I recently received a 2018 article by a certain Arienne King titled 'The Roman Empire in West Africa' in which, among other things, she focuses on the slave trade in Africa as well as the relatively small group of African slaves1, mostly children, who were transported to Rome. Nowadays, when we talk about slaves, we generally think about the black African population.
Currently, in many countries, and not least in the Netherlands, much attention is drawn to the 17th century slavery past in the countries concerned. Economic opportunism, cheap labour and the white man's sense of superiority was the major driving force here. The mostly Christian conscience was appeased with the deep-rooted line of thought that 'an African could not be considered a full human being and therefore should not be treated as such'2. Racism in optima forma. Slavery in any form has existed for as long as humans have existed.
The Romans too were guilty of this. One could even say that, in quantity, the slavery of the Western Roman Empire over a period of eight centuries, across three continents with tens of millions of slaves was the precursor to the Trans-Atlantic slavery of the 17th century. The question then quickly arises to what extent Roman slavery can be compared to 17th-century African slavery?
In our previous article on the port city of Massalia, I also recalled that Gaul was already supplying slaves to Rome at the time of the Roman republic. Therefore, I think this is a good time to delve into the slavery past, as well as the slave trade of the Roman Empire. After all, slaves were transported from port to port as merchandise and, moreover, as slaves or as freedmen (former slaves), they performed many of the daily tasks in and around the ports Rome sailed on.
THE ROMAN SERVUS4
""Let deserving slaves sit down so that they may stand up free."." The above slogan, written on a stone near the temple of Feronia6 in Terracina (Latium, Italy), immediately shows one aspect in which the concept of slavery among the Romans clearly differed from our current idea of slavery. Many slaves could regain their freedom through meritorious behaviour (manumissio) or, over time, be given the opportunity to buy themselves free, after which they often managed to rise to great heights professionally and socially.
Of course, the basis was exactly the same. One person became property of another. Also under Roman law, slaves had no legal personality and, unlike Roman citizens, could be subjected to corporal punishment and even summary execution. So far, no difference. However, slaves did get more legal protection in later time, including the right to file complaints against their masters.
In fact, slavery played an important role in society and economy in ancient Rome. Besides manual labour, slaves performed many domestic services and could perform highly skilled jobs and professions. Accountants and doctors were often slaves. In particular, slaves of Greek descent could be highly educated. However, unskilled slaves, or slaves sentenced to slavery for punishment, usually worked on farms, in mines and in mills. Pirates who were defeated were usually sentenced to the galleys.
Tiberius Claudius Eumenes, freedman of the emperor (erected this monument) to himself and to Claudia Phoebe and Fadia Tethis, his daughters, and Claudius Phoebus, his son, and Iulia Heuresis, his wife, and their children
Consequently, the Roman cemetery of Portus, Isola Sacra, contains many in scriptions of freed slaves, and in Ostia there is a horrea ot the brothers Epagathiana and Epaphroditiana, two freedmen. The heavily secured warehouse was probably intended for storing luxury goods.
A freedman, who had held a position for years for his owner, often continued to do the same work but now as a freeman for his old master who became his patron. Freedmen were seen as members of the family, bore names that pointed to their former masters and they could benefit from the family's network.
On most tomb inscriptions, therefore, the tomb owner mentions that the tomb, in addition to his immediate family, was for:
LIBERTIS LIBERTABVSQVE SVIS POSTE RISQVE EORVM,
(his freedmen and their descendants)
To gain a better understanding of the Roman version of the phenomenon of slavery, we should perhaps first look at the origin, provenance and legal background of the Roman slave.
Legal basis for slavery in Roman times.
Roman jurist Gaius wrote around 161 AD in his Institutiones9(institutions):
Although 'natural law' under Roman law says that all people are born liberi (free), slavery was considered a practice common to all peoples. A kind of common law, regardless of race, colour or rank.
Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived in the first century BC, says that slavery among the Romans began as early as the legendary founder Romulus, who gave Roman fathers the right to sell their own children into slavery.
Long before the Romans, wars were an important source of slaves. Conquered peoples were considered part of the spoils of war and often carried away as slaves by the victors. Who does not know the opera Aida in which the vanquished Nubians are shown in triumph as slaves to the Egyptian people?
