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The first and most obvious question that should be asked in reference to this essay is what era the question is referring to. Although there is a considerable body of literature on Roman slavery, limitations of space preclude discussions of the whole of Roman history, and with this in mind I have decided to concentrate here upon the early imperial period.
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Rome can fairly be regarded as one of the few true slave societies in human history. Despite this dubious claim to fame, there is surprisingly little direct evidence for the total number of people involved. Slavery was a feature of all Meditterannean societies in the ancient world, but it seems that there were far more slaves at Rome than in any of her neighbouring societies.
It is certainly impossible to put any kind of accurate number on the number of slaves in Roman Italy at any given time, even if we are only narrowly considering the early Empire, conditions and circumstances varies and thus the total number of slaves varied too; yet it is not without merit to attempt am estimate.
Owning large numbers of slaves was not always necessary for the wealthy in Roman society; they were often little more than a status symbol. If you owned significant numbers of slaves you were, by inference, rich and powerful, the converse, of course, was also true. Slave ownership was far more practical for rural land owners as they would be used in tilling land, mining etc, essentially driving the Roman economy.
We can reasonable assume that the greatest number of slaves were in Roman Italy, and within this geographical area, by far the greatest numbers would have been in Rome itself. The greatest numbers in Roman Italy would have been agricultural slaves and slaves employed mining and on other industrial activities; these were people who would be purchased purely as labourers and were of no value to their owners as anything else. At Rome, massive numbers of slaves were employed in what we may now regard as the civil service, others being owned by the imperial household and still more working on public projects. This latter category included work on public buildings such as the aqueduct; Frontinus tells us that 700 slaves were employed here alone.
Slaves were not only owned by the state and the imperial household, but be individuals as well. There were considered to be six categories of holdings; 1-2 slaves, 3-10 slaves, 11-30 slaves, 31-100 slaves, 101-500 slaves and 501 + slaves. The surviving evidence points towards private individuals possessing massive numbers of slaves. For example, the senator L. Pedanius Secundus in the middle of the first century AD owned 400 slaves; Pudentilla gave 400 slaves to the sons produced from her first marriage in the middle of the second century. Even those who were once slaves could possess large numbers, C. Caecilius Isidorus, a wealthy freedman, owned 4116 slaves at the time of his death in 8 BC. In the fifth century AD, the younger Melania set free 8000 slaves when she took up a life of Christian asceticism. Pliny the younger, in a surviving inscription, left provision in his will for the manumission and maintenance of 100 slaves which implies he possessed at least 500.
It is possible, and there seems evidence to suggest that it is likely, that the cases noted above are the exception rather than the normal state of affairs. Surviving sepulchral inscriptions from a particular wealthy noble gens, the Statilii, gives us a total number of slaves of only 428 for the entire period of 40 BC to 65 AD. When we look in greater depth at these figures we can see that the individual numbers of slaves owned by each member of the gens is very small indeed. We know, foe instance, that Statilius Taurus Sisenna owned a mere 6 slaves, Statilius Taurus Corvinus eight and Messalina, the wife of the Emperor Nero possessed only eight slaves. The famous Seneca who was undoubtedly a man of extraordinary wealth, believed that he was exercising frugality when he travelled with only one cart load of slaves (a handful at most).
There are a number of references in both the so called Augustan History, and in Juvinal, that strongly suggest that many non-plebeian Roman citizens possessed no slaves at all, and large numbers of others only one or two. Using this evidence which is, one the one hand abundant, and on the other sadly lacking with reference to our very specific question, many academics such as Westermann and Hopking have been reluctant to provide an actual figure for the total number of slaves in Roman Italy at any given time.
Hopkins has estimated a population or Roman Italy in the first century AD of between 900,000 and 950,000 with the slave component being in the region of 300,000 – 350,000. This would mean that slaves represented 35% of the population of Roman Italy during the early imperial period. This figure would be comparable to Brazil of around 1800 and the United States in 1820.
We can also make a qualitative judgement on the number of slaves when we consider what their location was; that is to say who there owners were and what roles they played in society, some of this evidence was noted earlier and supports the view of Hopkins and Bradley that Rome was one of only five true slave societies that have existed in world history.
When considering any question of Roman slavery we should be weary to consider slavery in the strictest sense. Slavery is only one of the many forms of dependent labour available to wealthy Romans, labour which Romans would use to extract a surplus. It is very likely that there would be forms of debt bondage and forms of serfdom, for example; all of which could be gathered under the heading of non-free labour. There, because wealthy Romans drew the majority of their income from this form of non-free labour, it could be possible to argue that the true figure for slavery is much greater than the 35% proposed by Hopkins (although this does very much depend on which definition of slavery you choose to use).
Bradley has noted that slavery in the Roman world is considered usually on economic grounds, for it is concepts like, production, income and the extraction of surplus which predominate the discussions. He also noted that the description of Rome as a slave society applies only to Roman Italy and not the wider Roman world. The restriction on the definition must also be applied temporally as Rome can not be described as a true slave society before around the third century BC when the acquisition of empire began. Before this time the servile portion of the population was far too small for Roman Italy to qualify. It was only after the second century BC, when a series of successful foreign wars saw Rome begin to import vast numbers of prisoners of war that the character of Roman society began to change.
It should be noted finally that questions of slavery in the Roman Empire and almost exclusively discussions of slavery within Roman Italy. The wider empire did not see the broad use of slavery, in part because of the lack of individual wealth and many of those working off the land would be free men of citizens, but without the capability to purchase a slave or slaves to take over the menial tasks. If we were considering slavery in the Roman Empire generally the figure would be far less that 35% although an estimate would be little more than a guess.
W. Blair, Slavery Amongst the Romans (Edinburgh 1947)
H. C. Boren, Roman Society (Massachusetts 1992)
K. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge 1994)
M. Cary & H. H. Scullard, A History of Rome (London 1935)
P. D. A. Garnsey & R. P. Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Los Angeles 1987)
K. Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge 1978)
M. Le Glay, J-L Voisin & Y. Le Bohec, A History of Rome (Oxford 1996)
N. Lewis & M. Reinhold, Roman Civilisation: Selected Readings, 2 vols (Chichester 1990)
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