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B - 17 : The Institution of Household Slaves

The word “household slave” seems strange to us today but in the Roman Empire it was a well known term. Half of all slaves (2.5m) worked in domestic households. To do the math, about 5% or 2.5 million Romans belonged to the elite. They owned half of all slaves - mostly working for them as household slaves. There was thus - on average - one household slave per noble person!

Slaves helping to dress a noble woman

Household slaves were in high demand. They served not only as servants, cooks, gardeners and groomers, but had many more important duties. Whilst Rome's old noble elite was well educated and dedicated itself to the "Res Publica” (the public cause which gave us the name for republic), many of the more recent arrivals had made their fortune fighting with Roman’s Legions during campaigns, trading grain, being landlords of the mass population in Rome or selling slaves. Whilst many made a big fortune, most were illiterate and needed scribes and accountants to keep track of their business and affairs. Of course, scribes and accountants can not be found amongst prisoners of war. But Cilician pirates supplied the skilled manpower needed.

Roman noble man flanked by female slaves (we do not know what they are reading or writing) Some of these household slaves became very prominent and important in their own right. Marcus Tullius Tiro is a good example. He was Cicero’s slave but became a freedman just before Cicero’s death. Once free, Tiro published his former master’s collective work which would not have survived without him. Other examples include Pope Clements I, the fourth bishop of Rome, or Pope Callistus I, who became Pope in 218 AD.

Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero's Slave Roman slaves also had the right to buy their freedom from their owners. Under an institution called “manumission”, a Roman slave could buy his freedom if he could pay his owner the sum of cash equivalent to his own worth. We know that slaves sold at around 625 Dinarii in 79 AD - roughly 2 kg of fine silver - or two years of pay for a Roman Centurion. Slaves in important positions could thus save their way out. A slave gardener or an unskilled woman cook had hardly the opportunity. One of the more sinister chapters of Roman slavery was that female slaves and children were often forced into prostitution or were used as sex slaves by their masters. Not so good!

Slave dancers To finish this blog on a more positive note, Roman slaves were also fabulous cooks. Many receipes which survived were written down by slave chefs. But more about this tomorrow.


Slave butchering a pig

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