With the expansionism of the Romans and especially from the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), slave ownership would become widespread among Roman citizens. During the conquest of Sardinia in 177 BC, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163-133 BC) enslaved 80,000 inhabitants of the island. "As cheap as a Sardinian" was a Roman saying that stemmed from this victory and illustrates the impact this event had on the price of slaves. But things could be worse. Following the Third Macedonian War in 168 BC, Rome condemned 300,000 Greeks to slavery. However, this number pales in comparison to the half a million slaves that emerged a century later from Gaius Julius Caesar's Gallic War (100-44 BC). This did not only apply to their own victories; victories by other tribes and peoples also produced slaves, who then often ended up in a slave market in the Roman Empire. Thus, a lively international trade in people developed.
Arienne King writes in her aforementioned essay, ‘the Roman Empire in Africa’, that at some point in the first century AD, the Romans had entered present-day Africa as far as the Niger River where elephants and rhinoes roamed around a large lake (unfortunately, she does not cite a source).
Generally, the Romans had the goods from the southern parts of Africa brought in by local traders who took them over the existing caravan routes to Mediterranean ports on the coast of North Africa. From there, everything was transported by ship to Rome. And yes, that may have included Central African slaves although Arienne King does note that it was probably only a small number, presumably, child slaves meant for the sex industry. The long transport was costly and ordinary slaves were much easier and cheaper for the Romans to obtain.
Incidentally, the use of former enemy soldiers was not without danger and inevitably led to a series of armed revolts. The most famous one is the third slave revolt of 73 BC led by Spartacus.
During thePax Romana (Roman peace in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD), territorial conquests were few and the supply line of human trafficking dried up. To keep slaves in service, increasing legal restrictions on slave release were introduced. Escaped slaves were hunted down and brought back (often for a reward).
TENE ME NE FUGIA(M) ET REVOCA ME AD DOM(I)NUM VIVENTIUM IN AR(E)A CALLISTI
((Hold me, lest I flee, and bring me back to my master Viventius in the estate of Callistus).).
This text can be read on a metal mark that many slaves wore around their necks (see Figure 9).
So we cannot really speak of racism when it comes to colour, race or creed. Although, A certain distinction was made, a distinction of origin. The Romans were convinced that every people had their own character traits and these determined whether or not they were suitable for a particular profession.
The Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC)16 gave his readers advice on which types of slaves were suitable for certain farm tasks. For example, someone who needed shepherds was recommended to buy Gallic slaves and not Bastulans or Turdulians. If the buyer also needed female slaves to keep his male shepherds “company", he did well to take slaves from Illyricum. Indeed, women from this region were "strong and pleasing to the eye". Besides, they were used to the hard existence as shepherds.
Delos, in the Greek archipelago, became a free port and one of the most important slave markets in the Mediterranean after the death of Alexander the Great. From there, many slaves, sometimes as many as 10,000 a day, found their way to Roman landowners who used many slaves for their estates.
Cicero, in a letter to his friend Varro in 55 BC about slaves from Britain, articulated the well-known Roman view of the barbaric and uncivilised nature of Britons: “I think you must not expect any of them to be literate or musical.”
Even in the field of sex, slave descent played a role. The poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, who lived from 40 to 104 AD, says he would prefer an Egyptian slave as a toy boy because Egyptians had a reputation for debauchery.
The slave trade was also lucrative for the central government. Augustus imposed a 2% tax on the sale of slaves, which was estimated to bring in around 5 million sesterces annually. This would amount to about 250,000 slaves a year17. The tax was raised to 4 % in 43 AD.
The slave trade was supervised by Roman tax officials (quaestoren).
Slaves were employed in a wide range of jobs. In housekeeping alone, 55 different jobs are known from inscriptions. From hairdresser, maid or cook to secretary, accountant and doctor. The owner of a domus (mansion) in the city or a villa in the countryside easily had about a hundred slaves at his disposal18.
