5 Things About Slavery in the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had a dirty little secret, though not so secret at the time. The over five-hundred years of peace and prosperity that people enjoyed was founded on the backs of slaves.

 Slavery was so widespread, that it’s estimated 35%-40% of Italy’s population by the end of the first century were slaves. Yeah, two out of every five people were slaves.


Throughout the entire empire, 10–15% of the total population of 50–60 million inhabitants were enslaved.  Of these, an estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by less than 1.5% of the Empire’s population.

Yet, the Empire couldn’t be made to function without slavery (not that they ever tried), and in the later years of imperial Rome, serfdom even among free Romans was already taking root.

Five Things About Slavery in the Roman Empire


Spoils of War

Many of Rome’s slaves came from war, with hundreds to tens of thousands being captured and enslaved i. During a war with Gaul, Julius Caesar sold the entire population of a region (over fifty-three thousand people) on the spot to slave traders.


Unlike the images that most of us have of what a slave is, only about half of Roman slaves were unskilled laborers working in the fields. As a matter of fact, many Roman slaves, especially those of Greek origin, were highly educated. Many physicians and accountants of the time were slaves, and there were many government positions also held by slaves.

Less surprising, most of the sex workers in the empire were also slaves. As slaves were considered non-persons, there were no protections even for children.

Because a slave is totally someone I want treating me.


Living Conditions

As with all things, living conditions varied greatly. Those who served in wealthy and influential homes often lived better than poor citizens. Those who served out in the country on imperial estates fared far better than those forced into the mines.

Slaves were property and had no rights. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. Over time, slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters.


As slavery in the Roman Empire was not based on race, if a slave could slip away from their master, they could be very difficult to find again. As such, there were professional slave-catchers that were hired to hunt down runaway slaves. Some slaves were branded across the forehead to mark them, while others were forced to wear metal collars.

Not very Italy or Rome-like, but the Nazis might not have been the first group people were escaping to Switzerland to avoid.


When such a large portion of your population in enslaved, there’s always the danger of insurrection, especially when many of these slaves are captured soldiers. We know about several slave insurrections, and yes, Spartacus was a real man. Who really led a slave revolt. And really lost.

So, while I may base my world very loosely on Rome, this is one thing that won’t be brought into the same kingdom as the Knights of Valor. However, those bastions of justice who love to uphold the law may come across slavery in other places. It will be interesting to see how they react to it.


How about you? Know any other dirty little secrets about Rome or other empires that would be interesting to research?

"Us" vs "Them"

We see this a lot. Us versus Them.

It’s “your” team versus whomever they are playing. It’s the Rebellion versus the Empire. Democrats versus republicans. Geeks versus jocks.

This was so my “in” group. C’mon DPS.

Pick your “in” group, and you’ll automatically have an “out” group. It’s everywhere, and once you side with a team, you will automatically favor them even if the evidence doesn’t agree with you.

This is called Social Identity Theory, and humans do it all the time. Once we identify with a group, once it becomes ours, a part of ourselves becomes intertwined with the success of that group.

Think how many times you’ve seen a sports fan became angry over how “their” team played. Now, if you actually owned the sports team, you’d have a lot riding on their success. But most of the people I know who are invested in “their” team don’t even have a bet riding on the outcome.

I’ve even heard fans make disparaging comments about fans of other teams. What would make an otherwise rational person hate someone else just for the team they support?

Social Identity Theory says this is actually pretty common. Once you identify with a group making it the “in” group, humans will discriminate against and disparage the “out” group as a means of making themselves feel better about the group to which they are associated.


This is some pretty powerful stuff. Wikipedia links to a series of studies, one that shows people aren’t even willing to bet against their “in” group even though it could mean that they make money doing so.

There is some thought that this was an evolutionary response. Those that favored their own tribes to the exclusion of all others were more successful, had more children, etc. Hard to prove, but a reasonable theory.

Interestingly, though, humans are actually more successful the larger we make the “in” group. The research corroborates what Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations that human prosperity is dependent on the voluntary exchange between and co-operation of different nationalities and races.


It’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, research shows us that Social Identity Theory tells makes us want to favor “our” group, yet other research shows us that this is not necessarily what makes us the most prosperous.

Sadly, this isn’t fiction. If it were, I’d get a note from my beta reader telling me about the inconsistency of my character, and how his actions didn’t align with his goal. I’d fix it, and all would be well.

Not that easy in the real world, even if does explain a lot things we see happening around us.

But, perhaps it gives us some insight into making a character that our audience will identify with. Give them someone that’s in their “in” group so that they’ll want to see them succeed even if he is a whiny farm kid more interested in racing speeders with his friends than tending to the droids on his aunt and uncle’s farm.


How about you? Ever read about a character you could identify with and wanted to see them succeed no matter what? Or maybe you have a sports team you love no matter what? Or maybe you found yourself in one “tribe” when you wanted to be in another?