Thursday, July 12, 2012

Slaves of the Mediterranean

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Slaves of the Mediterranean


Slavery was a universal feature of all Mediterranean countries in antiquity and the Romans also greatly benefited from there use. To ensure economic success the Romans needed slave labor to aid in agricultural and domestic work. In this paper I would like to discuss slavery within the Roman Empire. I would like to focus on three major aspects of slavery how the slaves were obtained, what role in society did slaves have, and how could slaves gain their freedom.


Accusation of slaves came to the Romans by their conquering of other nations. Roman territorial conquest yielded most of the conquered nations citizens and forced them to become slaves. “To enslave an enemy rather than to slay him was a device to reap his labour, but it was also a way of enjoying a perpetual triumph over him; it was at once a humiliation to him and a punishment for his presumption in taking up arms” (Barrow p ). As new land was acquired, the population of the area became the property of the Roman Empire as well. Within this accusation the fallen captives gave slavery its believed legitimacy. “There was, for instance, a pervasive set of oppositions inherited from Athenian thought of things thus, slavery is to freedom as incontinence is to self-control and emotions are to bodily appetite; the slaves is to the master as body is to mind, as woman is to man, and child to father” (Fitzgerald p 8). The captives of the land joined the other slaves of the republic who had been stationed in this position by the same situation as the captured slaves, or because they had failed to enlist in the army or register in the census. Slavery was either a result of captivity or punishment for a rejection of the governmental rule.


Once the slaves were acquired, they were sold at slave auctions under the jurisdiction of aediles. Slaves with special talents were sold for higher prices, and female slaves were cheaper than males. It was cheaper to purchase new slaves than to breed more, and so the slave auctions were always highly populated and well attended.


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Slaves were divided into categories of either public or private servants. The public slaves served the governmental state or the public. They were jailers, executioners, slaves to the magistrates and priests, and construction workers of public buildings. The private slaves included those slaves who served in the household or in the fields. The household slaves were organized into a hierarchy of duty and position. The ordinarii were the heads of housekeeping in the house, and the stewards and butlers worked under their command. The vulgares provided any other service needed in the house, and the educated slaves, or literati, were the readers and translators. In the beginnings of the slave trade, there were a small number of slaves used for personal and household attendants. These slaves were used mainly for the purposes of the fieldwork, but as the Empire grew, the use of domestic slaves increased rapidly


The Roman slaves were treated as members of the family unit in the earlier days of slavery; their punishments were mild, and they were given holidays from their regular duties on certain occasions and festivals. “On the Festival of Saturn, the slaves were allowed to wear the badge of freedom for the day, they were given freedom of speech, a banquet where their masters served them, and they were given the clothes of their masters to wear” (Barrow p 5). Slaves were often buried in the familial plots of their masters, and masters would be punished severely for the murder of their slaves. Families of slaves could not be separated, but there was no legal relation between a father and his son. “The children born to a slave mother were also slaves, and slaves could hold no property as all their acquisitions belonged to their master” (Barrow 41). It was beneficial for the masters to treat their slaves well. According to Varro, a prolific Roman author and an elite land owner, “They are made to take more interest in their work by being treated more liberally in respect either of food, or of more clothing, or punishment inflicted on them in some way, their loyalty and kindly feeling to the master may be restored by the consolation derived from such measures” (Bailkey, Lim p 47).


“Runaway slaves, fugitvii, were branded on their forehead, and the later treatment of slaves included whippings, requirement of the slaves to work in fetters, and beatings with sticks” (Barrow 47). Their food was rationed. The manumission (freedom from slavery) of slaves was both a personal and governmental issue. “The slaves could be freed as a reward for a great feat of bravery or service, as a punishment to the master of the slaves, or if the slave was extremely aged, as it was cheaper to buy a new slave rather than to feed them” (Borrow 8). Slaves then joined the rest of society as their social ranking was raised by this freedom, and they would not be at all limited or hindered because of their previous status. There were three ways for a slave to receive its manumission. One way was the census. During the census taken every five years, the father of the Roman household was required to list all of his possessions. Everyhing in the family fell into two categories - person or property. Slaves were typically denoted in the “property” column. To manumit a slave, a master only had to place the slave into the person column. The slave would then be noted in the Roman census as a free person. Another way was vindicta. In a rather peculiar court procedure, a master could release his slaves in a ceremony known as vindicta. In this form of manumission in court, a master publicly denied that a slave was his possession. If no person objected to this, the slave was set free. The third was testamentum. This method is also known as the Last will and Testament. A Roman father could leave in his will a request to set any or all of his slaves free upon his death. This was the most common type of manumission.


