Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery in the Roman Empire - This is an article by John Madden which looks at the origins and numbers of the slaves in the Roman Empire.

A couple of items surprised me. I did not realize that Roman slaves had such a low birthrate. Madden wrote, "Another reason for thinking that the slave population did not reproduce itself in sufficient numbers is that female slaves, on the available evidence (limited admittedly), do not seem to have been very prolific. "

This low birthrate amongst slaves coupled with high mortality rates meant the Romans were always looking for new sources of slaves. This slaves could come from war, penal convictions, and foreign purchases.

One source included enslaving infants that parents did not want . Wrote Madden, "The abandonment of infants was widespread over much of the Roman world, and, no doubt, occurred even more frequently whenever circumstances became especially difficult. The custom was not made illegal until AD 374. Abandoned children usually either died or were made slaves, but the percentage in each group is beyond recall."

From the site:

Though slavery was a prevailing feature of all Mediterranean countries in antiquity, the Romans had more slaves and depended more on them than any other people.

It is impossible, however, to put an accurate figure on the number of slaves owned by the Romans at any given period: for the early Empire with which we are concerned conditions varied from time to time and from place to place. Yet, some estimates for Rome, Italy, and the Empire are worth attempting. The largest numbers were of course in Italy and especially in the capital itself. In Rome there were great numbers in the imperial household and in the civil service - the normal staff on the aqueducts alone numbered 700 (Frontin. Aq. 116-7). Certain rich private individuals too had large numbers - as much for ostentation as for work (Sen. Ep.110.17). Pedanius Secundus, City Prefect in AD 61, kept 400 slaves (Tac. Ann. 14.43.4), Gaius Caecilius Isidorus, freedman of Gaius Caecilius, left 4116 in his will in 8 BC, while some owners had so many that a nomenclator had to be used to identify them (Pliny HN 33.135; 33.26). However, there is evidence to suggest that these cases were not typical - even for great houses. Sepulchral inscriptions for the rich noble gens the Statilii list a total of approximately 428 slaves and freedpersons from 40 BC to AD 65. When these figures are analysed, the number of slaves and freedpersons definitely owned by individual members of the gens is small, e.g. Statilius Taurus Sisenna (consul of AD 16) and his son had six, Statilius Taurus Corvinus (consul ordinarius of AD 45) had eight, and Statilia Messalina, wife of Nero, four or five. Seneca, a man of extraordinary wealth, believed he was travelling frugally when he had with him one cartload of slaves (most likely four or five) (Ep 87.2). References in Juvenal and the Scriptores Historiae Augustae suggest that many non-plebeian Romans had either no slave or merely one or two (Sat. 3.286; 9.64-67,142-7; S.H.A. Hadr.17.6). From evidence such as this Westermann, Hopkins and others are understandably cautious when attempting to come to a total figure for slaves in the city of Rome in the 1st century AD. Hopkins' estimate of 300,000-350,000 out of a population of about 900,000-950,000 at the time of Augustus seems plausible.

The same kind of caution needs to be exercised in attempting to arrive at a figure for slaves in Italy for the same period. Passages in the Satyricon (e.g. 37;47;53) would suggest that some households had vast numbers. But that work is of course fiction - though the references to slave numbers there can only have point if certain private individuals did own a lot of slaves. Overall, a figure of around two million slaves out of a population of about six million at the time of Augustus would perhaps seem right (again we follow Hopkins). If so, approximately one in every three persons in Rome and Italy was a slave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The vast, vast majority of slaves the Romans held were other Europeans they conquered in battle. The largest ethnic group that was enslaved were the Celts of Gaul, they made up roughly 50% of Roman slaves. Others who were enslaved were the Britons and various German warbands that the Romans defeated in battle.

What is more likely than the slaves having a low-birth rate, is that the Romans had no concept of Race slavery as there was in the Americas with the African slave trade. The people the Romans enslaved were Caucasian/white people like themselves, so they were unable to make a 'race' based slavery system due to that.

Meaning that children of slaves could easily blend into Roman society and not stick out. In some cases slaves or thier children have even risen out of the rank of slave to hold minor offices in Rome as leaders. The effect of this can be observed in late Rome, near the fall of thier Empire when it is estimated that -30% of Italy's population is 'Barbarian' descended - born from captured Gaulic slaves.

So this was a bleeding effect on thier slave population. They always needed new tribes to conquer for new slaves. Otherwise thier slave pool would naturally shrink.