The Roman Republic enforced slavery throughout their empire, using slaves for manual labor and entertainment. Slaves worked entirely for the benefit of their owners and sustained only by such food, clothing, and shelter as their owners provided them.

Slaves were legally property, and could be punished or even killed by their owners without consequence. Slaves in the Roman Republic often constituted half of the populations in the cities and populated a third of the total population of Italy. They became the primary source of manual labor, displacing the small farmers and workers who had previously provided such labor.

As Rome expanded, new slaves were acquired primarily as prisoners of war, but also by slave mating, or by abduction and sale by pirates, most notably by the Cilician Pirates. New slaves were primarily acquired by wholesale dealers who followed the Roman armies. Many people who bought slaves wanted strong slaves, mostly men. Child slaves cost less than adults although other sources state their price as higher.

Within the Republic, slaves were sold at public auction or sometimes in shops, or by private sale in the case of more valuable slaves. Slave dealing was overseen by the Roman fiscal officials called quaestors.

Sometimes slaves stood on revolving stands, and around each slave for sale hung a type of plaque describing his or her origin, health, character, intelligence, education, and other information pertinent to purchasers. Prices varied with age and quality, with the most valuable slaves fetching prices equivalent to thousands of today's money.

Because the Romans wanted to know exactly what they were buying, slaves were presented naked.

The dealer was required to take a slave back within six months if the slave had defects that were not manifest at the sale, or make good the buyer's loss.

Slaves to be sold with no guarantee were made to wear a cap at the auction.

Slave Occupations

House Slaves

A house slave was a slave who worked and often lived in the villa of their dominus. House slaves had many duties such as cooking, cleaning, serving meals and caring for children.

Body Slaves

  • The personal attendant to a Dominus or Domina.
  • They attended their masters wherever they traveled.
  • Usually a female slave would belonged to a Domina while male slaves attended a Dominus.
  • Body slaves would move on to serve the children of their dominus or domina after their death.
  • Some body slaves typically enjoyed a "closer" relationship with their masters than other household slaves, gaining their trust and friendship over time.
  • A Baiulus, translated as "porter" or "bearer", would serve in mundane tasks akin to that of a normal footman.
  • Famulus was a general term for a domestic worker, or household slave.
  • Mancipium/Mancipia specifically was a slave who was purchased from the market, unlike Vernae.
  • Verna was a slave who was born in the master's household.
  • Unlike most Famuli, Vernae were considered part of the family and, in some cases, may have been the offspring of the dominus with his slave women.
  • As homegrown slaves, Vernae were conventionally viewed as being more loyal than slaves obtained from the market, and trusted by their owners for larger responsibilities (see Naevia and Diona).
  • Concubinus was a male slave used in a sexual role.
  • Unlike a Concubina, who could just as well be a free woman, homosexual acts between free men were frowned upon in Roman society, so slaves were deemed suitable as a "submissive partner".
  • A Puer Delicatus, meaning "delicate boy', otherwise known as Deliciae or "delightful ones" was a child slave of a dominus.
  • Roles assigned to these children could vary widely, depending on the individual needs of the Roman upper-class.
  • Often, they held a privileged place in their master's esteem and were viewed as little more than pets.
  • They could play the part of a young body-slave by attending their master's person, or were assigned as companions for the master's own children.
  • Other slave-owners, however, seemed to have used these children for sex.

Servus Publicus

A Servus Publicus was a slave who, rather than being owned by a private individual, was owned by the state.

They were used for manual labour in the temples, forums and other public buildings.

They were also employed as assistants to both magistrates and members of the College of Pontiffs (Roman priesthoods).

Priestesses of Juno employed the services of a slave called a Porcaria Publica, or 'public pig-keeper', who reared pigs to be sacrificed in the religious festivals.

Public slaves who were literate would serve in bureaucratic roles for the Senate and assemblies.

Job titles such as Notarius (notary), Numerarius (accountant), Exceptor (secretary),Ac Abtis (archivist) and Cancellarius (scribe and usher).


Slaves known as Nexi were formerly free members of Roman society who sold themselves into slavery due to debt (see Varro and Aurelia).

The name Nexus comes from the term Nexum, or contract. Nexi are perhaps better identified as indentured servants, as their servitude was meant to last until their debts were paid.

=============Nexum was a debt bondage contract in the early Roman Republic. Within the Roman legal system, it was a form of mancipatio. Though the terms of the contract would vary, essentially a free man pledged himself as a bond slave (nexus) as surety for a loan. He might also hand over his son as collateral. Although the bondsman could expect to face humiliation and some abuse, as a legal citizen he was supposed to be exempt from corporal punishment. Nexum was abolished by the Lex Poetelia Papiria in 326 BC, in part to prevent abuses to the physical integrity of citizens who had fallen into debt bondage.

