World History 1 107 - 7.2.1 The Structures of Roman Slavery

Enslavement was the result of a variety of circumstances in the Roman world; there was no single mechanism that sustained the system. During the Roman Republic, it appears that most enslaved people were former soldiers captured in war. Slave dealers purchased these captives from defeated armies and brought them to various slave markets throughout the empire for sale to buyers in need of slave labor. Following the civil wars during the reign of Augustus, however, prisoners of war were fewer, and the system relied more heavily on other sources.

Some historians believe natural reproduction accounted for a large number of new enslaved people; the children of enslaved women were considered the property of the household in which the mother lived. Enslavement could also be the result of kidnapping and piracy. Some enslaved people were sold into bondage through patria potestas. Others had been abandoned as infants by families that did not want to or could not care for a child; these children often ended up in the hands of slave traders. Finally, while involuntary debt bondage had been outlawed since the time of the early Roman Republic, people could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debts. Slave markets, often kept supplied by piracy, were an important element of the system, and the one at Delos (which was most active in the second and early first century BCE) was the largest; upwards of ten thousand enslaved people might be sold in a single day.

The freeing of enslaved people through manumission was an expected practice in Rome, though the rate at which it occurred is difficult to assess. It usually happened when a person was around eighteen years old, but not simply in return for good behavior. Some of the enslaved were allowed to keep part of their earnings in order to purchase their freedom. And enslaved women could also be freed after producing a certain number of children. Manumission was made official before a Roman magistrate or in a slaveholder’s will. It was often accompanied by a sum of money so that the newly freed could more assuredly begin their lives as freed persons. The debt of obligation was clear, however, since a freed person became the client of their former master.

Freed people formed a substantial class in Rome, but with a fair number of restrictions on their conduct. They were often beholden to their former master’s influence and prevented from holding most important political or religious positions. Many did go on to become independently wealthy professionals in trade, agriculture, and education, and some were even slaveholders themselves. A few occupied prominent positions in powerful households. They were denied the full rights of Roman citizenship, however, though their children were considered full citizens.

Enslaved people were subject to brutal treatment, and a series of revolts illustrates their efforts to seek freedom. In the late second century BCE, rebellions in Sicily inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Mediterranean, notably in the Greek mines. A few decades later, Spartacus instigated the most famous slave revolt. Originally from Thrace or Greece, Spartacus was enslaved after being captured in battle and was trained as a gladiator in Capua in central Italy. In 73 BCE, he planned to escape, along with a substantial number of other enslaved people. Though their original plan may have been only to get away, they took up weapons and fought for their freedom. Spartacus eventually raised an army of more than seventy thousand and defeated a number of armies sent by the Roman Senate. Finally, the Roman general Crassus defeated Spartacus in battle, putting an end to the revolt in 71 BCE (Figure 7.7). However, Spartacus’s rebellion was the tipping point. Following these violent conflicts, there seems to have been some effort by Rome to avoid future revolts, as seen in the laws of Augustus that controlled the practice of manumission.

A map is shown with land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. A boot shaped area of land is shown in the middle surrounded by two islands in the west and land in the northeast. The Adriatic Sea is labelled to the northeast and the Tyrrhenian Sea is labelled in the south. A red arrow shows from the city of Roma, indicated with a black star, south to the city of Capua labelled with a black dot (as are all the other cities on the map). This red arrow indicates “Roman armies.” Three blue arrows are shown indicating “Enslaved forces.” The first arrow begins in the city of Capua and heads southeast to a red “x” next to the city of Nola. From the red “x” an arrow splits into two – one heading southeast to the city of Metapontum on the coast and another heading more south to the city of Thurii on the coast. Vesuvius and Nuceria are labelled on the map south of Nola.
Figure 7.7 Spartacus’s revolt began in 73 BCE, in Capua in central Italy. As more enslaved people were recruited to the cause, Rome sent armies to subdue them. The rebels were besieged on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius but were able to outwit their opponents, defeat the initial Roman forces sent against them, and eventually expand their raiding territory farther south. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax