I received this question from one of my students:
Hello, Mr. Thomas! I have a question about the Roman slaves. (You mentioned this in Lingua Latina 1, I believe, but I don’t remember exactly what you said.) Could you tell me again (or tell me what chapter it was when you talked about this) about the Roman slaves? Were they more like “family members enslaved”? (I could be totally off XD) I mostly want to know if they were more like family members. And was this the way the slaves were treated in the New Testament? (And I’m asking this for a reason 🙂 )
Here is my reply:
Unfortunately, I don’t remember what class that was in either.
But, I’ll do my best to sum it up for you here.
Like everything in life, there were “levels” of slavery.
The Romans would often buy very educated Greek slaves to teach their children. If the boys went to school (girls didn’t) there even slaves whose job it was to make sure the boys got there each day (because boys have been the same throughout history…. they hate school). A slave who accompanied the boys to school was called a pedagogue (paedagogus, paedagogi).
There were slaves who worked in the house. They cooked, cleaned, guarded, answered the door, and performed other “butler” type duties. Cicero had a slave named Tyro who really acted as the personal assistant of Cicero. Cicero treated him as a friend. By Cicero’s will, he was freed after Caesar Augustus executed Cicero. A household slave/attendant like Tyro would have probably been called a minister. Minister is a Latin word for slave, but more for an indoor slave.
Prisoners of war and criminals got the short end of the stick. Their lives were short and miserable. These were the servii, from the word servus. They ended up rowing warships, or in the mines, or in gladiatorial schools. Judah Ben Hur does time as a galley slave in the book, Ben Hur. Technically, every slave in Rome was a servus, but there were slight distinctions. If you were a minister, or paedagogus, or something like it, your life was a bit more tolerable.
Slaves were certainly abused. They were viewed and often treated, as livestock. However, there were times when slaves and masters became close enough to be treated as almost family. My guess is that this was the exception, not the rule.
Slaves could purchase their freedom. Masters would often pay their slaves a small stipend. Slaves could save this up over time and purchase their own freedom. Sometimes, as an act of appreciation, or kindness, a master would simply grant freedom to a slave, but this was rare. Once a slave was free, he, or she became a “freeman” and could start a small business or shop, or begin building their own farm.
A freed slave might even join the Roman army. If he served (and survived) twenty years in the legions, the state would grant him a small piece of land in one the provinces.
I hope this helps and I hope you are having a great day!