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Old 05-05-2012, 01:09 AM
AK84 AK84 is online now
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Roman slavery question

The thread on blacks in Roman empire reminded me of something I once read ages ago, which has always rankled me.

It stated that once in a Roman slave market a Roman centurion (depending on his exact grade he could be equivalent from a modern Lieutenant to a Colonel) went to purchase a slave. One of the "items" was a woman who had been captured in one of the wars and he was the highest bidder. However it transpired that as she was of high birth and he was not, in order to complete the purchase, the centurion had to agree to free and marry her (Centurions were permitted to marry unlike legionarys).

I thought it was bullshit when I read it (I was 12) and it still seems like that today. Could something like this be likely or standard (I accept that it could have been a one time thing depending on the quirks of the people involved)?

That said, how did Romans employ high born and noble slaves from conquered lands? I know politically important people could be simply executed publically and more influential people can be held as hostages/married off to some personage (as was done with Cleopatra's children) and a skilled perosn can make a useful slave. But what would you do with a twentysomething woman who has never done housework in her life. Outside of use as a sex slave, not much.
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Old 05-05-2012, 02:34 AM
MarcusF MarcusF is offline
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Just to take your final question, remember in the ancient world even a high born daughter of a ruler would be expected to know how to weave cloth, make clothes etc.

On the wider point, however pampered, its not that hard to reach someone to scrub floors!
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Old 05-05-2012, 07:42 AM
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Our image of slaves is formed from cotton-pickin' or galley slaves, whipped every hour on the hour.

In fact, the slaves of ancient Rome and thereabouts were simply the household entourage, from the bookkeeper to the floor scrubbers - the ones that would be the "hired help" in an old British aristocratic household. In particular, there were a number of educated people, particularly Greeks, who were the household manager, bookkeeper, tutor to the children, etc.

In the days of minimal health care, etc., the best description I heard of people who look "used" was "they look like they've been carrying an anvil across the desert all their lives". Plus, the women have probably had several episodes of childbirth by the time they are 25 and had more births than remaining teeth. So a posh aristocratic type would probably be fine eye candy to simply be a serving wench during dinner parties, answering the door and showing in guests, etc. A guy who could afford to bid for that could likely already have a few servants/slaves to do the floor scrubbing and baking, although no doubt Her Highness would be obliged to help in some situations.

According to one thing I read, having sex with the slaves was "very bad form" so no doubt it happened, but it was not "civilized behaviour". When one Roman wanted to insult another, this was apparently one of the insults that was tossed around.

Slaves had different rights from our image of the American south. They could own things, accumulate money, and had the ability if they saved enough to buy their freedom. Similarly (like Ben Hur) slaves might be freed and lavished with favours by their patrons. Ben Hur, IIRC, was a galley slave and saved a Roman's life during a battle - after which he was freed and adopted by the fellow.

Last edited by md2000; 05-05-2012 at 07:43 AM.
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Old 05-05-2012, 09:23 AM
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IIRC one of the Tombs at Arebia in South Shields in the UK was made by a Roman officer for his wife, who had been a Princess of some tribe and who was clearly much loved despite having at one time been his slave.
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Old 05-05-2012, 09:35 AM
md2000 md2000 is online now
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Salvery was something that could happen to anyone if their home country was on the wrong side of a war; or if they became too poor to feed themselves. Slavery did not automatically mean "less human" nor was it apparently a stigma to social progress for a freed man or his children.

As mentioned by others above, the Roman technology and social progress was no better than many of the lands around them, so other than military prowess, the Romans had no illusions that they were conquering "lesser" peoples. Some slaves, like educated Greeks, were looked upon as more cultured than the Romans themselves. (The Romans loved to copy things of Greek Culture, imitating their architecture, statues, and even pretending Rome was an offshoot of the battle for Troy...)
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Old 05-05-2012, 09:37 AM
TonySinclair TonySinclair is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
Slaves had different rights from our image of the American south. They could own things, accumulate money, and had the ability if they saved enough to buy their freedom. Similarly (like Ben Hur) slaves might be freed and lavished with favours by their patrons. Ben Hur, IIRC, was a galley slave and saved a Roman's life during a battle - after which he was freed and adopted by the fellow.
I'm no historian, so I'll just put this out for the experts to comment on, but from my reading, all the things you list were not "rights," they were indulgences that might or might not be allowed by the owner. If your master didn't give you permission to earn money, you couldn't. And if your master decided to have you crucified for dropping a vase, you were.

Last edited by TonySinclair; 05-05-2012 at 09:39 AM.
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Old 05-05-2012, 09:43 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
Our image of slaves is formed from cotton-pickin' or galley slaves, whipped every hour on the hour.

In fact, the slaves of ancient Rome and thereabouts were simply the household entourage, from the bookkeeper to the floor scrubbers - the ones that would be the "hired help" in an old British aristocratic household. In particular, there were a number of educated people, particularly Greeks, who were the household manager, bookkeeper, tutor to the children, etc.
You are describing the situation of household slaves, which was very different to the majority who worked in mines and on farms. Life for these workers was certainly brutal and short, with none of the opportunities you describe to earn and own money and ultimately buy their freedom.
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Old 05-05-2012, 09:50 AM
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Originally Posted by TonySinclair View Post
I'm no historian, so I'll just put this out for the experts to comment on, but from my reading, all the things you list were not "rights," they were indulgences that might or might not be allowed by the owner. If your master didn't give you permission to earn money, you couldn't. And if your master decided to have you crucified for dropping a vase, you were.
Although I agree with the crux of your post, I might have to take a different view on the bolded. At least from Augustus onwards AFAIK it was illegal to kill a slave.
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Old 05-05-2012, 10:07 AM
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Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
Our image of slaves is formed from cotton-pickin' or galley slaves, whipped every hour on the hour.
Of course slavery is a very bad thing, but to state "whipped every hour on the hour"
is a bit much.

Slaves were typically a very expensive investment. As long as the slaves were working and making money for the owners, I would think that most of the owners at least did the minimum to take care of their slaves and keep them somewhat healthy.
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Old 05-05-2012, 10:20 AM
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Originally Posted by simple homer View Post
Of course slavery is a very bad thing, but to state "whipped every hour on the hour"
is a bit much.

hy·per·bo·le    [hahy-pur-buh-lee]

noun Rhetoric .
1. obvious and intentional exaggeration.

2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”
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Old 05-05-2012, 10:27 AM
hibernicus hibernicus is offline
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Originally Posted by simple homer View Post
Slaves were typically a very expensive investment. As long as the slaves were working and making money for the owners, I would think that most of the owners at least did the minimum to take care of their slaves and keep them somewhat healthy.
The economics, specifically the replacement cost, largely determine how well slaves are treated. In the latter days of slavery in both the Roman empire and the Americas, there was significant scarcity, so it made economic sense to keep them healthy. In other times and circumstances, unfortunately, it made economic sense to work them to death.
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Old 05-05-2012, 10:42 AM
TonySinclair TonySinclair is offline
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Although I agree with the crux of your post, I might have to take a different view on the bolded. At least from Augustus onwards AFAIK it was illegal to kill a slave.
You made me curious enough to look it up. If this article on Roman slaves is correct, it was indeed made illegal to kill a slave without just cause, but it was done during the reign of Antoninus Pius, who became emperor in 138 CE.

And I have to wonder whether, if you were rich or powerful enough, perceived insolence or impertinence would be considered just cause. Insolence or impertinence is even today a court martial offense in the military.
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Old 05-05-2012, 04:33 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
According to one thing I read, having sex with the slaves was "very bad form" so no doubt it happened, but it was not "civilized behaviour". When one Roman wanted to insult another, this was apparently one of the insults that was tossed around.
I think there's a poem by Catullus - certainly a Roman poet - in which the author invites a friend over and asks him to bring his new slavegirl for hanky-panky.
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Old 05-05-2012, 07:41 PM
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I know the poem you're thinking of, and IIRC he asks him to bring over "a pretty girl or two", but the status of the pretty girls wasn't specified, and the reason they would be brought is left to the imagination. The focus of the poem is the banquet (which he also hopes his friend will bring), not on the company kept during it.
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Old 05-06-2012, 06:56 AM
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Many colonial magistrates were half Romans and native, and I take it many of them were the bastards of Roman soldiers and local women and in the case of Septimus Severus, a Roman mother and Libiyan father which undoubtedly had Cato the elder spinning in his grave.
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Old 05-06-2012, 10:48 AM
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hi,
I am an International Baccalaureate student writing my Extended Essay (basically this is a european-styled 4000 word research paper).
My thesis is "The strength of a system of government/societal organization is inversely proportional to the depth and breadth of social divisions/classes/castes in a society."
The two societies I am comparing happen to be Ancient Rome and 18th thru 20th century India. One this note, I am interested if you guys have any sources that you find interesting/helpful regarding slavery/social status in rome.

Thanks so much!
sam
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Old 05-07-2012, 07:27 AM
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Many colonial magistrates were half Romans and native, and I take it many of them were the bastards of Roman soldiers and local women and in the case of Septimus Severus, a Roman mother and Libiyan father which undoubtedly had Cato the elder spinning in his grave.
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Originally Posted by shill7 View Post
hi,
I am an International Baccalaureate student writing my Extended Essay (basically this is a european-styled 4000 word research paper).
My thesis is "The strength of a system of government/societal organization is inversely proportional to the depth and breadth of social divisions/classes/castes in a society."
The two societies I am comparing happen to be Ancient Rome and 18th thru 20th century India. One this note, I am interested if you guys have any sources that you find interesting/helpful regarding slavery/social status in rome.

Thanks so much!
sam
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Old 05-07-2012, 08:31 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
Salvery was something that could happen to anyone if their home country was on the wrong side of a war; or if they became too poor to feed themselves. Slavery did not automatically mean "less human" nor was it apparently a stigma to social progress for a freed man or his children.
Many stellae (funerary monuments, tombstones) mention that the person buried there is a "libertus", a freed slave: it would have been the time's way of saying "a self-made man". Some of the ones I've seen were ordered (and 'signed') by the widow(er), who often was a libertus as well.
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