Ancient Rome: Roman Slaves

Slavery played a big part in the culture of Rome. Between 20% and 30% of the people living in Rome and Italy were slaves. They performed much of the labor and hard work that built the Roman Empire and keep it running.

As the empire expanded, the Romans often captured slaves from new lands they conquered. Other slaves were bought from slave traders and pirates who captured people from foreign lands and brought them to Rome. Children of slaves also became slaves. Sometimes criminals were sold into slavery. A few people even sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts.

Slaves did all sorts of work throughout the empire. Some slaves worked hard labor in the Roman mines or on a farm. Other slaves worked skilled jobs such as teaching or business accounting. The type of work generally depended on the previous education and experience of the slave. Public slaves were owned by the Roman government and worked on public building projects, for a government official, or in the emperor's mines. Private slaves were owned by an individual. They worked as household servants, laborers on farms, and craftsmen.

How a slave was treated depended upon the owner. Some slaves were beaten and worked to death, while others were treated almost like family. In general, slaves were considered valuable property and it made sense to treat them well. Sometimes slaves were paid by their owners if they worked hard.

Slaves were sometimes set free by their owners or were able to purchase their own freedom. Freed slaves were considered Roman citizens, but they couldn't hold public office. However, the children of freed slaves could hold public office and even become Emperor.

It was against Roman law to help a runaway slave. Captured runaways were punished severely and sometimes killed as an example to the other slaves. There were three major slave rebellions called the "Servile Wars." The most famous was the Third Servile War led by the gladiator Spartacus.

During the Roman festival Saturnalia, roles were often reversed between masters and slaves. The masters sometimes served their slaves a fancy banquet and treated them as equals.

Source: Ancient Rome: Roman Slaves
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