The living conditions of slaves attached to a domus, the familia urbana, although inferior to those of the free persons with whom they lived, were often superior to those of many free urban poor in Rome20. Household slaves probably enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, alongside government-owned slaves, who were not subject to the whims of a single master21.
Imperial slaves were those associated with the emperor's household, the familia Caesaris.
Furthermore, slaves were found in the varied trades from shoemakers to mule drivers and from bakers to prostitutes. Besides the many tens of thousands of slaves who worked on the land, familia rustica, many slaves and freed slaves were also employed in trade, harbour and shipping, as we will see later..
The slaves who were the worst off were the damnati in metallum, those condemned to the mines and quarries where conditions were notoriously cruel. These were generally citizens who lost their libertas (freedom) by conviction, forfeited their bona (property) to the state and became servi poenae (slaves as a legal punishment). They could not buy their freedom, could not be sold or released and were condemned to live and work in the mine until their death23.
Another category were the gladiators who fought in the arenas for the entertainment of the Roman people. In the late Republic, about half of them were slaves.
The slave who was better off was the servus publicus (public slave). He was not owned by a private individual but by the state. Public slaves worked in temples and other public buildings. Some well-educated public slaves did skilled office work such as bookkeeping and secretarial work. They were allowed to earn money for personal use24. Because they had the opportunity to prove their merit, they could gain reputation and influence, and were sometimes eligible for manumissio (release).
The Romans used oarsmen as propulsion in warships as well as larger merchant ships, known as galleys. Contrary to the current depiction of rowers chained to their oars, as for example in the film Ben Hur, there is no evidence that the rowers consisted of convicted criminals or slaves. Literary evidence shows that both Greek and Roman galleys were equipped with paid rowers or soldiers. Only in times of extreme crisis the ships were manned by slaves. In some cases, these slaves regained their freedom afterwards or volunteered to serve on board as free men25.
Smaller, sailing merchant ships with limited rowing capacity were manned by slaves and even had a slave as ship's captain26. Dit brengt ons bij het onderwerp slaven in en rondom de haven en betrokken bij de overzeese handel.
Roman ports, slaves and freedmen
Most slaves employed in the harbours were unskilled and under the direct authority of a master. Because the ports were transshipment points for imported and exported goods, there was a great need for warehousemen. Logistics required goods to be unloaded and reloaded and usually also temporarily stored in horrea (warehouses).
The people who were responsible for the carriers needed for this work were called saccarii 27. The saccarius used not only his own slaves for this, but also hired workers. Shipping was virtually at a standstill in winter, during the mare clausum (closed sea)28 and therefore there was no year-round work for these saccarii. The hired workers were then dismissed and their own slaves were made responsible for guarding the warehouses, handling the goods in the warehouses, etc.
A tablet is known from Pozzuoli involving slaves with distinctly different work status:
On 13 March 40 AD, the grain merchant L. Marius Iucundus borrowed twenty thousand sesterces from the financier C. Sulpicius Faustus. For this, the latter receives thirteen thousand modii30 Alexandrian grain as collateral. For this, he rents a room from warehouseman P. Annius Seleucus for a hundred sesterces a month. Seleucus is illiterate and has his slave Nardus draw up the contract. Then Seleucus and his slaves go to measure the grain.
Clearly two different kinds of slaves under one master. Nardus, mentioned by name, could read, was legally litera(grain meters) mosaic in Ostia (Figure 14).(graan meters) mozaïek in Ostia (figuur 14).
Rowers also belonged to this category of work slaves. Since part of the transshipment took place at sea by means of small cargo boats, harbours and their surroundings were traversed by a veritable fleet of small vessels. Ships also had to be towed as they entered or left the port. Evidence for this, besides Ostia, is abundant in port cities such as Arles and Rimini.
For instance, a terracotta relief adorning a tomb in the Isola Sacra necropolis (cemetery of Portus) depicts a tugboat containing a helmsman and three rowers. The marble plaque above the entrance to the tomb (tomb 78) indicates that the monument was built in the first decades of the second century by Ti Claudius Eutychus for himself, his wife, his children and his freedmen. And yet, the facade also contains a second relief depicting a grain mill of a bakery with a man leading a donkey or horse turning the millstone. Apparently, Eutychus practised two professions during his lifetime. Since the actual work was done by slaves, the same slavery made it possible to be involved in different activities at the same time. This was over frequent. Unfortunately, the images say nothing about the legal status of the rowers and helmsman.
