In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Slavery

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Sourcebooks
  • The Experience of Slavery
  • Slavery in the Later Empire
  • Modern Parallels

Classics Roman Slavery
Theresa Urbainczyk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0151


Romans could never escape their slaves. Slaves were always a physical presence: in the city, in the country, in the forum, in every room of their homes. As the empire increased, so did the numbers of slaves. Sometimes Romans were murdered in their homes by their slaves. Sometimes whole Roman armies were slaughtered, but the Romans only took more care. They did not conclude that the system was flawed, since for them it had worked for centuries. Despite the ubiquity of slaves, it is not as easy as might be assumed to find out about their lives. They wrote nothing themselves, and the masters seldom mention them in their own literary creations. However, that is not to say nothing can be discovered. The study of ancient slavery is entering a new and exciting phase. During the 20th century it was largely influenced by modern political concerns, since scholars in the old Eastern Bloc countries were seen to be overemphasizing the element of class conflict in the topic. This in turn often led to perhaps a similar distortion in the other direction on the part of Western scholars, in their underplaying the unpleasant side of the great civilizations of Greece and Rome. Now that the political debates of the past century have entered new phases, the study of slavery in Antiquity can be looked at more dispassionately. Having said that, it is not simply a question of letting the sources speak for themselves, since we have no evidence remaining from any slave from the ancient world. All is written by the masters, which makes the area of Roman slavery different from, say, the history of slavery in Brazil or the United States.

General Overviews

Because the underlying, but often unexpressed, political debates of the 20th century are usually present in many works about Roman slavery, it is useful to be aware of them, or the possibility of their presence, before embarking on the study of this topic. On the other hand, those interested in ancient slavery may wish avoid modern political debates. Any contact with secondary material on slavery inevitably brings one into contact with them, however, so an awareness of their existence is useful.

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