Last Sunday marked 200 years since the British parliament, after almost twenty years campaigning by William Wilberforce and John Newton (amongst of course many others) passed an act to abolish slavery.
Here are six things you might not have known about slavery in Roman times:
- In the early Roman Empire, at a time when the population of the city of Rome alone was approximately one million, slaves made up approximately 15-20% of the population - and no one is quite sure where the Romans got them all.
- There were many ways to become a slave- you could be born into slavery, taken prisoner in battle, or kidnapped by pirates. Babies who had been abandoned by their parents were also often brought up as slaves, or you could sell yourself into slavery to pay a debt.
- Slaves had no rights under Roman law, and were treated as property rather than as people. They could not own property, they could not marry, and they could be put to death by their master without trial. If a slave had a child, the child would belong to the slave’s master.
- At the same time, many slaves were given positions of power and responsibility in their masters’ homes. For example, Cicero owned a slave called Tiro, who acted as his secretary, editor and publisher. Their relationship seems to have been one even of friendship. Seneca also records for us that masters who were cruel to their slaves were often publicly insulted.
- There were three main ways to free a slave. Firstly a master could simply list his slave as a person (rather than as property) in the census that came around every five years. Secondly, he could go to court and declare that the slave did not belong to him. If no-one objected the slave was free. Thirdly, he could set a slave free in his will.
- There was little stigma attached to being an ex-slave (libertus). Liberti could not run for public office themselves, nor join the army, but they were allowed to vote in the public assemblies, and their children were permitted the full rights of a civis Romanus. Horace was the son of a libertus, as was Publius Helvius Pertinax, who succeeded Commodus as Emperor. Masters would often help to set up their freedmen in business, and were obliged to maintain a patron-client relationship with them. Some liberti, with the help of their former masters, were even able to become very successful and wealthy.
This site has more, and much better, information.