- Ulrike Roth
Slavery, a destiny that could affect anyone in the ancient world, had a defining role in Roman society. Sanctioned by law and never seriously challenged in thought or action, Roman slavery ordinarily subjected the enslaved to another’s powers of ownership (dominium), regularly for the purpose of labour exploitation, despite the law’s simultaneous recognition of the shared humanity of enslaved and enslaver; consequently, enslavement was defined according to the law of nations (ius gentium) rather than—and in fact against—natural law (ius naturalis) (Dig. 126.96.36.199). Slavery (servitus) signalled the antithesis to freedom (libertas), including in the wider civic context: being free meant to be in one’s own power (in potestate sua), privileging an androcentric notion of freedom focused on patria potestas. Freedom from slavery was often, but not necessarily, related to the enjoyment of Roman citizenship (civitas), and Romans were not normally enslaved within the civic community. Contrarily, there existed no bar to the subjection to Roman slavery of non-Romans of any legal or civic status. Accordingly, individuals of all ages and sexes, born both within and outside the Roman sphere of influence, were reduced to slavery under Rome, whether from birth or through subsequent enslavement. Release from slavery was built into the Romans’ slaving system in the form of manumission, a practice that is widely attested in the surviving evidence, including the profuse documentation of successful social integration of Roman freedpersons that contrasts sharply with the profound misery and pain that characterize the numerous forms of exploitation imposed on the enslaved. Subject to multiple changes over time, slavery was a fixture of Roman society over the more than one thousand years of its existence, constituting a fundamental element of Rome’s increasing domination of the Mediterranean world. While Roman slavery coexisted throughout this period with other forms of dependence and exploitation, as well as with slaveries that operated under non-Roman conventions, it produced a historical record that merits concentrated study in its own right.
- Ancient Economy
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.