Why Did Slavery Start In Ancient Rome


Slavery has been intertwined with human societies for thousands of years, but what gave rise to its existence in ancient Rome? Slavery can have many forms and shapes, from chattel slavery, to debt bondage and systems of indentured servitude. In this article, we will examine the root causes and history of slavery in ancient Rome, analyze its implications and discuss expert perspectives on the phenomenon.

What is Slavery?

In order to understand why slavery started in Rome, we must first define the concept. Generally, slavery is considered a form of human exploitation, in which people are deprived of their economic, social, and political rights and held in exchange for goods and services. These goods and services can range from labor, agricultural production, artisanal or military services and even the trade of goods and commodities. Slavery, as it existed in ancient Rome, was a form of subjugation and servitude based on ancestry translated into law and endorsed by the state.

How did Slavery Start?

Slavery in Rome began in the fourth century B.C. as a result of government-sanctioned expansionism. As Rome grew and expanded, it formed alliances and annexed territories. When it conquered large parts of Europe and the Middle East by the first century B.C., it encountered people of different nationalities and cultures, which it subjected to a system of servitude. The people taken and enslaved by Rome ranged from prisoners of wars, to debtors and even people of foreign origin.

Legality of Slavery

Slavery was legally recognized by the Roman government and enshrined in law. The Roman Republic established a system of laws known as the Twelve Tables in the 5th century B.C., granting the master absolute power over the lives of slaves. This power was total and included the ability to kill or abuse them without consequence. The Roman Empire solidified these laws in the 3rd century B.C., imposing harsh punishments for runaway slaves and criminalizing slave emancipation.

The Impact of Slavery

The widespread nature of slavery had far-reaching implications for the people of Rome. It imposed severe restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as providing a foundation for the exploitation and abuse of power by the ruling elite. The use of slaves was also a powerful tool for those in power, as it provided a cheap source of labor that could be used to construct public buildings such as roads, temples and aqueducts.

Expert Perspectives

Experts agree that poverty and economic hardship were significant factors in the emergence of slavery in ancient Rome. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History states that “Rome was an agrarian society and the lowest classes of society—the poor urban plebs, or plebeians, and the slaves—were pushed into a lower social and economic status.”
Slavery in Rome also had economic and political benefits for its ruling elites. According to historian Dr. Kenneth S. Rothwell, “The owners of large estates and those in power found it useful to have a surplus of labor that was not paid, and with slave labor, large-scale farms were profitable and politically influential.”


Slavery was an integral part of the ancient Roman society and economy, but it also had some unfavorable implications. It was a form of subjugation and servitude based on ancestry, which perpetuated poverty and oppression of the poor. Despite the fact that slavery had political, social and economic benefits for the ruling elite, it was a cruel system that had far-reaching implications for those subjected to it.

The Global Impact Of Roman Slavery

The impact of slavery in ancient Rome was not limited to the boundaries of the empire, but had a global reach. This can be seen in the spread of the Roman system of laws and governance, which heavily relied on slavery and was later adopted in many parts of the world.

The Role of Slavery in Roman Law and Governance

Roman law heavily relied on the notion of slavery to enforce its principles and regulations. Slave labor was considered vital for the functioning of the legal system, as well as for the economic maintenance of the empire. This was reflected in the Twelve Tables, which granted absolute power to the master over the lives of slaves.

Roman Influence on Later Empires

The Roman system of law and governance became increasingly influential and was adopted by many of the later empires. This can be seen in the prevalence of slavery in the territories controlled by the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Africans and the Arabs, largely modeled on the Roman system.

The Legacy of Roman Slavery

The legacy of Roman slavery had a profound impact on the political and economic systems of later generations, with many aspects of Roman law still exerted in much of the world today. Furthermore, the history of slavery in Rome is still used as a reference for debates about the issue of modern-day slavery, as well as its acceptability in various societies.

The Conditions Of Slaves In Rome

The Roman system of slavery imposed severe restrictions on the rights and liberty of slaves. This section will discuss the conditions of slaves in ancient Rome, as well as their treatment by their masters.

Daily Life and Restrictions

The daily life of slaves was heavily restricted and regulated. Slaves were forbidden from owning property, marrying or having children without the master’s permission. Their movements were severely restricted and they were expected to obey their masters without question. Furthermore, punishments for disobedient slaves were harsh and could even include death.

Treatment of Slaves by Masters

The masters of slaves had absolute power over their lives and could decide their fate without consequence. This often resulted in brutal and inhumane treatment, ranging from physical and psychological abuse to sexual exploitation. Such practices were legally endorsed and enforced by the Roman system of law and governance.

The Status of Slaves

The status of slaves in ancient Rome was inferior to that of free people. Slaves were not considered citizens and had no legal protection. This was reflected in Roman law, which stated that slaves had no rights and that their masters could do with them as they pleased.

The Abolition of Slavery

Slavery in Rome was officially abolished in the 4th century A.D. by Emperor Constantine, but its legacy and influence was still felt in world history. The notion of human rights and the protection of those rights against the abuses of power and authority was only fully established centuries later, after the Roman system of laws had ceased to exist.

Enduring Effects of Slavery in Rome

The effects of slavery in ancient Rome are still felt today, in the form of economic, social and political power structures. This section will discuss the enduring effects of Roman slavery on modern societies.

Implications for Social Structures

The legacy of Roman slavery has been enduring and has had a profound effect on modern societies. The notion that certain people possess more power than others based on their social status is one of the main factors influencing class divisions, income disparity and other issues affecting the social structure of many countries today.

Political Implications

The political implications of slavery in Rome are complex and far-reaching. Slavery was used to consolidate power and enforce a system in which the ruling elites would benefit from the subjugation of the lower classes. This power dynamic has been influential in many systems of governance, with often devastating results.

Economic Implications

The economic implications of Roman slavery are still visible in many parts of the world today. Slavery was integral in the functioning of the Roman economy, providing the state and the ruling elite with a large source of cheap labor. This system of labor exploitation has been replicated in many parts of the world and is still being actively used today in some countries.

Modern Forms of Slavery

The Roman system of slavery has had a significant impact on the understanding and acceptance of modern forms of slavery. The history of Roman slavery serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of unchecked power and the potential consequences of failing to protect the rights of the powerless in society.

The Role Of Education In Countering Slavery

Education has a key role to play in countering the enduring effects of slavery. This section will analyze the role of education in countering modern forms of slavery and its potential as a tool to empower vulnerable communities.

Role in Empowerment

Education has the potential to empower vulnerable groups and enable them to challenge oppressive power structures. Through education, individuals can gain valuable skills and knowledge, giving them the power to resist exploitation and defend their rights.

Raising Awareness

Education also has the potential to raise awareness about the human rights abuses associated with modern forms of slavery. Through education, individuals become knowledgeable about their rights, enabling them to identify and challenge oppressive practices and push for greater recognition of their rights.

Encouraging Solidarity

Education has the potential to create solidarity among vulnerable groups and encourage collective action against oppressive systems. By increasing awareness about both the dangers of modern slavery and the actions individuals can take to combat it, education has the power to foster collective action and mobilize people to demand their rights.

Engendering Hope

Education can also engender hope among vulnerable communities and provide them with a sense of purpose. Education can empower people to believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference in societies where their rights and freedom are often denied.


Slavery was an integral part of the ancient Roman society and economy and its legacy is still felt today. The widespread nature of slavery in Rome had far-reaching implications for its people, as well as for later generations, who adopted many of its principles in their own systems of law and governance. Education has the potential to empower vulnerable communities and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to challenge oppressive systems of power.

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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