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318

A Job From Hell | Slaves in Ancient Rome

Nov 25, 2022
History
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22
minutes

Ancient Rome was powered by the blood, sweat and tears of millions of slaves.

In this episode, we look at what life was like for really like people unlucky enough to be sold into slavery in Ancient Rome.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on Ancient Rome.

[00:00:29] In part one we looked at the politics of Ancient Rome and in part three we will look at the unfortunate and gory lives of gladiators

[00:00:39] But part two, in today’s episode we are going to be talking about slavery in ancient Rome.

[00:00:46] It is believed that slaves made up around 20% of the entire population of the Roman empire and the entire function of society and growth of the economy became reliant upon slave labour.

[00:00:59] Despite their vital role, they were considered the lowest people in society with no freedom or rights, they were simply the property of their master.

[00:01:09] And today, we will tell their story.

[00:01:12] OK then, let’s talk about ancient Roman slaves.

[00:01:18] Imagine the horror of being taken from your home, family, everything you know, at the hands of fearsome soldiers who have marched into your town, killed your leaders and now threaten to kill you if you do not obey.

[00:01:32] Your only option to survive is to do as instructed and submit to the Roman who has a sword held to your chest. 

[00:01:41] You go with him and are put into chains before being pushed into a horse and carriage and taken away from everything you know.

[00:01:51] You eventually arrive at a crowded and chaotic market where you’re stripped naked and chained to a bunch of strangers, none who speak your language. 

[00:02:02] Then a sign is put around your neck advertising your price. 

[00:02:07] In the eyes of your captors, and those examining you at the market, you are a mere object for sale. 

[00:02:14] And this is how you feel, standing there while passersby decide whether you’re worthy of the asking price. 

[00:02:22] From the moment you were taken by the soldier, your rights and freedom were taken from you. 

[00:02:28] You can be legally tortured and beaten, you cannot own property, your life will now be completely dictated by whoever buys you.

[00:02:37] All you can do is stand terrified and alone, waiting to see whose property you will become, and praying that someday, just someday, you might regain your freedom. 

[00:02:50] Whether you had been a successful business owner, a skilled weaver, a loving parent or a convicted criminal, this could be your fate if you were captured by the Romans during war. 

[00:03:02] The fate of a slave.

[00:03:05] Slavery was present from the very start of the Republic when, as legend has it, Rome’s founder, Romulus, gave fathers the right to sell their children into slavery for financial gain.

[00:03:19] However, Rome was not the first ancient city to use slaves and throughout the ancient world, from Greece to Egypt to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, slavery was common practice.

[00:03:33] Clearly, if you try to put aside the heinous moral element for a minute, it was convenient to have someone to work for you for free.

[00:03:43] Although it might seem unthinkable to us, perhaps it’s easier to understand if you try to imagine that slaves were considered more like objects than human beings.

[00:03:54] They had no rights or citizenship which meant they could not vote or own property and unlike normal Roman citizens, slaves could be tortured and be killed without being given a trial.

[00:04:07] Despite all this, there is little evidence to suggest that the average Roman questioned slavery.

[00:04:15] For many, it was simply a fact of life and many believed that in order to have freedom, there must also be the opposite, slavery.

[00:04:25] The Greek philosopher Aristotle even proposed that slavery was a natural thing and that human beings were born into two types: slaves and non-slaves.

[00:04:37] As unbelievable as this might sound to us today, these were the real beliefs of the Romans so there was never really any widespread calls for the abolishment of slavery throughout the Republic or the Empire.

[00:04:52] But Rome was different from other civilisations, not due to Roman beliefs around slaves but because of the sheer amount of them and their presence through the land. 

[00:05:04] They became a huge free workforce that Roman society relied upon.

[00:05:10] Although it had existed since the birth of Rome, the slave industry first saw an immense boom during a period called the Punic Wars. 

[00:05:19] The first war alone, in which Rome defeated the Carthaginians from North Africa in 241 BC, gave Rome at least 75,000 war prisoners who were then taken as slaves.

[00:05:33] These numbers only grew when Rome eventually defeated the city of Carthage in 168 BC capturing 250,000 Carthaginians who ended up as slaves. 

[00:05:46] By the end of the 1st century BC, it’s estimated that there were between 1-2 million slaves, which was about 20 to 30% of the population of the Italian peninsula.

[00:05:59] If we are to try to find one positive element of slavery, or at least one element in which Roman slavery was more equal than more more modern forms of slavery, it is that Roman slavery was not based on race, it wasn’t based on the colour of one’s skin.

[00:06:16] Indeed, there were slaves from many places like Greece, Germany, North Africa and Syria.

[00:06:22] Even Romans could become slaves, as citizens who committed violent crimes could be punished by having their citizenship removed, and then being sold into slavery.

[00:06:33] And shockingly, it wasn’t just adults. Innocent children could face the same fate, as parents could sell their children into slavery, following the law laid down by Romulus in Rome’s earliest days. 

[00:06:48] Sadly, any child born to slave parents was automatically considered a slave too.

[00:06:54] Some people were also forced to sell themselves into slavery if, for example, they were facing financial difficulties.

[00:07:03] These instances though, of Romans either selling themselves as slaves or selling their children as slaves, were far less frequent than people who were sold into slavery after being captured and kept as a prisoner of war.

[00:07:18] So what would happen once they were captured?

[00:07:21] Well as you heard at the start, prisoners would be swiftly transported to markets where they would be sold like animals. One market on the Greek island of Delos had up to 10,000 slaves for sale in a single day.

[00:07:38] Stood naked and chained up, a slave would have a sign hanging from their neck to advertise their price, as these prices could vary quite a bit.

[00:07:49] Men usually cost more than women who were, in turn, more expensive than children. But within these groups prices really depended on the individual’s skills.

[00:08:01] Also as women would be able to provide a slave owner with more slaves by producing children, women who were unable to conceive were much cheaper, they were valued far less.

