When did Roman slavery take place?

History of Slavery - Slaves are not just slaves

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They belonged to other people, but over the years Rome's slaves were given more freedom. This is shown by the exhibition "Spartacus" in Rome.

The essentials in brief:

  • An exhibition in Roman Museum Ara Pacis is dedicated to slavery in Roman antiquity and shows: Slaves were then integrated into society.
  • Roman slaves had to a chain as a distinguishing mark with the name of the owner hanging around the neck.
  • Thanks to extremely cheap labor, the smallholder population and disappeared large farms emergedwho secured supplies for the Romans.

Greek and Roman slaves

The handling of slaves in antiquity differed from country to country. With the ancient Greeks, for example, a slave was a second-class person.

While he was allowed to exercise almost all civil rights as a freedman with the Romans, as a free man with the Greeks he always remained socially, politically and legally marginalized. The Romans acted more practically: a freedman was integrated into society without prejudice about his social or national origin.

Before and after Spartacus

The exhibition "Spartacus" in the Roman Museum Ara Pacis explains how things happened as a result of the slave revolts under Spartacus and after his death in 71 BC. In the Roman Empire there was new, milder legislation in dealing with unfree people. Whereas previously inhumanity and brutality ruled exclusively, owners of slaves now had to meet certain requirements for their human property.

After 30 years of service, slaves were allowed to become free and Roman citizens. As such, they also came to office and dignity. The children of the free were also allowed to vote and were therefore not to be distinguished from any other Roman citizen in terms of rights and duties.

Not free but rich and powerful

Due to the fact that doctors, builders, philosophy teachers and other professional professions were almost exclusively occupied by educated slaves - many of them came from Greece - this class of unfree people also came to influence and property.

The so-called imperial slaves, they regulated and controlled the court administration, even became powerful and so rich that they were allowed to keep their own slaves, called villas their own and enjoyed great freedom. Formally they were all slaves, but in everyday life they moved like Roman citizens.

Necklaces engraved with the owner's name

How do you recognize a slave? A question that the exhibition also addresses. It's an important question because slaves look no different from free people. The Romans forced their bondage to hang metal chains around their necks as a means of identification, which were difficult to remove. Most of the time the slave owner's name was written on it.

Ivory slave chains can also be seen in the exhibition. They were lighter than metal and intended for child slaves. Because the Romans also took advantage of young people, especially for domestic work.

No social advancement without slaves

Using numerous antique objects, the exhibition explains how hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought into the empire after the conquest of the entire Mediterranean region. Above all, they changed agriculture.

Thanks to extremely cheap labor, the peasantry disappeared and huge latifundia emerged on which tens of thousands of slaves toiled. These large farms enabled the emergence of agricultural monocultures and thus the guaranteed supply of the Romans with elementary food and beverages.

Slavery even after Constantine the Great

In 380 Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire. The exhibition in the Ara Pacis Museum places particular emphasis on making it clear that the introduction of Christianity did not mean the end of slavery as a state system of oppression.

With the blessings of the early Church, slavery was maintained. Slaves were also allowed to become Christians and to be baptized - but only, as an inscription explains in the Roman exhibition, with the permission of their owner, the Christian slave owner.

Broadcast: Radio SRF 2 Kultur, Kultur aktuell, 04/04/2017, 4:50 p.m.

Exhibition notice

Open the box Close the box

From March 31st to September 17th, slavery becomes Roman
Antiquity is a theme in the Roman Museum Ara Pacis.

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