Written by Verity Limond
Let’s face it, most of us can name precisely one person enslaved in all of Roman history. He is Spartacus! But most of what we think we know about him comes from a 1960 film, based on a novel by Howard Fast. As leader of the so-called Third Servile War (c. 73–71 BC), Spartacus (c. 103–71 BC) has inspired several novels, a ballet, a rock opera, and a television series. But of other people enslaved by Rome we know effectively nothing. How do we tell the stories of these people of the gaps?
Unless they were revolting, nobody wrote much about the enslaved. Hence, we are thrown back on using the archaeological record, rather than written records. Archaeology can be a valuable source of information because enslaved people worked, and work leaves traces. However, in practice, the value of material culture is limited by its sparsity and by a history of poor interpretations even where it is more detailed.
Although a handful of classical texts were written by enslaved or formerly enslaved people, they rarely address the experience of being enslaved, and never without adopting the guise of fiction. Enslaved people in ancient Rome can be heard through funerary dedications, but these are usually short texts that only convey a few important pieces of information. Grave inscriptions of enslaved people often describe the type of work they did during life, and it has been argued that enslaved people chose to have this information prominently featured, suggesting work was an important way to create identity. This lack of detailed textual evidence can make it hard to understand the inner worlds and thoughts of enslaved people.
Enslavement was a near-universal system in and beyond the Roman world. But the diversity and complexity of the empire meant that the experience of enslaved people within it was far from uniform. Archaeology reveals those differences, especially where written texts give the misleading impression that enslavement was organised according to widespread general principles. The writer on agriculture Columella (4– c. 70 AD) in his Res rustica wrote that the proper way to accommodate enslaved farm workers in the countryside was in underground prisons called ergastula, where enslaved people could be chained to prevent their escape. However, the archaeological record shows limited evidence for the existence of ergastula. A few buildings, such as a rectangular semi-subterranean building with thick walls which was excavated at Colchester, have been identified as possible ergastula, but in general, archaeological evidence emphasises the diversity of slave accommodation, which could be permanent or makeshift and varied, depending on the size and location of the owner’s establishment.
Indeed, the variety of slave quarters and the impermanence of some structures means slave-housing can be overlooked or hard to identify in the field. In an urban setting, typical approaches to finding quarters for enslaved people involve focusing attention on the service areas of the house, or using a process of elimination by discounting large, highly decorated rooms and looking at those that remain. Thus, enslaved people may be known by considering what is absent rather than what is present. In the House of Menander in Pompeii, four undecorated rooms with small windows which are near the work areas and side entrance have been identified as possible quarters for enslaved people. In many cases, enslaved people may not have had specific rooms, but slept in multi-purpose kitchens, shops and storage rooms. Furthermore, housing for enslaved people looked different across the empire. A group of second-century AD roundhouses at the fort of Vindolanda along Hadrian’s Wall, which are the only roundhouses found at a Roman military site, have been interpreted as culturally specific accommodation built by indigenous enslaved people for their own use.
Can we learn anything about how to interpret evidence of Roman enslavement by looking at other times and places? Enslavement in the ancient world and historical periods are not directly comparable because the institution of slavery was never seriously contested in the ancient world. It had grown up simultaneously in many ancient cultures and was largely considered to be an acceptable part of societal structure, whereas abolitionist ideas existed in western Europe and the US from at least the eighteenth century. Excavations of the nineteenth-century Ames Plantation in West Tennessee revealed the houses of those who were enslaved and the landowner’s manor. The houses of the former demonstrate the time and effort invested in housebuilding despite the harsh system in which they lived. Although large numbers of ceramic sherds were found, there was little evidence for storage ware because food was closely controlled. One conclusion that can be drawn regarding these is of a close relationship with the manor. For example, discarded plates were passed down and reused in the enslaved households. This is not to say that the fundamental relationship was not violent, and we know enough from other sources (including abundant written records) to avoid imagining that a benign Gone with the Wind-type paternalism held sway, but artefact assemblages can reveal context-specific nuances that might otherwise go unconsidered.
Thus, we return to the original problem: how do we know the lives of those in the gaps? The archaeological record indicates that everyday life for enslaved people in the Roman empire varied greatly depending on such considerations as age, ethnicity and gender, but also where they worked, what work they did, and the caprice of their ‘owners’. By using archaeological evidence alongside written texts, we inch towards a more nuanced understanding of the diversity and variety of the lives of enslaved people throughout the past.
Columella, Res rustica. Ash, H. B. (Trans). Available at: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/columella/de_re_rustica/1*.html.
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Featured image credit: Marble relief depicting Roman slaves in chains, Ashmolean Museum. Photograph by Jun. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_collared_slaves_-_Ashmolean_Museum.jpg. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.