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.
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.
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?