The Etruscan chieftains who settled in Italy reduced many of the natives to serfdom and doubtless acquired alien slaves by trade and piracy. There is no definite evidence that serfdom survived in Etruria in Roman times, but it still existed before the First Punic War when some serfs at Volsinii, who had been freed by their masters for military service, seized the government, and thus brought Roman punishment on their own heads, and were perhaps reduced to slavery. Whether in early days the Etruscans had introduced serfdom into Latium is uncertain. But in the difficult years that followed the fall of Etruscan power the plight of the small Roman farmer was wretched and some citizen debtors must have lost their freedom in the economic struggle. In law, of course, a slave was not a person but res mancipi, the property of his owner who could inflict any punishment, including death, unfettered by any legal limits. The extension of Roman power throughout Italy had two results: the condition of the Roman peasants improved, and the number of slaves, created by conquest, increased. But the slave was not yet regarded as a profit-making machine, though occasionally skilled workers might be used for profit. As he and his master generally belonged to the same or similar races, he was treated as a servant of the family and worked by his master’s side in the fields. He shared in certain festivals and was allowed to keep his savings (peculium) with some hope of eventually buying his freedom. Emancipation was frequent and in 357 a law was passed imposing a 5 per cent tax on manumission. Since 4,000 lb of gold had accumulated in the treasury from this source by 209, an average of some 1,350 slaves may have been freed each year. The political generosity of the Roman government towards this freedman class which in general took the place of clients attached to the great houses is discussed elsewhere (p. 289); at the end of the third century Philip of Macedon, writing to the inhabitants of Larissa, called attention to the liberal policy of the Romans in granting full citizenship, including the right to hold office, to liberated slaves (Dittenberger, Sylloge II, 143).
Before Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean world slavery was not such a grievous blot on her civilization as it became after her contact with Carthaginian, Hellenic and Oriental ideas. The supply of slaves was maintained, partly by children born to slaves in the house (vernae; who were usually treated with particular kindness), but more especially by warfare. It has been reckoned that the First Punic War produced some 75,000 slaves whose sale brought the Roman treasury 15 million denarii. During the Hannibalic War the capture of Tarentum alone produced some 30,000 prisoners, while the war captives of the first half of the second century may have numbered 250,000. The demand was increasing, both for mere labour in the country and for more educated slaves for domestic work in the town. After Cannae slaves had been freed for military service, while landowners called to the front would require slaves to run their farms in their absence. With the growth of the plantation system in the second century, slave labour largely supplanted free on the big estates, since free labourers were liable to be called away from agriculture to the army.
The increasing prevalence of slavery in the second century had a deteriorating effect both on Roman character and on the conditions of the slaves themselves. Carthaginians, Spaniards, Greeks, Macedonians and Syrians poured into the slave markets. As manumission was common many foreign freedmen or their descendants achieved full Roman citizenship; lower moral standards from the east crept into Italy and ultimately the Orontes flowed into the Tiber, though only the beginnings of the movement are visible in our period. The more educated slaves would be used in the towns, where they often alleviated their lot by pandering to the increasingly luxurious tastes of their masters, who were frequently less cultured than they were; others drove much free labour out of the manual trades. In the country gangs of the more barbarous slaves worked the latifundia under the control of slave-bailiffs. They were often treated as mere beasts and sometimes worked in chains. Cato, who in his early days had toiled with his slaves, showed a revolting callousness, working them till they dropped or selling them when they became useless. He allowed them a blanket, a tunic and a pair of wooden shoes every second year. Still more wretched were those who worked in the mines of Spain or Macedon. Such conditions led to insecurity in Italy: runaway slaves naturally turned to brigandage, and conspiracies became more common. Punic slaves in some Latin cities tried to rebel in 198; two years later a legion was required to suppress an outbreak in Etruria; others rioted in Apulia in connection with the Bacchanalian conspiracy (186–180); the serious revolts in Sicily, however, belong to a later period. This brutal and degrading system was a canker that gnawed at the healthy life of Italy; it remained for Stoicism and Christianity to remind men that a slave was a fellow human being.13