[00:08:14] Shockingly, if a slave owner had not been told about a woman’s fertility issues they could claim a refund and return the woman to the market.

[00:08:24] This goes to show just how badly these people were viewed as simply material items to their slave owners.

[00:08:32] Nonetheless, as entire populations were captured the skills of slaves varied hugely, and there would be people who were trained professionals from every walk of life, including doctors, accountants, hairdressers and craftsman.

[00:08:48] For those who had these types of skills, their price was far higher than those without, who would go into manual labour in the countryside. 

[00:08:57] Records surviving from the first three centuries AD show that the average price for an unskilled slave was around 2000 sesterces. In contrast, a person skilled in cultivating grapevines, for example, cost between 6000 and 8000 sesterces.

[00:09:17] For context, a Roman foot soldier received a yearly salary of 900 sesterces, an army commander was paid 15 times more, while a senator had to have properties worth at least 1 million sesterces.

[00:09:31] In other words, an unskilled slave would cost just over twice the average salary for a Roman soldier, and a Roman senator would have to have property worth about 500 unskilled slaves.

[00:09:46] It's not surprising, then, that 49% of slaves were owned by the patricians or senators, who made up just 1.5% of Rome’s entire population at the start of the Republic. 

[00:10:00] One particularly wealthy Roman consul, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who you may remember from the last episode, had so many slaves that he kept 500 just for carrying out building works on his properties.

[00:10:14] However, it was not only the patricians or senators who owned slaves and it was also common for less wealthy Romans such as merchants, craftsman and retired soldiers to own at least one slave.

[00:10:28] In the city, slaves could work alongside plebians, normal people, in settings like libraries, markets and public baths. They would manage the houses of the rich, cleaning, looking after children, dressing their masters, and importantly, cooking, which was another skill that was highly prized, highly sought after

[00:10:50] Some of the elite even bought slaves to follow them around in an entourage, a group, and this became a bit of a status symbol.

[00:11:00] But aside from these roles, some slaves were kept for entertainment purposes and became actors or gladiators.

[00:11:09] The strongest and fittest men were often selected to become gladiators, and they would be specially trained to fight in amphitheatres like the Colosseum. 

[00:11:19] Gladiators can even be said to be celebrity slaves due to the immense popularity of the sport, which we will go into in much greater detail in part three of this mini-series.

[00:11:31] But, contrary to what you might think, there was a fate worse than becoming a gladiator.

[00:11:36] And that was those slaves who became “actors”.

[00:11:41] These were usually criminals, and their fate could be extremely grim.

[00:11:46] Yes, while nowadays thousands of people flock to Los Angeles hoping to make it big as a Hollywood actor, you certainly didn’t want to become an actor in Ancient Rome.

[00:11:58] Why, you might be thinking? 

[00:12:00] Well, actors were involved in gladiatorial battles, with plays being put on between the main event, the actual battles between the gladiators. 

[00:12:09] But these actors wouldn’t fight each other, they weren’t gladiators.

[00:12:14] Their job would be to play the role of a character from an ancient story.

[00:12:20] And they had to follow the script. 

[00:12:22] When their character died, so did they.

[00:12:26] This meant that actors would be killed in the most dramatic and horrible ways, all for the entertainment of the audiences. 

[00:12:34] For example, a slave was burnt alive as he performed the death of Hercules who, in classical mythology, died after throwing himself on a fire.

[00:12:46] Another example is of an actor who was playing the mythological figure Orpheus, and as in the myth, the actor was torn apart by wild animals.

[00:12:57] These types of roles were, clearly, some of the worst for slaves.

[00:13:02] But it wasn’t all this bad.

[00:13:05] There were many different roles within Roman society and a slave’s life would vary greatly depending on which role they were given.

[00:13:13] For example, those who were servants within the households of the Roman elite and whose masters were not abusive, had a relatively comfortable life.

[00:13:25] Nonetheless, there were still an incredibly large amount of slaves who would suffer greatly and who had a particularly arduous, a particularly tough, fate.

[00:13:36] One such category was slaves who were put to work as manual labourers. 

[00:13:42] Agricultural, or farming, slaves made up half of all Roman slaves and for these people, life was extremely harsh

[00:13:52] They were often subject to horrific treatment from their masters, being whipped, overworked, and starved.

[00:14:00] The Roman historian Cato wrote in his guide to slave ownership that slaves should merely be given flour to make bread; however, if they were chained up, an owner should just give them the bread directly. He also advised that slaves be given minimal amounts of wine.

[00:14:19] Clearly, if you are required to work non-stop in the field, this is not an adequate diet.

[00:14:26] Even worse than the farms or the fields, though, were the mines and quarries, where slaves worked under the ground. 

[00:14:34] Here, conditions were so bad that the life expectancy of a slave was just a few months. 

[00:14:41] Down in the mines, workers spent hours underground in hot, dark, cramped tunnels which were incredibly unstable

[00:14:51] As they dug for gold, copper or tin, the structures would often crack and collapse, crushing all who were inside.

[00:15:01] Working in such roles was such a dreaded job that the historian Diodorus of Sicily recorded in the 1st century BC that many workers in the mines wished they would die sooner, rather than continue living in such extreme suffering.

[00:15:17] It would typically be men who were tasked with working in these types of heavy manual labour roles, so women normally avoided being crushed to death in the mines.

[00:15:29] But this, of course, does not mean that female slaves had it much better.

[00:15:34] A common activity that unskilled female slaves were forced to do was prostitution, requiring them to live in horrible conditions in filthy brothels in the city. 

[00:15:45] Tragically, many women were forced into prostitution before they even reached puberty and they would suffer a lifetime of abuse as once a woman became a prostitute, she was a prostitute for life, with there usually being no way to leave the role.

[00:16:03] Women who were sex slaves as either prostitutes or concubines, who served only one rich man, were commonly raped, beaten and sometimes even killed. 

