Roman Slavery: The Unique Features and Longevity of a Slavery System in Antiquity

Written by: Lisa Doyle

One of the outstanding features of societies in antiquity, a feature that tends to be forgotten as we relish in the literature and traditions left behind them, is the slavery system. Both Greece and Rome were slave-owning societies, but Roman slavery especially seemed to experience greater longevity and was executed to a greater effect. The way Rome may be distinguished from other slave societies is through their process of granting freedom. Indeed it was the pervasiveness of freedmen in Rome which ensured the duration of their slavery system.

Let us begin at the end – with manumission. I intend to demonstrate that there was something especially Roman about the way Roman slaves were manumitted. As was well-known in antiquity, the Roman manumission process was remarked upon as unusual. In the letter from Philip V of Macedon to the Larissans, this practice is noted as something that the Romans were renowned for (ILS 8763). When conceptualizing the Roman slavery system, it is helpful to take into account the work of Bodel, which illustrates that the Romans viewed slavery as a process that manumission was very much a part of. As with all aspects of Roman slavery, we will notice a certain fluidity in the process of manumission, as the line between slave and free is not as clearly demarcated as one might expect.

We have various sources for Roman manumission, ranging from Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ account of the history of the practice and the legislative accounts of the Digest. From this evidence, we gather that three major laws were introduced in relation to the process of manumission: the Lex Fufia Caninia, Lex Aelia and Lex Iunia. The work of Wiedemann is especially prominent in this area, and from his work we can confirm that manumission was an integral aspect of Roman society due to the fact that these laws were introduced with the apparent aim of regulating this process. This legislation entailed various advantages for slave-owners, such as the commercial benefits of Lex Iunia which enabled the master-now-patron to maintain an economic and commercial advantage by sharing a stake in the freed person’s peculium, which was the capital held by the slave/freed person. Taking these laws into account, we may contemplate the overall purpose of Roman manumission on an ideological level. Suetonius shares the opinion that Augustus aimed to ‘set a limit to manumission’ with the introduction of these laws. However, modern scholarship would argue that this was not the case. In fact this evidence, illustrated by the Lex Iunia especially, shows an eagerness to integrate freedmen into society in a manner which benefits the elite slave-owners. These laws seem to maximise that possibility and illustrate an attempt at social control, to manage not the number of slaves being manumitted, but their ‘quality’. It could also be argued that the practice of manumission itself is very much related to the question of how societies reconcile themselves with the institution of slavery, and that manumission at Rome, especially if rewarding good work, allowed its citizens to imagine that slavery was indeed an humane institution. This may be true, but it is very apparent that the Romans were successful in creating a system of management and integration that benefitted the slave-owners as much as possible.

Although the fact that these laws were introduced is not a unique feature of this slave society, these laws enforce an ideology that is unique to Rome. That ideology of freedom is articulated quite clearly in one of our literary sources, Plautine comedy. In Rudens, we see that the slave Gripus is acculturated to the Roman slavery system to the extent that he is aware of the processes which will lead him to freedom, but, he is not sufficiently acculturated to the hierarchical nature of that same system. Stewart  makes it clear that his conception of freedom is ‘non-Roman’ and, as such, it is a challenge to the Roman ideology of manumission. Moreover, we can surmise that the fundamental aim of the Roman manumission legislation was to ensure conformity to an ultimately Roman ideology.

Having discussed the ‘Romanness’ of manumission, the question arises as to how this Roman frame affected life after manumission. Freedmen formed an integral part of Roman society, marking a clear difference between Roman slavery and other slavery institutions. It is very apparent that the Romans had established a framework with which freedmen were incorporated into society. This is in contrast to Greece, as noted by Moses Finley, and to more modern examples as well, especially considering the racial element present in modern slave institutions. In the American South, for example, freed slaves were prevented from even acquiring agricultural jobs, and this became very prevalent upon the abolition of slavery when many were left to live in poverty. For the slaves and freedmen of ancient Rome, abolition was never a prospect, so a clear structure was set in place with which to accommodate them. One common feature amongst all slave societies is the notion that those of servile status are ‘stained’. In Rome, this was known as the macula servitutis. There is a seemingly paradoxical nature to this term as the Romans adjusted to the freedmen who carried that stain being very much a part of their society. The primary sources of evidence for freedmen were left by the freedmen themselves. It transpires that this evidence, not only exhibiting this distinct group of people, is also an example of a very ‘Roman’ practice; funerary epigraphy. This practice was of course prevalent in many ancient societies, but in Rome, it was the freedman class who dominated it. Both Mouritsen and Bodel analyse this evidence.