Users of such boats, like Scaphae and Lenunculi, called the scapharii and lenuncularii of Ostia and Portus, left many inscriptions and were members of one of five collegia (professional associations)31. Lists of their members were regularly compiled in registers that in some cases have been completely preserved. The lists show two striking features: a total absence of slaves and a large representation of freedmen26.
Exclusion of slaves was not an obligation but they were probably not considered worthy of membership and were generally given the most subordinate work within the profession such as towing along a towpath of ships sailing upstream from the port.
Often, the meandering course of a river and strong currents made sailing impossible. From several recently found images, we know that naves codicariae and lintres, both river vessels, were particularly used for this purpose. Before the sixth century AD, these vessels were mainly pulled by slaves (with the exception of an image from Pompeii where a boat on the Sarno is pulled by horses, there is no mention of the use of oxen).
How hard this work was may be seen from one such journey across the Tiber from Ostia to Rome in which the tugs had to travel the same rhythmic movement for three days, 11 hours a day34. The Roman writer Martialis describes the street noises in Rome. He mentions the noise heliciariorum (the growling of the lugers) mixing with the celeuma nauticum (the rhythmic singing of the pilot)35.
If an employer, the codocarii, lyntrarii or nautae owned several ships, he relied on captains of the crew who were mostly made up of freedmen, suggesting that the skippers owned slaves.
So, as we saw above, rich slave owners could easily become involved in various activities, and sometimes they contented themselves with hiring out labour to third parties. Their servants could be assigned to one activity or another as needed, as the nature of their tasks did not make them specialised workers. In the case of boat towers and rowers, only physical strength and obedience mattered. This category of slaves had no professional autonomy because their work did not call for it.
The conditions under which sea trade took place required merchants to employ agents, as they could not be in more than one place at a time. Such missions were therefore assigned to carefully chosen slaves, who formed a small, privileged minority of the slave population.
The involvement of this slave, in the absence of his master, is explained by the fact that Severus could not be simultaneously in Baetica, Pozzuoli or in Rome, the final destination of most products transported to Italy.
The neck of an amphora usually bore the name of the supplier. Sometimes the belly of the amphora also bore a titulus pictus, a painted name, possibly preceded by the word accepit (to receive). This was probably the name of the slave who was to receive the amphora on behalf of the merchant.
Navicularii (ship owners) usually owned several ships and so could not be aboard every ship. Nevertheless, each navicularius dwas required to be present in port to negotiate with merchants seeking carriers. Shipowners therefore relied on slaves to act as their agents. Given the autonomy that agents enjoyed in their daily work, the duty of representing their master did not match that of low- or unskilled slaves. Anyone assigned this duty could take pride in the (relative) confidence of their master.
Yet even here, their work status cannot be placed on the same level for everyone, because the tasks they performed were not all equally technical and did not entail the same financial consequences. Masters had to define precisely what their agents were allowed to do on their behalf. The extent of the authorised action depended on what was agreed in advance on a case-by-case basis and of which third parties had to be informed. In practice, however, the agent's judgement often came into play, as the master could not oversee everything remotely. Commercial choices were left to the discretion of the em>magister navisbut could also create problems.
A classic defence was that the master claimed that his slave had exceeded his assignment, which was known to the plaintiff. The jurist Paul mentions a case tried by the prefect of the annona or grain supply38 :
…..a slave working for his master as a moneylender had run away. Besides providing simple loans, the slave, who often did business with barley traders, was also an intermediary for payment in transactions between merchants. In court, the master argued that he could not be held responsible because the slave's mission did not explicitly authorise such transactions. The court rejected his argument on the grounds that lending money to merchants logically led to other contracts, the existence of which could have been unknown to the master. For example, the slave was obliged to rent warehouse space to receive grain as collateral. In the end, it seems that the slave developed much opportunity for initiative, which was inherent in the type of work he was assigned.