[00:16:15] Understandably, whether forced to work in deadly conditions in a mine or subjected to life as a sex slave, there are plenty of reports of slaves trying to run away.

[00:16:26] But their punishment, if caught, was brutal.

[00:16:30] They would be hanged, or worse, crucified, nailed to a cross and left to die like Christ in the Bible.

[00:16:39] Some owners were so paranoid about their slaves leaving that to deter them from even attempting, they branded them on the forehead, tattooed them with a hot iron, so they would be instantly recognisable and easier to catch.

[00:16:56] And if a slave murdered their master, it was not only that individual who would face death but the entire household of slaves.

[00:17:06] Eventually, conditions for slaves got so bad that, despite the punishments they would face if they stood up to their masters, many decided that it was worth the risk.

[00:17:17] Beginning in 135 BC and continuing on and off until 71 BC, there were a series of rebellions called the Servile Wars. The most famous of these was the third and final rebellion led by the infamous Spartacus, which you can learn more about in episode 193, by the way.

[00:17:40] And while these rebellions were massive events, with Spartacus thought to have united over 100,000 slaves, it’s perhaps surprising that there were not more uprisings, considering the massive numbers of slaves throughout Rome’s history.

[00:17:56] Indeed, it was certainly a known risk to the elite.

[00:18:00] A proposal had once been made to the senate that slaves wear different clothes to free citizens so they could be more easily identified, but this idea was rejected on the basis that if slaves realised how many others were slaves, they could be inspired to rebel.

[00:18:20] But despite this terrible treatment and the almost zero rights accorded to slaves, as Rome developed, the rights of slaves improved, albeit, slightly. 

[00:18:31] In the fourth and fifth decades of the first century AD, emperor Claudius declared that a slave abandoned by his owner was then freed; after him, emperor Nero, who was not exactly known for being a kind-hearted man, allowed slaves to complain about their masters in a court of law.

[00:18:51] A century later, after the emperor Antonius Pius, it was declared that if an owner killed their slave without good reason, they would be charged with homicide, with murder.

[00:19:03] Apart from being abandoned by their owner, though, there were other ways that a small amount of lucky slaves, usually over the age of 30, were able to gain their freedom, and become a “freeman”.

[00:19:18] One way was for an owner to willingly free a slave.

[00:19:23] Cicero, for example, freed his secretary, who was a slave but had become a well-loved member of his family.

[00:19:31] The other way to become a freeman was by buying your freedom. 

[00:19:36] Now, you may be wondering, how could a slave purchase freedom when they were not paid and were not allowed property.

[00:19:44] Well, some slaves were sort of paid, as they were given small portions of their owner’s money as if it were their own; this was called a peculium and over many years a slave could save this up and use it to buy their freedom.

[00:20:00] For enslaved women, a more common way to gain freedom was through marriage to their owner, which was typically done so that the owner could have legitimate children.

[00:20:12] When slaves were freed, they were finally classed as citizens and could own property, enter marriages and even vote, if they were male, of course. 

[00:20:22] Unfortunately, the only escape from slavery for the vast majority of slaves was death.

[00:20:29] And due to their status in Roman society and their lack of material possessions, little remains of Roman slaves to this day and most of what we do know of their life comes from the writings of wealthy historians, who would have been slave-owners themselves.

[00:20:47] So, the life of a Roman slave was deeply unfair, often horrifically painful, sometimes tragically short, filled with misery, but for some, perhaps there were rare moments of hope. 

[00:21:00] We will never really know.

[00:21:03] Ancient Rome was, clearly, a highly advanced and admirable civilisation in a plethora of ways.

[00:21:10] But much of it was made possible by its most barbarous and vile element, slavery, which, for all of the amazing innovations to come out of Rome, will forever be its darkest stain.

[00:21:25] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Slaves in Ancient Rome. 

[00:21:32] The title of this episode was “a job from hell”, and I think you would still be hard pressed to find a less pleasant way to spend your life than as a slave in ancient Rome.

[00:21:43] As a reminder, this was part two of a three-part mini-series on ancient Rome. 

[00:21:48] Part one was on the politics of ancient Rome, and next up it’ll be the bloody lives of another unfortunate group, gladiators.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:02] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on Ancient Rome.

[00:00:29] In part one we looked at the politics of Ancient Rome and in part three we will look at the unfortunate and gory lives of gladiators

[00:00:39] But part two, in today’s episode we are going to be talking about slavery in ancient Rome.

[00:00:46] It is believed that slaves made up around 20% of the entire population of the Roman empire and the entire function of society and growth of the economy became reliant upon slave labour.

[00:00:59] Despite their vital role, they were considered the lowest people in society with no freedom or rights, they were simply the property of their master.

[00:01:09] And today, we will tell their story.

[00:01:12] OK then, let’s talk about ancient Roman slaves.

[00:01:18] Imagine the horror of being taken from your home, family, everything you know, at the hands of fearsome soldiers who have marched into your town, killed your leaders and now threaten to kill you if you do not obey.

[00:01:32] Your only option to survive is to do as instructed and submit to the Roman who has a sword held to your chest. 

[00:01:41] You go with him and are put into chains before being pushed into a horse and carriage and taken away from everything you know.

[00:01:51] You eventually arrive at a crowded and chaotic market where you’re stripped naked and chained to a bunch of strangers, none who speak your language. 

[00:02:02] Then a sign is put around your neck advertising your price. 

[00:02:07] In the eyes of your captors, and those examining you at the market, you are a mere object for sale. 

[00:02:14] And this is how you feel, standing there while passersby decide whether you’re worthy of the asking price. 

[00:02:22] From the moment you were taken by the soldier, your rights and freedom were taken from you. 

[00:02:28] You can be legally tortured and beaten, you cannot own property, your life will now be completely dictated by whoever buys you.

[00:02:37] All you can do is stand terrified and alone, waiting to see whose property you will become, and praying that someday, just someday, you might regain your freedom. 