Roman historians illuminated the abolition of nexum with a traditional story that varied in its particulars; basically, a nexus who was a handsome but upstanding youth suffered sexual harassment by the holder of the debt. In one version, the youth had gone into debt to pay for his father's funeral; in others, he had been handed over by his father. In all versions, he is presented as a model of virtue. Historical or not, the cautionary tale highlighted the incongruities of subjecting one free citizen to another's use, and the legal response was aimed at establishing the citizen's right to liberty (libertas), as distinguished from the slave or social outcast (infamis).[53]

Cicero considered the abolition of nexum primarily a political maneuver to appease the common people (plebs): the law was passed during the Conflict of the Orders, when plebeians were struggling to establish their rights in relation to the hereditary privileges of the patricians. Although nexum was abolished as a way to secure a loan, debt bondage might still result after a debtor defaulted=========

Armed Slaves

Some slaves were trusted enough to carry weapons and act in the capacity as private security for their dominus.

Stipator was a slave who served as a bodyguard for his master. At the master's discretion, they would have carried weapons. Certain Roman nobles, such as Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, employed gladiators for this role.

Pastores, meaning "herdsmen", were trained to herd livestock belonging to their dominus.

They traveled across wide stretches of the Italian countryside at their master's discretion, and were permitted to carry weapons to protect his property against thieves.

Pastores may have even acted as enforcers against others slaves on the estate as well as small-holding tenant farmers called Coloni.

As bands of armed men responsible for herding animals over extensive distances, Pastores are considered the "cowboys" of ancient Roman society.

The leader of a troop of Pastores was called a Magister Pecoris, meaning "master of the herd".

Overseers called Monitores (those who warn), otherwise known as Operum Magistri (work-masters) would supervise the other slaves on the estate and were possibly serving as guards as well.


Those who were enslaved from foreign campaigns by the Romans were trained as Gladiators, indentured fighters who fought each other in the arena for the entertainment of the crowd.

Gladiatorial games were very popular in the Roman Republic, second only to chariot racing.

gladiator was an indentured fighter. Gladiatorial games were very popular in the Roman Republic (and later, the Roman Empire), only second to chariot racing.

See Gladiator for more information and specific examples.

Treatment and Punishments

There are reports of abuse of slaves by Romans, but there is little information to indicate how widespread such harsh treatment was. Cato the Elder was recorded as expelling his old or sick slaves from his house. Seneca held the view that a slave who was treated well would perform a better job than a poorly treated slave.

Although in general freed slaves could become citizens, with the right to vote if they were male, those categorized as dediticii suffered permanent disbarment from citizenship. The dediticii were mainly slaves whose masters had felt compelled to punish them for serious misconduct by placing them in chains, branding them, torturing them to confess a crime, imprisoning them or sending them involuntarily to a gladiatorial school (ludus), or condemning them to fight with gladiator or wild beasts (their subsequent status was obviously a concern only to those who survived). Dediticii were regarded as a threat to society, regardless of whether their master's punishments had been justified, and if they came within a hundred miles of Rome, they were subject to reenslavement.[62]

Crucifixion was the capital punishment meted out specifically to slaves, traitors, and bandits.[63][64][65][66] Marcus Crassus was supposed to have concluded his victory over Spartacus in the Third Servile War by crucifying 6,000 of the slave rebels along the Appian Way.

Several emperors began to grant more rights to slaves as the empire grew. Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide.[67] Legal protection of slaves continued to grow as the empire expanded. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century CE to allow slaves to complain of cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.[68]

According to Marcel Mauss, in Roman times the persona gradually became "synonymous with the true nature of the individual" but "the slave was excluded from it. servus non habet personam ('a slave has no persona'). He has no personality. He does not own his body; he has no ancestors, no name, no cognomen, no goods of his own.

Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills


Crucifixion was a common form of execution for slaves.


Freeing a slave was called manumissio, which literally means "sending out from the hand". The freeing of the slave was a public ceremony, performed before some sort of public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, usually with the owner proclaiming a slave's freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner.

A felt cap called the Pileus was given to the former slave as symbol of manumission.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed toward the slave's owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave who had enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. However, few slaves had enough money to do so, and many slaves were not allowed to hold money. Slaves were also freed through testamentary manumission, by a provision in an owner's will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to at most a hundred slaves, and fewer in a small household.

Already educated or experienced slaves were freed the most often. Eventually the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed before age 30.


A freed slave was the libertus of his former master, who became his patron (patronus). The two had mutual obligations to each other within the traditional patronage network. The terms of his manumission might specify the services a libertus owed. A freedman could "network" with other patrons as well.

As a social class, former slaves were libertini. Men could vote and participate in politics, with some limitations. They could not run for office, nor be admitted to the senatorial class. The children of former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship without restrictions. The Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Some freedmen became very powerful. Many freedmen had important roles in the Roman government. Freedmen of the Imperial families often were the main functionaries in the Imperial administration. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.

Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses inPompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman designed the amphitheater in Pompeii.

A freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche.Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon, is a caricature of such a freedman.

Slave Rebellion

There were three known slave rebellions in the Roman Republic, and a revolt of slaves requiring military force to repress was called a Servile War.

The first two uprisings were in Sicily, the first led by Eunus and the second by Salvius.

The revolt of Spartacus and the gladiators and other slaves who followed him was the third such uprising in the history of the Roman Republic as well as the most successful, and was known as the Third Servile War.