What Were Slaves In Ancient Rome

The Origins of Slavery in Ancient Rome

Slaves in ancient Rome, also known as servi, were an integral part of the Roman economy, with slaves comprising up to one-third of the Roman population during the Empire. Slavery in Rome has a long and complicated history, beginning in the early Republic and lasting until the end of the Empire. Slavery, in many forms and contexts, continued to be commonplace in the Roman Empire until its collapse in the 5th century.
The origins of slavery in Rome can be traced back to an ancient legal principle known as the Law of Nations. According to this principle, the conqueror of a defeated nation had the right to claim the people of that nation as slaves. This meant that any conquered people, such as the Sabines, who were forcibly taken into captivity, could be legally treated as slaves. Slaves could also be acquired through kidnapping, warfare, or debt.
Over time, the legal rights afforded to slaves in Roman society began to erode, and they were subjected to mistreatment and abuse. Slaves in Rome were denied basic civil rights, such as freedom of movement, the right to vote and hold office, the right to own property, and the right to marry. They were also forced to labor in harsh and dangerous conditions, such as the mines and galleys, and were at the mercy of their owners for their care and sustenance.

The Role of Slaves in Society

The role of slaves in ancient Roman society was central to the functioning of the Empire. They were essential for performing agricultural work, such as tilling the soil and tending crops, as well as more skilled labor, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and even medical care. Slaves were also responsible for a large portion of the manufacturing of goods, and many Roman businesses relied upon the labor of slaves.
In addition to providing labor, slaves in the Roman Empire also served a variety of other roles. Many slaves served as artisans and craftsmen, producing goods and artwork that was popular and in high demand. Slaves were also highly valued as teachers and tutors, as they were able to pass on valuable knowledge and skills to their masters.
Some slaves in Rome even served as administrators and advisors in the government. Well-educated slaves held a variety of positions, including senators, legal experts, public officials, and even magistrates. These slaves held a unique position in Roman society, as they were able to provide advice and knowledge to their masters without being subject to enslavement.

The Decline of Slavery

The decline of slavery in Rome began in the 5th century. The fall of the Roman Empire resulted in the emancipation of many slaves, as the law of nations no longer granted conquerors the right to claim defeated peoples as slaves. This led to a decrease in the number of slaves available to perform labor, and many of the former slaves were able to benefit from the new freedom.
The decline of slavery was further hastened by a series of laws known as the Lex Fructuaria. This law declared that any slave who had been in bondage for a full calendar year was to be set free, and any slave who was born free but enslaved was immediately to be released. This law, as well as other reforms, laid the groundwork for the eventual end of slavery in Rome.

The Legacy of Slavery

Despite the end of slavery in Rome, its legacy lives on. The impact of slavery in Roman society and its effects on modern day society cannot be understated.
The harsh conditions and treatment of slaves in Rome saw the exploitation of millions of people. This exploitation led to a decrease in quality of life for slaves and a rise in the power and wealth of slave owners. These effects can still be felt today, as wealth inequality is still a major issue in many countries.
The decline of slavery in Rome also had an impact on the economy. As slavery was abolished, the demand for slave labor decreased. This led to a decline in economic growth and an increase in poverty as unskilled labor was no longer in demand.

The Impact of Slavery on Society

The impact of slavery in Roman society was profound. Slavery has been a defining part of the Roman Empire, both during the Republic and the Empire. This has had lasting effects on the way society is organized, with many countries still struggling to achieve equality and justice for all.
One of the most notable impacts of slavery in Roman society is the class system. Slavery provided the foundation for the class system in Rome, as slaves were treated differently and had fewer rights than free citizens. This class system still exists today in many places, and has enshrined certain people as having higher social status than others.
The legacy of slavery can also be seen in the treatment of marginalized groups. In Rome, slaves were often mistreated and subjected to abuse. This has had lasting effects on the way that disadvantaged and minority groups are treated, as the idea of unequal treatment has been enshrined in many societies.

The Representation of Slaves

The depiction of slaves in Roman literature and art was often negative, with slaves depicted as lazy, foolish, and untrustworthy. This image of slaves has been reinforced through the centuries, with negative stereotypes of slaves still present in modern society.
This depiction of slaves in Roman society can also be seen in the popular imagination, with many books and movies portraying slaves in an unflattering light. This portrays slaves as subservient, passive, and powerless, reinforcing the notion that slavery was an acceptable practice.


Slaves in ancient Rome were an integral part of the Roman economy and played an essential role in its functioning. Although slavery was eventually abolished in Rome, its legacy continues to be felt in modern day society. The depiction of slaves in Roman literature and art sent a message that slaves were inferior and undeserving of basic civil rights, a message that still lingers today.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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