[00:02:50] Whether you had been a successful business owner, a skilled weaver, a loving parent or a convicted criminal, this could be your fate if you were captured by the Romans during war. 

[00:03:02] The fate of a slave.

[00:03:05] Slavery was present from the very start of the Republic when, as legend has it, Rome’s founder, Romulus, gave fathers the right to sell their children into slavery for financial gain.

[00:03:19] However, Rome was not the first ancient city to use slaves and throughout the ancient world, from Greece to Egypt to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, slavery was common practice.

[00:03:33] Clearly, if you try to put aside the heinous moral element for a minute, it was convenient to have someone to work for you for free.

[00:03:43] Although it might seem unthinkable to us, perhaps it’s easier to understand if you try to imagine that slaves were considered more like objects than human beings.

[00:03:54] They had no rights or citizenship which meant they could not vote or own property and unlike normal Roman citizens, slaves could be tortured and be killed without being given a trial.

[00:04:07] Despite all this, there is little evidence to suggest that the average Roman questioned slavery.

[00:04:15] For many, it was simply a fact of life and many believed that in order to have freedom, there must also be the opposite, slavery.

[00:04:25] The Greek philosopher Aristotle even proposed that slavery was a natural thing and that human beings were born into two types: slaves and non-slaves.

[00:04:37] As unbelievable as this might sound to us today, these were the real beliefs of the Romans so there was never really any widespread calls for the abolishment of slavery throughout the Republic or the Empire.

[00:04:52] But Rome was different from other civilisations, not due to Roman beliefs around slaves but because of the sheer amount of them and their presence through the land. 

[00:05:04] They became a huge free workforce that Roman society relied upon.

[00:05:10] Although it had existed since the birth of Rome, the slave industry first saw an immense boom during a period called the Punic Wars. 

[00:05:19] The first war alone, in which Rome defeated the Carthaginians from North Africa in 241 BC, gave Rome at least 75,000 war prisoners who were then taken as slaves.

[00:05:33] These numbers only grew when Rome eventually defeated the city of Carthage in 168 BC capturing 250,000 Carthaginians who ended up as slaves. 

[00:05:46] By the end of the 1st century BC, it’s estimated that there were between 1-2 million slaves, which was about 20 to 30% of the population of the Italian peninsula.

[00:05:59] If we are to try to find one positive element of slavery, or at least one element in which Roman slavery was more equal than more more modern forms of slavery, it is that Roman slavery was not based on race, it wasn’t based on the colour of one’s skin.

[00:06:16] Indeed, there were slaves from many places like Greece, Germany, North Africa and Syria.

[00:06:22] Even Romans could become slaves, as citizens who committed violent crimes could be punished by having their citizenship removed, and then being sold into slavery.

[00:06:33] And shockingly, it wasn’t just adults. Innocent children could face the same fate, as parents could sell their children into slavery, following the law laid down by Romulus in Rome’s earliest days. 

[00:06:48] Sadly, any child born to slave parents was automatically considered a slave too.

[00:06:54] Some people were also forced to sell themselves into slavery if, for example, they were facing financial difficulties.

[00:07:03] These instances though, of Romans either selling themselves as slaves or selling their children as slaves, were far less frequent than people who were sold into slavery after being captured and kept as a prisoner of war.

[00:07:18] So what would happen once they were captured?

[00:07:21] Well as you heard at the start, prisoners would be swiftly transported to markets where they would be sold like animals. One market on the Greek island of Delos had up to 10,000 slaves for sale in a single day.

[00:07:38] Stood naked and chained up, a slave would have a sign hanging from their neck to advertise their price, as these prices could vary quite a bit.

[00:07:49] Men usually cost more than women who were, in turn, more expensive than children. But within these groups prices really depended on the individual’s skills.

[00:08:01] Also as women would be able to provide a slave owner with more slaves by producing children, women who were unable to conceive were much cheaper, they were valued far less.

[00:08:14] Shockingly, if a slave owner had not been told about a woman’s fertility issues they could claim a refund and return the woman to the market.

[00:08:24] This goes to show just how badly these people were viewed as simply material items to their slave owners.

[00:08:32] Nonetheless, as entire populations were captured the skills of slaves varied hugely, and there would be people who were trained professionals from every walk of life, including doctors, accountants, hairdressers and craftsman.

[00:08:48] For those who had these types of skills, their price was far higher than those without, who would go into manual labour in the countryside. 

[00:08:57] Records surviving from the first three centuries AD show that the average price for an unskilled slave was around 2000 sesterces. In contrast, a person skilled in cultivating grapevines, for example, cost between 6000 and 8000 sesterces.

[00:09:17] For context, a Roman foot soldier received a yearly salary of 900 sesterces, an army commander was paid 15 times more, while a senator had to have properties worth at least 1 million sesterces.

[00:09:31] In other words, an unskilled slave would cost just over twice the average salary for a Roman soldier, and a Roman senator would have to have property worth about 500 unskilled slaves.

[00:09:46] It's not surprising, then, that 49% of slaves were owned by the patricians or senators, who made up just 1.5% of Rome’s entire population at the start of the Republic. 

[00:10:00] One particularly wealthy Roman consul, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who you may remember from the last episode, had so many slaves that he kept 500 just for carrying out building works on his properties.

[00:10:14] However, it was not only the patricians or senators who owned slaves and it was also common for less wealthy Romans such as merchants, craftsman and retired soldiers to own at least one slave.

[00:10:28] In the city, slaves could work alongside plebians, normal people, in settings like libraries, markets and public baths. They would manage the houses of the rich, cleaning, looking after children, dressing their masters, and importantly, cooking, which was another skill that was highly prized, highly sought after

[00:10:50] Some of the elite even bought slaves to follow them around in an entourage, a group, and this became a bit of a status symbol.

[00:11:00] But aside from these roles, some slaves were kept for entertainment purposes and became actors or gladiators.