Even though a slave was freed it didn’t necessarily guarantee them any less hardships. Freed slaves found it very difficult to find the idealistic opportunities that came with Roman citizenship. “In reality the ex-slave forfeited upon manumission the economic support of his former master and henceforward had to rely on his own efforts in order to provide basic necessities; it was possible, therefore, that hardship in the former slave’s life could replace a certain material security” (Bradley p 8). Despite of these uncertainties slaves still wanted to gain their freedom and rid themselves of their slavery.


Due to archeological conquests, a great deal of knowledge can be gathered about the general slave system but little is known about the everyday lives of slaves. However, enough is known to give a general overview of a slaves lives. It is understood that slaves performed a wide variety of different jobs, ranging from economic to field labor roles, to being forced into gladiatorial combat like Spartacus. With this span of employment also came great differences in living conditions. It is important to divide slaves into two categories field slaves and domestic slaves. There was a strict hierarchy that was understood by both slaves and their owners, and was directly reflected in the way that they were treated. “This division was one of vital status as it was considered punishment or degradation for a house slave to be sent to the fields” (Barrow p 77).


Slaves in Roman society were given tasks that we today may think of as strange. Many were able to purchase things in the names of their masters, navigate their masters ships and even oversee the plantation. It was of great importance for the land owner to pick an honorable slave to oversee his plantation. Making up the largest percentage of the slave population were the field hands, or familia rustica, who constituted the major work force on the large agricultural and mining farms of the Roman aristocracy. Large amounts of field hands were force to work in extreme conditions for long periods of time. As a result of this incredible work force the field slaves provided Rome with its greatest source of economic wealth. This was especially crucial in the later republic as expansion became less and less profitable.


For at least two reasons, the life of a field slave was a very strenuous and difficult one. First, because aristocratic owners rarely visited their estates, and only spoke with their paid men when they did, the common field slave almost never came into contact with his owner. As a result of this, these slaves were not given the opportunity to befriend their masters as house slaves were, which made the possibility of a better job or manumission much less likely. There were, however, chances for a slave to advance in his rural station to a more prominent and, consequently, beneficial situation. The majority of positions for rural slaves were in the fields, the most stressful that could be obtained. There were some however, such as a diaetorius, or valet, who was present solely to attend to the masters materialistic needs.


Secondly, rural slaves were forced to do work that was both physically and emotionally straining. Field hands were given a life expectancy of about 15 to 0 years due to the physical exhaustion they encountered on a daily basis. Among the jobs they were expected to perform were as ploughmen, hunters, ditchers and forester. Slaves were expected to work all day on very little food and water, and were whipped or beaten when they did not. The extreme nature of the environment in which rural slaves lived is best exemplified by the number of slave revolts which resulted from rural area as opposed to urban areas. Urban slaves had very little to complain about and revolt would have only led to their execution, whereas for rural slaves death was the outcome no matter which route they chose to exercise.


If one was to be a slave, to work in the household of an upper-class aristocrat was ideal. Under many circumstances, the oldest and most trusted slaves were considered to be a part of the family. Furthermore, urban slaves were given better food and clothing in addition to their daily tasks being much less demanding. Urban slaves were chosen for several reasons, but many for their skills such as sculpture or cobbling. There were slaves, especially young boys, “who were employed only for their looks as it was considered a symbol of wealth and status to keep beautiful children as slaves” (Barrow p 88). There were, of course, many other jobs for domestic slaves such as cook and footman. Some households were known to have as many as fifty different types of slaves, who would perform all sorts of different duties.


From all stand points, house slaves were given many more opportunities than those of the field capacity. “Cooks were allowed to take home leftovers from their masters table, children were given clothing made of fine materials, simply because house slaves were considered, for the most part, to be a reflection of the master himself, and offered a prime avenue to further display his status” (Barrow 88).


All urban slaves, however, did not experience the surroundings of luxury that the fortuitous were able to enjoy. Many slaves that lived in urban areas were property of the government, kept to aid in the erection of public buildings and roads. The atmosphere in which these slaves were kept rivaled that of rural slaves in work expectancy and living conditions.


In conclusion, this paper has highlighted the importance and the necessity that slave labor had on the success and longevity of the Roman Empire. We saw how the land masters of the empire relied completely on the obedience and effectiveness of its slave forces. It explained that imperialism allowed the empire to expand and increase in its ability to supply its labor force with the land and the slaves needed to be productive. It explained that slaves were allowed to obtain freedom and gain Roman citizenship and that they were treated fairly most of the time.





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