The Horrible Life of an Average Roman Empire Slave


Slaves in ancient Rome weren’t all laborers
working hard under the hot sun as some wicked slave driver stood behind them with a whip
in his hand. Many of the slaves were domestic servants,
some were skilled artisans, others were even said to be highly educated physicians. The ones who did generally have a very hard
life were those that were doing their time as property of a Roman as a punishment. Life for these people was brutal and often
very short. For that reason there were sometimes slave
revolts, with the one you all probably know about being led by the slave Spartacus. This former gladiator and military leader
took part in what are now called The Servile Wars. But what about the average joe slaves? So, as Roman slaves lived such diverse lives,
let’s start with the great Spartacus. The Greek writer Plutarch tells us that Spartacus
was “a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since
been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator.” If he was indeed Thracian, that would mean
he came from what we now called Bulgaria, or possibly Greece or Turkey. While sources differ, it’s said that Spartacus
was first captured by Roman legions and then trained in gladiatorial school. If you’ve seen our show on what sometimes
went down in the Roman Coliseum, you’ll know that gladiators didn’t exactly have
an easy life. What do we know about the schools? Well, these prisoners of war were kept often
two to a cell. They were in fact in prison, but each day
they would train outside of their cells in an arena. Gladiators had different kinds of skills and
training methods, and Thracian gladiators practiced in the art of swordsmanship. National Geographic tells us that the slaves
were not allowed out of the fortress unless being taken to the coliseum or another arena. But while the cells were not exactly a great
place to live, it’s said there were heated floors for winter, baths, an infirmary, and
the slaves lived in confines that were equipped with plumbing. Historians say these gladiators were highly
valued slaves, and so they were kept in good condition so they could fight well. These slaves, we are told, would not usually
die or even be treated too badly in their prison. They occupied a 32-square-foot (3-square-meter)
cell, which as we said, was probably shared with one more person. They trained day in day out all year round,
and trained not as a team but as individuals. When the time came, they were often taken
out of the training school and sent to fight in an arena somewhere. So, the life of a gladiator slave? Probably a much better existence than hard
labor, but obviously they could find themselves in a very bad place being pitted against a
starving lion. That’s likely one of the reasons why Spartacus
decided to plot against the Romans and head for the hills. It’s believed he was captured and killed,
with many of his followers also dying by way of crucifixion. But perhaps a fate worse than being trained
to fight in an arena was hard labor, after all, someone had to build those great cities
in the ancient empire, mine the precious metals and plough the fields. We are told quite often these people would
literally be worked to death. When these people were captured, often by
Roman soldiers, they were often taken to the market where they were sold. Anyone could buy himself or herself a slave,
and it’s said some more wealthy people might own as many as 400 slaves. Perhaps the worst kind of work was in the
Roman mines, although historians also say that slave farmers had a very hard job. Women slaves with less muscle might work in
the house as servants, but they might also be given the job of dressmaking or even hairdresser. Many other women were sent to work in small
factories where they would make handcrafts and jewelry. The young boys it’s said were expensive,
as it’s not likely many Romans wanted old men in their employ. We say employ, but they weren’t paid anything. They had to do exactly as they were told and
any kind of back chat could lead to a serious beating. If a slave killed his own master, that would
usually end in all the slaves of the household being killed. One might have a nice master, but the opposite
was of course possible. As we said before, some slaves gained a certain
amount of respect as they were educated. These slaves would often be appointed the
work of teacher for the young Romans. As one writer tells us, “How a slave was
treated depended on the owner.” If a slave was favored by his owner there
was always a chance that this slave could earn his freedom, perhaps the best thing that
could happen to a Roman slave. On the other hand, get an awful owner and
there was every chance you could be beaten, flogged, branded, maimed and killed. One historian writes about the slaves of Pompeii,
stating that the average household in this city would have around seven slaves. He wrote that the work of slaves could be
tough, but they were often free to roam about the streets, grab a bit of rest down at the
fountain, or just disappear in the crowd. The richer Romans didn’t usually walk through
the crowded streets, as that would be beneath them. Instead, when they went out, they were carried
by slaves on what’s called a litter. They are those boxes on sticks you may have
seen in the movies. What’s surprising, though, according to
this historian anyway, is that slaves were not always identifiable by the clothes they
wore. They often wore tunics, just like anyone else. Apparently, not many slave owners would wear
togas as they were too cumbersome and not always easy to clean. As for cleaning, we are told that clothes
would often be washed partly with urine. The reason was that it contained lots of ammonia. One of the jobs of a slave of course was washing
these clothes, so part of their day would be standing in baths of urine. This was likely not the most pleasant job
in the word, but laundry detergent was a long way from being invented. As these slaves were property, if they were
damaged in some way, say hit by someone’s donkey of their way to cleaning duties, the
owner of that donkey would have to pay for the treatment of the slave or at least pay
some money to the slave’s owner. Here we must remember that around one out
of five people across the Roman empire were slaves at one point, and there was no great
feeling of injustice at least to the Romans. Having slaves was as normal as having people
that work for low wages in current day factories or coffee shops. For the rulers of Rome the inequality was
just part of life. We might also remember that those great Greek
philosophers who for the most part were noble and extremely clever, said a perfect society
had to have slaves. That’s just how it was, and it’s likely
that Plato or Aristotle just couldn’t see it any differently. Remember in the Roman empire the slaves were
often the losers of a battle, or at least the surviving citizens of a losing army. The Romans just saw it as their right to take
them. But slaves often came by way of piracy or
just plain stealing. Gangs of people would go into a town and just
take the people there, then deliver them by boats or over land to the markets where the
Romans would buy them. If those slaves had children with a Roman,
those children would also be slaves. One historian tells us that slaves were not
allowed to have their own slave families. Life was work, and that was it. The more slaves a Roman had was part of his
status, and if you had very special slaves being able to do special things, then that
also added to your status. When in public, Romans would often come out
with their slaves, showing them off to other Romans. These days people use things, cars, clothes,
bling, to do the same thing. And that’s what we have to remember, that
slaves were seen as mere things, albeit things that could talk. But again, some slaves, the very special ones,
did teach things such as philosophy, so we would imagine those slaves had a higher value
than someone who spent all day down in a mine digging for gold. We very much doubt they spent all day chained,
like some of the slaves that were found after Mount Vesuvius erupted in Pompei. Researchers also said that some of those slaves
had been worked so much that their bodies were all out of shape. As we said, the best thing that could happen
is that you could win your freedom, and this did happen. Some Romans used it to make slaves work harder,
telling them obedience could pay off. Some historians also tell us that in spite
of occasional slave revolts, it was in the interest of slave owners to treat their slaves
well and so many did. A well fed slave worked harder, was happier,
and would likely not dream all day about sinking a knife into his or her owner. We’ll leave you with the words of one writer,
“No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases,
the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority
of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one.” If you were
a slave of any sort, what do you think would
have been the best position? Also, be sure to check out our other show
Medieval Knights Were NOT Noble, But Cold-Hearted Killers. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t
forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time.

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