[00:11:09] The strongest and fittest men were often selected to become gladiators, and they would be specially trained to fight in amphitheatres like the Colosseum. 

[00:11:19] Gladiators can even be said to be celebrity slaves due to the immense popularity of the sport, which we will go into in much greater detail in part three of this mini-series.

[00:11:31] But, contrary to what you might think, there was a fate worse than becoming a gladiator.

[00:11:36] And that was those slaves who became “actors”.

[00:11:41] These were usually criminals, and their fate could be extremely grim.

[00:11:46] Yes, while nowadays thousands of people flock to Los Angeles hoping to make it big as a Hollywood actor, you certainly didn’t want to become an actor in Ancient Rome.

[00:11:58] Why, you might be thinking? 

[00:12:00] Well, actors were involved in gladiatorial battles, with plays being put on between the main event, the actual battles between the gladiators. 

[00:12:09] But these actors wouldn’t fight each other, they weren’t gladiators.

[00:12:14] Their job would be to play the role of a character from an ancient story.

[00:12:20] And they had to follow the script. 

[00:12:22] When their character died, so did they.

[00:12:26] This meant that actors would be killed in the most dramatic and horrible ways, all for the entertainment of the audiences. 

[00:12:34] For example, a slave was burnt alive as he performed the death of Hercules who, in classical mythology, died after throwing himself on a fire.

[00:12:46] Another example is of an actor who was playing the mythological figure Orpheus, and as in the myth, the actor was torn apart by wild animals.

[00:12:57] These types of roles were, clearly, some of the worst for slaves.

[00:13:02] But it wasn’t all this bad.

[00:13:05] There were many different roles within Roman society and a slave’s life would vary greatly depending on which role they were given.

[00:13:13] For example, those who were servants within the households of the Roman elite and whose masters were not abusive, had a relatively comfortable life.

[00:13:25] Nonetheless, there were still an incredibly large amount of slaves who would suffer greatly and who had a particularly arduous, a particularly tough, fate.

[00:13:36] One such category was slaves who were put to work as manual labourers. 

[00:13:42] Agricultural, or farming, slaves made up half of all Roman slaves and for these people, life was extremely harsh

[00:13:52] They were often subject to horrific treatment from their masters, being whipped, overworked, and starved.

[00:14:00] The Roman historian Cato wrote in his guide to slave ownership that slaves should merely be given flour to make bread; however, if they were chained up, an owner should just give them the bread directly. He also advised that slaves be given minimal amounts of wine.

[00:14:19] Clearly, if you are required to work non-stop in the field, this is not an adequate diet.

[00:14:26] Even worse than the farms or the fields, though, were the mines and quarries, where slaves worked under the ground. 

[00:14:34] Here, conditions were so bad that the life expectancy of a slave was just a few months. 

[00:14:41] Down in the mines, workers spent hours underground in hot, dark, cramped tunnels which were incredibly unstable

[00:14:51] As they dug for gold, copper or tin, the structures would often crack and collapse, crushing all who were inside.

[00:15:01] Working in such roles was such a dreaded job that the historian Diodorus of Sicily recorded in the 1st century BC that many workers in the mines wished they would die sooner, rather than continue living in such extreme suffering.

[00:15:17] It would typically be men who were tasked with working in these types of heavy manual labour roles, so women normally avoided being crushed to death in the mines.

[00:15:29] But this, of course, does not mean that female slaves had it much better.

[00:15:34] A common activity that unskilled female slaves were forced to do was prostitution, requiring them to live in horrible conditions in filthy brothels in the city. 

[00:15:45] Tragically, many women were forced into prostitution before they even reached puberty and they would suffer a lifetime of abuse as once a woman became a prostitute, she was a prostitute for life, with there usually being no way to leave the role.

[00:16:03] Women who were sex slaves as either prostitutes or concubines, who served only one rich man, were commonly raped, beaten and sometimes even killed. 

[00:16:15] Understandably, whether forced to work in deadly conditions in a mine or subjected to life as a sex slave, there are plenty of reports of slaves trying to run away.

[00:16:26] But their punishment, if caught, was brutal.

[00:16:30] They would be hanged, or worse, crucified, nailed to a cross and left to die like Christ in the Bible.

[00:16:39] Some owners were so paranoid about their slaves leaving that to deter them from even attempting, they branded them on the forehead, tattooed them with a hot iron, so they would be instantly recognisable and easier to catch.

[00:16:56] And if a slave murdered their master, it was not only that individual who would face death but the entire household of slaves.

[00:17:06] Eventually, conditions for slaves got so bad that, despite the punishments they would face if they stood up to their masters, many decided that it was worth the risk.

[00:17:17] Beginning in 135 BC and continuing on and off until 71 BC, there were a series of rebellions called the Servile Wars. The most famous of these was the third and final rebellion led by the infamous Spartacus, which you can learn more about in episode 193, by the way.

[00:17:40] And while these rebellions were massive events, with Spartacus thought to have united over 100,000 slaves, it’s perhaps surprising that there were not more uprisings, considering the massive numbers of slaves throughout Rome’s history.

[00:17:56] Indeed, it was certainly a known risk to the elite.

[00:18:00] A proposal had once been made to the senate that slaves wear different clothes to free citizens so they could be more easily identified, but this idea was rejected on the basis that if slaves realised how many others were slaves, they could be inspired to rebel.

[00:18:20] But despite this terrible treatment and the almost zero rights accorded to slaves, as Rome developed, the rights of slaves improved, albeit, slightly. 

[00:18:31] In the fourth and fifth decades of the first century AD, emperor Claudius declared that a slave abandoned by his owner was then freed; after him, emperor Nero, who was not exactly known for being a kind-hearted man, allowed slaves to complain about their masters in a court of law.

[00:18:51] A century later, after the emperor Antonius Pius, it was declared that if an owner killed their slave without good reason, they would be charged with homicide, with murder.

[00:19:03] Apart from being abandoned by their owner, though, there were other ways that a small amount of lucky slaves, usually over the age of 30, were able to gain their freedom, and become a “freeman”.

