Roman Empire Slavery

Slavery in the ancient world and in Rome was vital to both the economy and even the social fabric of the society.

While it was commonplace throughout the Mediterranean region, and the Hellenistic regions in the east, it was not nearly so vital to others as it was to the dominance of Rome. As the Romans consolidated their hegemony of Italy and Sicily followed by the systematic conquest of western Europe, countless millions of slaves were transported to Rome the Italian countryside and Latin colonies all over Europe.

Though slavery was prevalent in households throughout the city itself, it was on the farms and plantations where it had its greatest effect. The Roman conquests of Carthage, Macedonia and Greece in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC altered what was once a luxury and privilege for the ruling elite into the predominant factor driving both social and economic policies for the Republic as a whole. The mass influx of slaves during this time period first was a sign of great wealth and power, but later destabilized an already fragile Roman class system. Farms originally run by small business families throughout Italy were soon gobbled up and replaced by enormous slave run plantations owned by the aristocratic elite. Cheap slave labor replaced work for the average citizen and the rolls of the unemployed masses grew to epidemic proportions. These issues had a great destabilizing effect on the social system which had a direct role in the demise of the Republic. As the rift between Senatorial elite (optimates) and social reformers (populares) grew, the use of the unemployed, landless, yet citizen mobs were an overwhelming ploy grinding away at the ability of the Senate to govern. Though there are many factors involved in the Fall of the Republic, slavery and its effects rippled throughout every aspect of that turbulent time period.

Not only did slavery help push the Roman lower classes into organized mobs, but the slaves themselves understandably revolted against oppression. The 3 servile wars in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, with the rebellion of Spartacus in the 70's BC the most notable, showed that the social system was dangerous and unhealthy. By the end of these civil wars and general social disorder, slaves were abundantly present in Rome. The slave population was at least equal to that of freedmen (non citizens), and has been estimated at anywhere from 25 to 40% of the population of the city as a whole. One such estimate suggests that the slave population in Rome circa 1 AD, may have been as much as 300,000 to 350,000 of the 900,000 total inhabitants. In outlying provinces, the numbers are certainly far less substantial, dropping to between an estimated 2 and 10% of the total. Still though, in some places such as Pergamum on the western coast of present day Turkey, the slave population may have been around 40,000 people or 1/3 of the cities total population. At the height of the Empire in the mid second century AD, some have estimated that the total slave population may have approached 10 million people, or approximately 1/6 of the population as a whole.

In the ancient world, slaves were taken simply based upon need or want. There was no ethnic or territorial preference for the taking of slaves. As the vast majority was captured as the result of Roman wars, wherever there were Roman victories, there would be new slaves. There is no evidence to suggest that the Romans placed any preference for slavery, or exceptions, based on race or country of origin. The only thing the Romans held in deference was whether or not someone was a Roman. By the mid to late imperial period, citizenship was a rather non-exclusive status, and ethnicity played little part. They were rounded up first from among the Italian tribes, where it spread to Carthage, Greece, Macedonia, Gaul and all over the eastern provinces, with little regard for origin. The Romans simply needed to replenish the stock, and the legions provided the means to do so. As examples; at the end of the Third Macedonian War in 168 BC, it was recorded that as many as 150,000 residents of Epirus were sold in Roman bondage. It's also been estimated that Julius Caesar, upon his conquest of Gaul, may have captured and enslaved 500,000 people.

Tags: | Italy | Rome | Roman Empire | Slavery | Culture | History |


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