In this case, independence of the slave turned out badly. There are also cases where the slave, by acting independently, brought great profit to his master. Ultimately, then, it appears that there was a big difference between servant labourers and 'trusted' slaves: the nature of their work, their daily routine, and the pressure exerted by the master's authority served to distinguish one group from the other.
The category of trusted slaves was itself highly heterogeneous. Only a small minority of slaves - both overall and among the population of trusted slaves - could truly be described as managers. Given the broad spectrum of conditions that existed within slavery, one has to wonder to whom these privileged slaves were closest: toiling workers or free dependents?
Under the principle “Libertas id est civitas” Under the principle ius commercii (the right to trade) was thus fully available to the freedman, and with it the ability to legally own, buy and sell and to personally enter into all types of contracts. However, patrons did receive part of the inheritance of their freedmen.
After the lex Papia 41 took effect under Augustus, all freedmen who had less than three children and owned at least a hundred thousand sesterces were obliged to bequeath a portion of their property to their patron. The size of this share depended on the number of descendants the freedman had. On his death, a freedman with two children left one-third of his assets to his patron. If the freedman had only one child, his patron received half the inheritance and if he had no children, the entire inheritance went to the patron42.Nevertheless, freedmen earned a lot of money from equipping ships and large-scale trade that they carried out independently or together with their patron.
Child slaves born in the household (vernae) could play a special family role as surrogate sons and daughters. Those freed prematurely or informally, called Junian Latins, had restrictions on their freedom and citizenship. As heirs, they continued their patron's name, were responsible for their graves and thus helped preserve their memory43. However, the latter group was widely involved in maritime affairs where Claudius promised Roman citizenship to those who agreed to serve Rome's grain supply44.
To draw a comparison between the 17th century slave and the Roman slave is, considering the preceding narrative, almost impossible. True, much of the Roman slaves, like the 17th century African slave, were obtained by reselling conquered peoples as 'spoils of war' through various slave markets. But this is pretty much where the comparison ends.
In the 17th century, dark-skinned Afrikaners were not seen as full human beings and they should not be treated as such!
For the Romans, basically everyone was a free man who could lose his/her freedom for various reasons, regardless of origin, race, skill or intelligence. Even a Roman citizen could become a slave.
Among the Romans, many slaves could be given back their freedom through merit. They could also, in some cases, buy themselves free. These so-called freedmen usually remained members of the 'family' of the former master, who in that case acted as patron. Many continued to do the same work as before, but now as partners.
Of course, at the time of the Romans, there were many slaves who in the mines, on the land or in the arenas never got to that freedom and lived a miserable life until redeemed by death.
Slavery was a socially accepted phenomenon in ancient times. Not only the rich, but also the middle and even the better lower classes owned slaves. At times, the population consisted of more slaves and freedmen than original citizens. As slaves became more valuable, they received, on a modest scale, more rights and status. Slaves were allocated plots of land and lived off the proceeds, while paying their master a certain percentage of those proceeds. The Roman government passed a law in the mid-4th century that prohibited selling an agricultural slave separately from his land. These slaves were thus tied to their land in the same way as a later tenant. Slaves could marry free tenants, acquire property and pass on their property to their children. Thus, the position of agricultural slaves in the late empire changed and improved.
In number and commercial terms, there has been no society in human history in which the use of slaves played such a large and important role as in ancient Rome. Rome was not just a society with slaves; it was a slave society.
- - Frank Beijaard - http://www.geschiedenisbeleven.nl/racisme-en-slavernij-in-de-romeinse-wereld/
- - Wikipedia – Slavery in ancient Rome.
- - https://www.forumromanum.org/life/johnston_5.html
- - Nicolas Tran - The Work Statuses of Slaves and Freedmen in the Great Ports of the Roman World (First Century BCE-Second Century CE).
- - Arienne King - ‘The Roman Empire in West Africa’.
- 1: In the Netherlands today, people speak of an enslaved person. In this article, however, I will use the word slave because this word was used in many forms at the time of the Romans.
- 2: Frank Beijaard in Racism and slavery in the Roman world – www.geschiedenisbeleven.nl
- 3: Roman mosaic from Veii (Isola Farnese) third or fourth century AD -Badisches Landesmuseum Karslruhe (Germany).