Although this epigraphy does not allow us a complete picture of the freed person in Rome, it does indicate the successful integration of many freed slaves into Roman society, which appears seamless in comparison to modern examples. We need only look to the hostilities which existed between freedmen and slaves in Brazil for contrast. By comparison, in the Roman world, manumitted slaves were entering the next stage of what was quite an organic and well-worked process, they experienced a continuation of the same world, as opposed to the divide experienced in other societies, because it was their conformity which allowed them to reach this stage of the process in the first place. Furthermore, it appears the ‘stain’ which freedmen had to bear did not manifest itself as plainly as one might expect in reality

Finally, we will finish our analysis of the Roman slavery system with the Roman institution of familia. This was an institution very much unique to Roman society. It does not simply mean ‘family’, but incorporates the whole household, with a very clear concept as to each individual’s role within that world, which slaves were very much a part of. The term itself has a flexible and encompassing nature as it can be understood in a variety of ways and its constituents can be people, objects, and slaves. Within the familia we find even more distinctive facets of the Roman slavery system which warrant discussion. Firstly, the remarkable practice of the peculium, which was a contribution of Roman law that was utilized by slave societies in the new world. A peculium could include money or any form of property in a slave’s possession, and it also functioned as a sophisticated form of social control especially since it facilitated the business conduct of slaves, permitting them to carry out trade on their owner’s behalf. This is undoubtedly an example of the continuity in management of the Roman slavery system. As previously mentioned, the Romans ensured that the economic advantages of slave-owning were embedded in life after slavery as well. The social status created by the Lex Iunia, which lay somewhere between slavery and freedom, ensured that the commercial potential of slaves was never lost, especially since the patron had a stake in the peculium upon the freed slave’s death. Therefore, by ensuring that the slave always maintained a connection with the familia, the Romans utilized slavery to their commercial advantage, and ensured these benefits continued after manumission as well. In doing so, the Romans used their slaves to construct a social identity, to an unprecedented extent.

Within the concept of the familia we encounter a hallmark of Roman society, and the Roman slavery system, the Familia Caesaris. The Imperial household was not just restricted to Rome, but its practices and members were dispersed throughout the empire. One notable position which was held by slaves, in this and other elite households, was the dispensatore. This position involved financial management and bookkeeping. It was unique in that it was not only held by slaves but perfectly suited to them due to their lack of legal status. Moreover, the master could maintain a level of control over them as they handle finances that would simply not be achievable with someone of freed status. Remarkably, a structure was put in place to facilitate the education and training of these slaves.

The dispensatore is just one example of the many ways in which the emperor employed slaves and freedmen in a very effective manner. The historian Suetonius refers to Augustus as ‘Master and Patron’, indicating that his management of freedmen and slaves should be emulated. This is ultimately what distinguishes the Roman slavery system, as the emperor served as the ultimate slave master, setting an example in discipline, management and control. His practice, and the practice of his household, be it in the form of a civil service or manumission legislation, emanated from the Familia Caesaris and was diffused throughout the empire.

The aim of this article has been to elucidate the distinctive features of the Roman slavery system and, although this involved focussing on the process of granting freedom as opposed to the earlier stages in the process of slavery, I hope to have made it clear as to why this was necessary. We have noted the systematic manner with which the Romans managed their slavery system, ensuring that both slaves and freed persons would be advantageous to them. By utilizing the concept of the household to maintain connections with the slave or freedman, and benefiting from their right to trade, slaves were constituents of the social identity of many Romans. Fundamentally, we have seen that the social stratification of Roman society informed the organization of its slavery system, the effective management of which ensured successful integration and adherence to Roman ideals. It was, ultimately, the Romans’ capability to implement this social control which ensured the uniqueness and longevity of their slavery system.


Image: Slave bringing tablet to his master, detail from the sarcophagus of Valerius Petronianus. Photograph: Giovanni Dall’Orto, 2005.



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Wiedemann, T. (1985), ‘The regularity of manumission at Rome’, The Classical Quarterly 35.1, 162-175.

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