WOMEN AND SLAVERY IN ANCIENT ROME

 

At first slaves were the men and women taken prisoner as Rome conquered more and more territory.  Their children helped ensure a continuing supply.  Citizens at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who got so far into debt they could not get out lost their freedom and became slaves along with all members of their families.  Unwanted children in Rome, especially girls, were abandoned at birth:  many were picked up by passers-by and sold as slaves.

The word conjures up images of men and women chained to their post and worked to death under the threat of a beating.  One need only look at the silver mines of Athens to know that this did indeed happen, and many slaves in Rome were trained for the one glorious moment they fought and died as gladiators.  Life was harsh in the early days of the Republic but gradually improved as Romans realized how much more work they could get from a healthy, well treated slave.  In cities during the Empire slaves often went out on their own and citizens complained that they were unable to tell the difference.  Proposals to have them dress differently were always rejected for fear that they would realize how numerous they were and plot rebellion.

Unfortunately most of our evidence for the daily life of slaves, especially that of women, comes to us through the eyes of the owners.  Conditions varied considerably according to the humanity of the master and there can be no doubt that talented slaves were better treated than their unskilled brothers and sisters, and slaves in the homes of the upper class may well have had a very pleasant life.

Female slaves were at the mercy of predatory masters.  Wives protested and society expressed disapproval (albeit in a very minor way), but the law was on the side of the errant husband. Monogamy was the stated ideal in Rome, but its achievement was another thing entirely.  A child born of a slave by her master was a slave.  The master could free his child, but he could not acknowledge or adopt it: law and society was adamant on this point.

An Upper class Roman family had dozens, or even hundreds, of slaves; a middle-class family would have had one to three, and even a prosperous member of the working class might have had one. Female slaves usually worked as servants, perhaps as personal maids to the Mistress or as housekeepers, etc.

Slaves could not legally marry, but in the Empire many masters with large holdings permitted some to pair up.  Any offspring of such unions were slaves and this became a recognized way of increasing the number.  Slave families could be split up if the master decided to sell one member and not another.

As an incentive some slaves received a wage and could accumulate it to buy their freedom.  Some masters granted freedom in their will.  Slaves who were manumitted (freed) became freedmen or freedwomen, not citizens, but they could marry and their children would be citizens.  Freed people made up about five percent of the population of Rome, but since the status lasted only a single generation there were no dynasties of freed families.

Slaves were never granted their freedom without also having the means to support themselves.  Some were given a small plot of land, while others were set up as shop keepers and artisans. Undoubtedly a woman slave needed a male partner in order to meet the requirement of being able to support herself.  The freedman or freedwoman was expected to remain loyal to the former master and he in his turn was expected to provide ongoing support in time of need.  Freedom was not a way of getting rid of a slave that was too old or sick to work.  Much to the disgust of lower class citizens, freed people sometimes achieved considerable wealth.

 

 

HOME