- 4: Servus - Latin for slave.
- 5: Photo – www.imperiumromanum.pl
- 6: Feronia - Goddess personified with freedom and patron goddess of the freedmen, dea libertorum.
- 7: Tomb 49, Isola Sacra Necropolis - Portus.
- 8: Photo- Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (Flickr).
- 9: Gaius, Institutiones 1.3.2 – treatises on Roman laws.
- 10: Ius gentium – legal rules with universal validity as opposed to the ius civile which were of indigenous origin.
- 11: Photo – Relief found in Izmir (Turkey). Ashmolean_Museum.
- 12: Photo – Karen Carr (column of Marcus Aurelius at Rome- 180-190 AD.).
- 13: The 'titulus' (label) hanging around his neck showed that he was a slave. This label contained relevant information about the enslaved person, including his place of origin. Italy, around the 1st century AD (British Museum).
- 14: Mark plate of a slave, found in Rome (British Museum).
- 15: Carthager Museum.
- 16: Marcus Terentius Varro, Rerum rusticarum libri III (On agriculture in three books).
- 17: Harris, W. V. (2000). "Trade". The Cambridge Ancient History: The High Empire A.D. 70–192. Vol. 11. Cambridge University Press.
- 18: Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic, pp. 56–57.
- 19: Mosaic from Dougga, (3rd century AD) Photo Dennis Jarvis.
- 20: Roman Civilization Archived 2009-02-03 at the Wayback Machine.
- 21: Johnston, Mary. Roman Life. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1957, p. 158–177.
- 22: https://www.roman-britain.co.uk/life-in-roman-britain/mining-in-roman-britain/
- 23: Alfred Michael Hirt, Imperial Mines and Quarries in the Roman World: Organizational Aspects 27–BC AD 235 (Oxford University Press, 2010), sect. 3.3.
- 24: Adolf Berger. 1991. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. American Philosophical Society (reprint). p. 706.
- 25: Lionel Casson, "Galley Slaves", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97 (1966).
- 26: Unger (1980), p. 36.
- 27: French historian Christel Freu showed in 2009 that the saccarius was the one who regulated the bearers and not, as often assumed, the bearers themselves. The name of an occupation usually designated the employer and not the employee. Christel Freu, “Dockers et portefaix du monde romain: réflexions à partir du Code Théodosien 14.22.1 concernant le corpus des saccarii du Portus Romanus.”
- 28: See our article 'Winter Shipping'.
- 29: Relief from 2nd century AD ((harbour) scene from Portus of unloading North African amphorae. At table three supervisors, one gives an accompanying receipt to the dock worker, the other notes what the third person dictates.
- 30: Modii (singular modium) -measure for grain. 1 modium was about 6.5 kg.
- 31: See our article 'The Collegium, the Roman guild'.
- 32: CIL 14.246, 250, and 251.
- 33: Musée Lapidaire d'Avignon.
- 34: Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 7.16.
- 35: Martial, Epigrams 4.64.22.
- 36: Resident from Caria (southwest Anatolia).
- 37: Photo - a Gauloise 4 amphora from the Maidstone Museum
- 38: Digest 14.5.8pr.
- 39: Scene from a 3rd century AD mosaic. Bardo Museum, Tunis.
- 40: Sarcophagus found near the Porta Latina in Rome. Now in Vatican Museum (inv. 927).
- 41: The Lex Papia et Poppaea was a Roman law introduced in 9 AD to encourage and strengthen marriage. The law contained provisions against adultery and against celibacy after a certain age.
- 42: Gaius, Institutes 3.42.
- 43: Ibid., 3.56. For the status of Junean Latins, at the beginning of the Augustan period, see Pedro López Barja de Quiroga, “Junian Latins: Status and Number,” Athenaeum 86, no. 1 (1998): 133-63.
- 44: Gaius, Institutes 1.32c; Tchernia, Les Romains et le commerce, 51-52.
- 45: Mozaïek in Palazzo Diotallevi te Rimini. (Photo Frederico Ugolini).