skilled enslaved individuals cost considerably more. The Roman writer Columella, writing in the first century AD, tells us that a vinedresser (someone who worked on the cultivation of grapevines) could cost between 6,000 and 8,000 sesterces. However, a senator (whose properties had to be worth at least a million sesterces) could comfortably afford this.
Roman documents discuss elite households having hundreds, if not thousands, of enslaved people, some of them highly trained and specialised. It's clear great funds were required to buy servants, as well as to maintain them. This is also true for those who performed necessary public services, paid at public expense. In first-century Rome, no less than 700 enslaved people worked on the maintenance of the capital's aqueducts – paid for by the public treasury and the emperor.
What was life like for the enslaved?
Under Roman law, enslaved people had no personal rights and were regarded as the property of their masters. They could be bought, sold, and mistreated at will and were unable to own property, enter into a contract, or legally marry.
Most of what we know today comes from texts written by masters. These authors had little interest in describing servants' daily lives and they only present us with polarised depictions of enslaved individuals. They are presented either as stereotypical 'good slaves' or, more commonly, as 'bad', 'disloyal', 'lazy' and deceitful people. Despite the text's elite bias, we get a sense of how differently people could be treated, often based on their occupations and skills.
Some of the worst working conditions were those in mines or quarries. Enslaved people were forced to work with no respite, in deep, dark and narrow tunnels. The work was both physically demanding and dangerous, with the tunnels risking collapse. Describing the harrowing working conditions in Spanish mines, the historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in 1st century BC:
… the slaves who are engaged in the working of [the mines] produce for their masters' revenues in sums defying belief, but they themselves wear out their bodies both by day and by night in the diggings under the earth, dying in large numbers because of the exceptional hardships they endure. For no respite or pause is granted them in their labours, but compelled beneath blows of the overseers to endure the severity of their plight, they throw away their lives in this wretched manner […]; indeed death in their eyes is more to be desired than life, because of the magnitude of the hardships they must bear.
– (Diodorus Siculus 5.38.1)
The enslaved were also employed to work in agricultural settings. In Treatise on agriculture, writer Columella advises owners on how to treat the agricultural enslaved. He recommends a balance in order to achieve the greatest amount of labour while avoiding making living conditions so hard servants might rebel. It's likely many masters, if not most, ignored Columella's advice and were far harsher, if not openly abusive.
On the other hand, the philosopher Seneca, writing in AD 55-56, recommended a humane treatment of one's servant on moral grounds.
It is creditable to a man to keep within reasonable bounds in his treatment of his slaves. Even in the case of a human chattel one ought to consider, not how much one can torture him with impunity, but how far such treatment is permitted by natural goodness and justice, which prompts us to act kindly towards even prisoners of war and slaves bought for a price (how much more towards free-born, respectable gentlemen?), and not to treat them with scornful brutality as human chattels, but as persons somewhat below ourselves in station, who have been placed under our protection rather than assigned to us as servants.
– (Seneca, Clem. 1.18.2)
What was life like for the enslaved?
Despite playing an important role in urban economies, ancient legal sources don't list enslaved people among employees, but the instrumenta (tools or equipment) of a business or workshop. Most were trained in a specific craft or trade acting as agents, managers or salesmen. Yet, no matter how competent or autonomous they were, their masters were always legally responsible for their actions. Documents from the period focus on enslaved individuals' misbehaviour rather than their accomplishments. Noted are charges of theft, damage, negligence and laziness. As pictured, some formerly enslaved individuals highlighted their accomplishments and the tools of their trade on commissioned funerary monuments.
Enslaved people could often be found in Roman houses. We find traces of their presence in archaeological records and in numerous representations in art and literature. When referenced in ancient texts they're often identified by their tasks, giving the impression of a great number of different roles and specialties. Just as enslaved people in urban occupations were considered to be part of the workshop they worked in, those in domestic settings were part of an owner's property, their numbers enhancing the owner's status.
Enslaved people working in households mostly enjoyed a better quality of life than those working in mines or the fields, yet they too could be victims of physical and sexual abuse. Generally, they were required to perform tasks without being seen unless when serving a banquet. Here they were at their most visible, required to perform faultless service. In one letter, the philosopher Seneca describes the abuse enslaved people were subject to in elite houses:
When we recline at a banquet, one slave mops up the disgorged food, another crouches beneath the table and gathers up the left-overs of the tipsy guests. Another carves the priceless game birds […]. Hapless fellow, to live only for the purpose of cutting fat capons correctly […]. Another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood; he is dragged back to it; and though he has already acquired a soldier's figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master's drunkenness and his lust; in the chamber he must be a man, at the feast a boy.
– (Seneca, Letter 47)
What was life like for the enslaved?
There are also examples of executions as punishment for enslaved people working in households. In AD 61, under the reign of the emperor Nero, a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests by the people, Nero backed the senate's decision to uphold an existing law. It stipulated that all enslaved members of the owner's household should be executed, a ruthless collective punishment intended as a deterrent.
Those working in imperial settings were treated slightly differently. Formally, enslaved individuals owned by the imperial household were at the bottom of Roman society, like those belonging to any master. However, their connection with the emperor could grant them status surpassing their peers and nominal superiors. Working for the imperial administration could bring considerable influence.
Given that the tag at the top of this article was found in Rome, it's likely the wearer was employed either in his master's workshop or home. Even if these occupations weren't the worst, it's clear their life was so hard they attempted to flee at least once.
How did enslaved people obtain their freedom?
Individuals could be freed through manumission, a procedure through which a master could grant freedom to his servants. Manumission rates are unknown in ancient Rome and it's not clear how often people were freed. It's believed those working in cities had more chances of being manumitted than those in rural settings.
Enslaved people could be formally released in three ways: by being included in the census list, through a lawsuit in the presence of a magistrate, or if granted freedom in a master's will. Once free individuals became citizens, however, they continued to owe duties to their former masters and were not eligible for public office.
They could be required to pay a sum of money to their master before being manumitted – a form of compensation. Many wouldn't have the money to pay, but with their peculium it could be achieved. Granting peculium was the practice of masters allowing enslaved people to manage their assets. While legally the peculium belonged to the master, it was considered the enslaved person's property and could be used to purchase freedom.
Marriage was another pathway to freedom, open almost exclusively to enslaved women freed by male owners in order to contract a legal marriage together and have legitimate children. Such unions were unequal as husbands were entitled to a higher degree of control. Freed-wives also had fewer rights compared to non-freed spouses, or even freedwomen who married men other than their masters.
Freedmen are over-represented in texts and inscriptions that survive from the time. Keen to erect memorials broadcasting their freedom and citizenship, 80% of ancient funerary inscriptions found in Ostia belong to freedmen, creating a picture of great social mobility which is only partly true. These are only the people who obtained freedom and were successful enough to display their newly acquired status. The majority of enslaved people left very little trace of their lives.
To return to our unnamed individual, the wearer of the tag, their chances for freedom look bleak. That they wore an inscribed tag suggests their master considered them untrustworthy. It's unlikely they would have been granted a sizable peculium, have acted on their masers' behalf, or been given any degree of autonomy. Like so many others, it appears this individual might never have seen freedom.