During Ancient Roman times, slaves were known to take up various positions in society. Slaves had many roles to play, and those that were held by slaves included domestic and agricultural tasks, soldiers and musicians. This essay looks at the many different tasks that slaves had to fulfil during this period and give some insight into their lives.
Slaves were the most common form of labour force in Ancient Rome; it was not considered to be socially acceptable for free people to work in manual labour. Slaves were therefore given jobs that required little skill or knowledge in order to free up their masters for more important, intellectual engagements. The most common form of slave labour was in agriculture, agriculture having been a crucial economic activity during this time. Slaves were required to dig, weed, water, and harvest crops and also carry out various other agricultural tasks.
In Ancient Rome, slaves also filled the position of domestic slaves, tending to the personal needs of the wealthy families they served. This could include anything from cleaning, laundering and cooking to childcare and personal care. Domestic slaves were often given the freedom to move around the house, though they were never allowed to leave the premises. Additionally, slaves helped to manage their masters’ properties, tending to their animals and helping with the financial accounts.
Some slaves were also used as soldiers in Ancient Rome, often being forced to take up arms for the protection of their masters’ property or indeed, their masters themselves. Military slaves did not necessarily receive the same wages or status as free citizens and were required to obey the commands of their master. Those that showed their skill and courage on the battlefield were sometimes awarded greater rights by their masters, but this was by no means consistent.
Finally, there were some slaves employed in the entertainment industry. Slaves were trained to play musical instruments and perform in the theatre, acting out various plays and dramas. Slaves could also be forced to compete in gladiator games, entertaining the masses with displays of tremendous strength and skill. Such events oftentimes ended in death or serious injury, and this became a major source of concern among the Roman Senate.
In Ancient Rome, slaves had limited access to medical treatment, much of which was offered through the owners’ personal physicians. In cases of serious illness, slaves could be taken to the public infirmary, which was open to those who could afford it, although this was not always a guarantee of recovery. In terms of general care, slaves were responsible for their own cleanliness and care, being expected to attend to their own health and well-being as best they could.
Living conditions for slaves in Ancient Rome were largely dependent on the wealth and attitude of their masters. Some slaves owned by wealthy families were given access to adequate housing and food, while those owned by less affluent families were often subject to conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation. On some occasions, slaves were chained to their masters’ properties, in order to prevent them from escaping. Slaves were usually denied education and although they had no legal rights, they could still receive some protection under Roman law in certain circumstances.
There were a few ways in which a slave in Ancient Rome could gain their freedom, the most common being through manumission, whereby the master had the power to legally free their slaves, either unconditionally or under certain conditions. Manumission could also be granted through the courts, although this was rarely the case, and in many instances, slaves were able to buy or earn their freedom through their own hard work and dedication.
Slaves in Ancient Rome filled many different positions and roles, from agricultural labour to childcare and entertainment. The life of a slave was hard, and often filled with danger, as they had limited access to medical care and were often subject to terrible living conditions. Although chattel slavery was legally abolished after the fall of the Roman Empire, the impact of slavery on Roman society continued to be felt well into the Middle Ages.