[00:19:18] One way was for an owner to willingly free a slave.

[00:19:23] Cicero, for example, freed his secretary, who was a slave but had become a well-loved member of his family.

[00:19:31] The other way to become a freeman was by buying your freedom. 

[00:19:36] Now, you may be wondering, how could a slave purchase freedom when they were not paid and were not allowed property.

[00:19:44] Well, some slaves were sort of paid, as they were given small portions of their owner’s money as if it were their own; this was called a peculium and over many years a slave could save this up and use it to buy their freedom.

[00:20:00] For enslaved women, a more common way to gain freedom was through marriage to their owner, which was typically done so that the owner could have legitimate children.

[00:20:12] When slaves were freed, they were finally classed as citizens and could own property, enter marriages and even vote, if they were male, of course. 

[00:20:22] Unfortunately, the only escape from slavery for the vast majority of slaves was death.

[00:20:29] And due to their status in Roman society and their lack of material possessions, little remains of Roman slaves to this day and most of what we do know of their life comes from the writings of wealthy historians, who would have been slave-owners themselves.

[00:20:47] So, the life of a Roman slave was deeply unfair, often horrifically painful, sometimes tragically short, filled with misery, but for some, perhaps there were rare moments of hope. 

[00:21:00] We will never really know.

[00:21:03] Ancient Rome was, clearly, a highly advanced and admirable civilisation in a plethora of ways.

[00:21:10] But much of it was made possible by its most barbarous and vile element, slavery, which, for all of the amazing innovations to come out of Rome, will forever be its darkest stain.

[00:21:25] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Slaves in Ancient Rome. 

[00:21:32] The title of this episode was “a job from hell”, and I think you would still be hard pressed to find a less pleasant way to spend your life than as a slave in ancient Rome.

[00:21:43] As a reminder, this was part two of a three-part mini-series on ancient Rome. 

[00:21:48] Part one was on the politics of ancient Rome, and next up it’ll be the bloody lives of another unfortunate group, gladiators.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:02] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on Ancient Rome.

[00:00:29] In part one we looked at the politics of Ancient Rome and in part three we will look at the unfortunate and gory lives of gladiators

[00:00:39] But part two, in today’s episode we are going to be talking about slavery in ancient Rome.

[00:00:46] It is believed that slaves made up around 20% of the entire population of the Roman empire and the entire function of society and growth of the economy became reliant upon slave labour.

[00:00:59] Despite their vital role, they were considered the lowest people in society with no freedom or rights, they were simply the property of their master.

[00:01:09] And today, we will tell their story.

[00:01:12] OK then, let’s talk about ancient Roman slaves.

[00:01:18] Imagine the horror of being taken from your home, family, everything you know, at the hands of fearsome soldiers who have marched into your town, killed your leaders and now threaten to kill you if you do not obey.

[00:01:32] Your only option to survive is to do as instructed and submit to the Roman who has a sword held to your chest. 

[00:01:41] You go with him and are put into chains before being pushed into a horse and carriage and taken away from everything you know.

[00:01:51] You eventually arrive at a crowded and chaotic market where you’re stripped naked and chained to a bunch of strangers, none who speak your language. 

[00:02:02] Then a sign is put around your neck advertising your price. 

[00:02:07] In the eyes of your captors, and those examining you at the market, you are a mere object for sale. 

[00:02:14] And this is how you feel, standing there while passersby decide whether you’re worthy of the asking price. 

[00:02:22] From the moment you were taken by the soldier, your rights and freedom were taken from you. 

[00:02:28] You can be legally tortured and beaten, you cannot own property, your life will now be completely dictated by whoever buys you.

[00:02:37] All you can do is stand terrified and alone, waiting to see whose property you will become, and praying that someday, just someday, you might regain your freedom. 

[00:02:50] Whether you had been a successful business owner, a skilled weaver, a loving parent or a convicted criminal, this could be your fate if you were captured by the Romans during war. 

[00:03:02] The fate of a slave.

[00:03:05] Slavery was present from the very start of the Republic when, as legend has it, Rome’s founder, Romulus, gave fathers the right to sell their children into slavery for financial gain.

[00:03:19] However, Rome was not the first ancient city to use slaves and throughout the ancient world, from Greece to Egypt to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, slavery was common practice.

[00:03:33] Clearly, if you try to put aside the heinous moral element for a minute, it was convenient to have someone to work for you for free.

[00:03:43] Although it might seem unthinkable to us, perhaps it’s easier to understand if you try to imagine that slaves were considered more like objects than human beings.

[00:03:54] They had no rights or citizenship which meant they could not vote or own property and unlike normal Roman citizens, slaves could be tortured and be killed without being given a trial.

[00:04:07] Despite all this, there is little evidence to suggest that the average Roman questioned slavery.

[00:04:15] For many, it was simply a fact of life and many believed that in order to have freedom, there must also be the opposite, slavery.

[00:04:25] The Greek philosopher Aristotle even proposed that slavery was a natural thing and that human beings were born into two types: slaves and non-slaves.

[00:04:37] As unbelievable as this might sound to us today, these were the real beliefs of the Romans so there was never really any widespread calls for the abolishment of slavery throughout the Republic or the Empire.

[00:04:52] But Rome was different from other civilisations, not due to Roman beliefs around slaves but because of the sheer amount of them and their presence through the land. 

[00:05:04] They became a huge free workforce that Roman society relied upon.

[00:05:10] Although it had existed since the birth of Rome, the slave industry first saw an immense boom during a period called the Punic Wars. 

[00:05:19] The first war alone, in which Rome defeated the Carthaginians from North Africa in 241 BC, gave Rome at least 75,000 war prisoners who were then taken as slaves.

[00:05:33] These numbers only grew when Rome eventually defeated the city of Carthage in 168 BC capturing 250,000 Carthaginians who ended up as slaves. 

