World History 1 108 - 7.2.2 Life under Slavery

Enslaved people led lives that varied across the empire, depending on their age and gender and whether they lived in rural or urban areas. They worked as unskilled laborers, artisans, and assistants to merchants and shopkeepers. Many were trained as teachers, doctors, musicians, and actors. Others helped build public works such as bridges and roads and even served as imperial administrators. In the city, and in the household especially, they had more advantages and avoided the brutal physical labor demanded in mines, quarries, and latifundia across the empire. There, more than one hundred enslaved persons might labor, their harsh life evidenced by their poor clothing, cruel treatment, and inability to raise funds to buy their freedom.

Still, enslaved people in any context were a moment away from punishment by slaveholders, who were perpetually concerned with avoiding conspiracy and rebellion. A culture of uncertainty, coercion, and submission was the result of the constant threat of potential violence. Enslaved people could be whipped, beaten, or tortured and were often sexually abused. In Petronius’s Satyricon, a novel written in the first century CE, the freed Trimalchio discusses the services he offered while enslaved: “Still, I was my master’s favorite for fourteen years. No disgrace in obeying your master’s orders. Well, I used to amuse my mistress too. You know what I mean; I say no more, I am not a conceited man.” Enslaved people who ran away and were caught could be branded or forced to wear a collar with their owner’s name on it.

Though the enslaved were denied the official rights of marriage, they could form families and have children, which often occurred in urban settings. The slaveholder could always manipulate the relationships between enslaved people for personal ends. Enslaved children were put to work, perhaps with simple duties in the house, and over time enslaved people might be promoted to different roles within a household.

In Their Own Words

Slavery in the Ancient Novel

Roman novels, which would have been read primarily by the upper classes, give us a glimpse of the lives of enslaved people during the empire. The Golden Ass by Apuleius, written in the mid-second century CE, follows the adventures of a wanderer named Lucius after he is magically transformed into a donkey; the first passage here is Lucius’s observation of enslaved people. In the second passage, an excerpt from Petronius’s Satyricon, the formerly enslaved Trimalchio mistreats his own enslaved people during a lavish dinner party.

The pale welts from chains crossed every patch of their skin like brush-strokes. Their flogged-up backs under sparse patchwork were no better covered than stretches of ground that shade falls on. Some of them had thrown on an exiguous vestiture, which extended only to the loins, yet all were calm so that their scraps of tatters kept no secrets. Their foreheads were inscribed with brands, their hair half-shaved, their ankles braceleted with fetters, their pallor hideous, their eyelids gnawed by gloomy smoke of the murky fumes, which left them less able to access light at all. Like boxers who fight bathed in fine dust, these men were filthy white with floury ash.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass

As he was speaking, a boy dropped a cup. Trimalchio looked at him and said, “Quick, off with your own head, since you are so stupid.” The boy’s lip fell and he began to petition. “Why do you ask me?” said Trimalchio, “as if I should be hard on you! I advise you to prevail upon yourself not to be stupid.” In the end we induced him to let the boy off. As soon as he was forgiven the boy ran round the table.

Petronius, Satyricon

  • What do you learn from these fictional accounts about the treatment of enslaved people and Roman attitudes toward them?
  • What do these passages reveal about the conduct of slaveholders?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax