In the Roman Empire, people were either slaves or they were free. These two statuses were central to the social and the legal fabric of the Roman world. Unlike in recent history, slavery in Rome was not based on race or ethnicity; anyone could become a slave and any slave could become free. Consequently, the Roman world was composed of these two groups of people who lived and worked together and were distinguishable by their social status of “slave” or “free.”
Becoming a Slave
Prior to the first century ad, the majority of slaves in the Mediterranean world were prisoners of war. By the first century, however, the primary source was through birth into the slave system. A child born to a female slave was also a slave, regardless of the status of the father. A freeborn child could also be enslaved: exposure of newborns was a practiced form of post-birth control, and these infants, who were left exposed to the elements to die, were often gathered by slave traders and sold as slaves. Children were also sometimes sold by their fathers due to the pressures of poverty.
Penal slavery was used to punish crimes committed against the state, such as evading a census, taxes, or military service. A judgment against a debtor could force a free person into slavery. Masters had a tremendous amount of control over slaves and there was no law guaranteeing that the master would live up to the agreement.
Living as a Slave
Slavery meant the complete loss of rights. It terminated marriage, family ties, business partnerships, and any public or private offices previously held. Slaves could neither act as debtors or creditors, nor was their testimony admissible in court unless it was gained through torture; they could be sold or loaned out at the will of the owner.
The treatment slaves received depended on their owner. Sexual abuse was not uncommon. Punishments, often cruel, included: flogging, shackling, branding of the face and forehead, iron collars, and dismemberment or maiming. There were few restraints placed upon the owner in the punishment he was allowed to inflict upon his property.
Roman laws did afford slaves some protection. Temples and statues of the emperor legally provided a place of asylum from unusually cruel masters. There was also the possibility of a personal appeal to the emperor, though it is uncertain how often slaves found opportunity for such appeals.
Under good conditions, slavery could offer security. In theory, all of a slave’s needs were provided for by his or her owner (i.e., food, clothing, shelter, medical care). Slaves were allowed a peculium, but since they did not have the right to possess property, the peculium belonged to the owner. Retirement, for those who survived, was usually at age 60; those who died while enslaved were buried at the expense of the owner.
Slavery in the Roman world was not necessarily a permanent state. Emancipation was possible under certain legal stipulations. Owners were prevented, however, from releasing a slave from service directly. Both the slave and the owner were required to appear before a magistrate in a ceremony where a “freedom tax” was paid to the magistrate on top of the price already being paid for freedom.
Becoming a freedperson meant acquiring certain social and economic advantages. Former slaves owned by Roman citizens could, under certain requirements, became citizens. This new status placed them in a social level above slaves and free noncitizens, but restricted their status below that of freeborn citizens. Former slaves who remained attached to their masters’ house could receive economic and political boosts not normally available to poor free persons. Former slaves may have learned a skill that enabled them to open a business—some entered freedom with money saved.
Newly-acquired freedom also had its drawbacks. Even after freedom had been granted, a former master controlled aspects of a former slave’s life and finances. In addition to various social obligations, freedpersons were required to work for their former master a set number of days each year. In contrast to the slave, however, the freedperson gained certain rights. The former master was required to allow the freedperson sufficient time to earn an income. Obligations of service could be reduced due to health complications, or if the former slave had reached a social position that was not fitting for such services. These rights, and a variety of others, protected the freedperson from being re-enslaved.
Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.