[00:05:46] By the end of the 1st century BC, it’s estimated that there were between 1-2 million slaves, which was about 20 to 30% of the population of the Italian peninsula.

[00:05:59] If we are to try to find one positive element of slavery, or at least one element in which Roman slavery was more equal than more more modern forms of slavery, it is that Roman slavery was not based on race, it wasn’t based on the colour of one’s skin.

[00:06:16] Indeed, there were slaves from many places like Greece, Germany, North Africa and Syria.

[00:06:22] Even Romans could become slaves, as citizens who committed violent crimes could be punished by having their citizenship removed, and then being sold into slavery.

[00:06:33] And shockingly, it wasn’t just adults. Innocent children could face the same fate, as parents could sell their children into slavery, following the law laid down by Romulus in Rome’s earliest days. 

[00:06:48] Sadly, any child born to slave parents was automatically considered a slave too.

[00:06:54] Some people were also forced to sell themselves into slavery if, for example, they were facing financial difficulties.

[00:07:03] These instances though, of Romans either selling themselves as slaves or selling their children as slaves, were far less frequent than people who were sold into slavery after being captured and kept as a prisoner of war.

[00:07:18] So what would happen once they were captured?

[00:07:21] Well as you heard at the start, prisoners would be swiftly transported to markets where they would be sold like animals. One market on the Greek island of Delos had up to 10,000 slaves for sale in a single day.

[00:07:38] Stood naked and chained up, a slave would have a sign hanging from their neck to advertise their price, as these prices could vary quite a bit.

[00:07:49] Men usually cost more than women who were, in turn, more expensive than children. But within these groups prices really depended on the individual’s skills.

[00:08:01] Also as women would be able to provide a slave owner with more slaves by producing children, women who were unable to conceive were much cheaper, they were valued far less.

[00:08:14] Shockingly, if a slave owner had not been told about a woman’s fertility issues they could claim a refund and return the woman to the market.

[00:08:24] This goes to show just how badly these people were viewed as simply material items to their slave owners.

[00:08:32] Nonetheless, as entire populations were captured the skills of slaves varied hugely, and there would be people who were trained professionals from every walk of life, including doctors, accountants, hairdressers and craftsman.

[00:08:48] For those who had these types of skills, their price was far higher than those without, who would go into manual labour in the countryside. 

[00:08:57] Records surviving from the first three centuries AD show that the average price for an unskilled slave was around 2000 sesterces. In contrast, a person skilled in cultivating grapevines, for example, cost between 6000 and 8000 sesterces.

[00:09:17] For context, a Roman foot soldier received a yearly salary of 900 sesterces, an army commander was paid 15 times more, while a senator had to have properties worth at least 1 million sesterces.

[00:09:31] In other words, an unskilled slave would cost just over twice the average salary for a Roman soldier, and a Roman senator would have to have property worth about 500 unskilled slaves.

[00:09:46] It's not surprising, then, that 49% of slaves were owned by the patricians or senators, who made up just 1.5% of Rome’s entire population at the start of the Republic. 

[00:10:00] One particularly wealthy Roman consul, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who you may remember from the last episode, had so many slaves that he kept 500 just for carrying out building works on his properties.

[00:10:14] However, it was not only the patricians or senators who owned slaves and it was also common for less wealthy Romans such as merchants, craftsman and retired soldiers to own at least one slave.

[00:10:28] In the city, slaves could work alongside plebians, normal people, in settings like libraries, markets and public baths. They would manage the houses of the rich, cleaning, looking after children, dressing their masters, and importantly, cooking, which was another skill that was highly prized, highly sought after

[00:10:50] Some of the elite even bought slaves to follow them around in an entourage, a group, and this became a bit of a status symbol.

[00:11:00] But aside from these roles, some slaves were kept for entertainment purposes and became actors or gladiators.

[00:11:09] The strongest and fittest men were often selected to become gladiators, and they would be specially trained to fight in amphitheatres like the Colosseum. 

[00:11:19] Gladiators can even be said to be celebrity slaves due to the immense popularity of the sport, which we will go into in much greater detail in part three of this mini-series.

[00:11:31] But, contrary to what you might think, there was a fate worse than becoming a gladiator.

[00:11:36] And that was those slaves who became “actors”.

[00:11:41] These were usually criminals, and their fate could be extremely grim.

[00:11:46] Yes, while nowadays thousands of people flock to Los Angeles hoping to make it big as a Hollywood actor, you certainly didn’t want to become an actor in Ancient Rome.

[00:11:58] Why, you might be thinking? 

[00:12:00] Well, actors were involved in gladiatorial battles, with plays being put on between the main event, the actual battles between the gladiators. 

[00:12:09] But these actors wouldn’t fight each other, they weren’t gladiators.

[00:12:14] Their job would be to play the role of a character from an ancient story.

[00:12:20] And they had to follow the script. 

[00:12:22] When their character died, so did they.

[00:12:26] This meant that actors would be killed in the most dramatic and horrible ways, all for the entertainment of the audiences. 

[00:12:34] For example, a slave was burnt alive as he performed the death of Hercules who, in classical mythology, died after throwing himself on a fire.

[00:12:46] Another example is of an actor who was playing the mythological figure Orpheus, and as in the myth, the actor was torn apart by wild animals.

[00:12:57] These types of roles were, clearly, some of the worst for slaves.

[00:13:02] But it wasn’t all this bad.

[00:13:05] There were many different roles within Roman society and a slave’s life would vary greatly depending on which role they were given.

[00:13:13] For example, those who were servants within the households of the Roman elite and whose masters were not abusive, had a relatively comfortable life.

[00:13:25] Nonetheless, there were still an incredibly large amount of slaves who would suffer greatly and who had a particularly arduous, a particularly tough, fate.

[00:13:36] One such category was slaves who were put to work as manual labourers. 

[00:13:42] Agricultural, or farming, slaves made up half of all Roman slaves and for these people, life was extremely harsh

[00:13:52] They were often subject to horrific treatment from their masters, being whipped, overworked, and starved.

[00:14:00] The Roman historian Cato wrote in his guide to slave ownership that slaves should merely be given flour to make bread; however, if they were chained up, an owner should just give them the bread directly. He also advised that slaves be given minimal amounts of wine.

[00:14:19] Clearly, if you are required to work non-stop in the field, this is not an adequate diet.

[00:14:26] Even worse than the farms or the fields, though, were the mines and quarries, where slaves worked under the ground. 

[00:14:34] Here, conditions were so bad that the life expectancy of a slave was just a few months. 

[00:14:41] Down in the mines, workers spent hours underground in hot, dark, cramped tunnels which were incredibly unstable

[00:14:51] As they dug for gold, copper or tin, the structures would often crack and collapse, crushing all who were inside.

[00:15:01] Working in such roles was such a dreaded job that the historian Diodorus of Sicily recorded in the 1st century BC that many workers in the mines wished they would die sooner, rather than continue living in such extreme suffering.

[00:15:17] It would typically be men who were tasked with working in these types of heavy manual labour roles, so women normally avoided being crushed to death in the mines.

[00:15:29] But this, of course, does not mean that female slaves had it much better.

[00:15:34] A common activity that unskilled female slaves were forced to do was prostitution, requiring them to live in horrible conditions in filthy brothels in the city. 

[00:15:45] Tragically, many women were forced into prostitution before they even reached puberty and they would suffer a lifetime of abuse as once a woman became a prostitute, she was a prostitute for life, with there usually being no way to leave the role.

[00:16:03] Women who were sex slaves as either prostitutes or concubines, who served only one rich man, were commonly raped, beaten and sometimes even killed. 

[00:16:15] Understandably, whether forced to work in deadly conditions in a mine or subjected to life as a sex slave, there are plenty of reports of slaves trying to run away.

[00:16:26] But their punishment, if caught, was brutal.

[00:16:30] They would be hanged, or worse, crucified, nailed to a cross and left to die like Christ in the Bible.

[00:16:39] Some owners were so paranoid about their slaves leaving that to deter them from even attempting, they branded them on the forehead, tattooed them with a hot iron, so they would be instantly recognisable and easier to catch.

[00:16:56] And if a slave murdered their master, it was not only that individual who would face death but the entire household of slaves.

[00:17:06] Eventually, conditions for slaves got so bad that, despite the punishments they would face if they stood up to their masters, many decided that it was worth the risk.

[00:17:17] Beginning in 135 BC and continuing on and off until 71 BC, there were a series of rebellions called the Servile Wars. The most famous of these was the third and final rebellion led by the infamous Spartacus, which you can learn more about in episode 193, by the way.

[00:17:40] And while these rebellions were massive events, with Spartacus thought to have united over 100,000 slaves, it’s perhaps surprising that there were not more uprisings, considering the massive numbers of slaves throughout Rome’s history.

[00:17:56] Indeed, it was certainly a known risk to the elite.

[00:18:00] A proposal had once been made to the senate that slaves wear different clothes to free citizens so they could be more easily identified, but this idea was rejected on the basis that if slaves realised how many others were slaves, they could be inspired to rebel.

[00:18:20] But despite this terrible treatment and the almost zero rights accorded to slaves, as Rome developed, the rights of slaves improved, albeit, slightly. 

[00:18:31] In the fourth and fifth decades of the first century AD, emperor Claudius declared that a slave abandoned by his owner was then freed; after him, emperor Nero, who was not exactly known for being a kind-hearted man, allowed slaves to complain about their masters in a court of law.

[00:18:51] A century later, after the emperor Antonius Pius, it was declared that if an owner killed their slave without good reason, they would be charged with homicide, with murder.

[00:19:03] Apart from being abandoned by their owner, though, there were other ways that a small amount of lucky slaves, usually over the age of 30, were able to gain their freedom, and become a “freeman”.

[00:19:18] One way was for an owner to willingly free a slave.

[00:19:23] Cicero, for example, freed his secretary, who was a slave but had become a well-loved member of his family.

[00:19:31] The other way to become a freeman was by buying your freedom. 

[00:19:36] Now, you may be wondering, how could a slave purchase freedom when they were not paid and were not allowed property.

[00:19:44] Well, some slaves were sort of paid, as they were given small portions of their owner’s money as if it were their own; this was called a peculium and over many years a slave could save this up and use it to buy their freedom.

[00:20:00] For enslaved women, a more common way to gain freedom was through marriage to their owner, which was typically done so that the owner could have legitimate children.

[00:20:12] When slaves were freed, they were finally classed as citizens and could own property, enter marriages and even vote, if they were male, of course. 

[00:20:22] Unfortunately, the only escape from slavery for the vast majority of slaves was death.

[00:20:29] And due to their status in Roman society and their lack of material possessions, little remains of Roman slaves to this day and most of what we do know of their life comes from the writings of wealthy historians, who would have been slave-owners themselves.

[00:20:47] So, the life of a Roman slave was deeply unfair, often horrifically painful, sometimes tragically short, filled with misery, but for some, perhaps there were rare moments of hope. 

[00:21:00] We will never really know.

[00:21:03] Ancient Rome was, clearly, a highly advanced and admirable civilisation in a plethora of ways.

[00:21:10] But much of it was made possible by its most barbarous and vile element, slavery, which, for all of the amazing innovations to come out of Rome, will forever be its darkest stain.

[00:21:25] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Slaves in Ancient Rome. 

[00:21:32] The title of this episode was “a job from hell”, and I think you would still be hard pressed to find a less pleasant way to spend your life than as a slave in ancient Rome.

[00:21:43] As a reminder, this was part two of a three-part mini-series on ancient Rome. 

[00:21:48] Part one was on the politics of ancient Rome, and next up it’ll be the bloody lives of another unfortunate group, gladiators.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:02] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]