Ancient History & Civilisation



THE DOMESTICATION OF ANIMALS and the beginning of slavery go hand in hand, for a person is potentially the most useful of all animals. Thus from early times humans have tried and often succeeded in dominating other humans to further their own welfare. This longstanding, organic development of slavery in parallel with the more general use of animals subordinated to humans’ needs explains why in antiquity the institution of slavery was never seriously contested as being other than a normal, acceptable way of relating to other human beings. Slavery was omnipresent in the Romano-Grecian world. Its specific forms and applications varied according to local factors, but its existence was not questioned in any practical way. The physical and psychological toll that slavery visited upon individual slaves occasionally came to the attention of masters; the fundamentally arbitrary ways of demarcating a difference between ‘slave’ and ‘not slave’ troubled philosophers. But except for a few rare and uninfluential outliers, neither those who thought about slaves and slavery, nor those who just used slaves, nor those who had dealings with others’ slaves in their daily lives, considered the merits or practicality of abolition; the story of slavery is one of accommodation to it or attempts to escape or avoid it, not to overthrowing the condition itself within society.

This cultural reality provides the guide to seeing slaves living out their lives. Slavery does not so much reduce the slave to a dehumanized ‘thing,’ as it creates a different order of existence, an environment in which the slave is ‘rehumanized’ in a social or cultural role. Romans never denied the ‘humanity’ of slaves, their ‘personhood’ as men, not beasts, no matter how much they compared them to beasts as chattel property, or spoke of them as morally inferior, weak human beings. They just wanted them to be socialized to their slavish role. From the slave’s perspective, his or her life as negotiation of that slavish role reveals what it meant to be a human in an enslaved condition.


9. Into slavery. A sad procession of men, women, and children is led into slavery, to be sold by the trader Aulus Caprilius Timotheus, who proudly boasts of his unsavory (even to the ancients) profession on his tombstone.

Coming to a general picture of slaves in their slave experience is complicated by the complexity and variety of that experience. The evidence for the slave’s mind world, scanty as it is, is never entirely coherent. Challenges also arise because the Westerner tends to use knowledge or impressions of New World slavery to make sense of what is known of Romano-Grecian slavery. As I will show, there are important, revealing points of comparison, but the differences are stark as well; I mention here only the most obvious, the lack of race as a basic element in ancient slavery and the much wider diversity of slave life in antiquity.

A slave voice?

Are there actual slave voices in ancient sources? A few authors who wrote for the elite had begun or spent part of their lives as slaves: Plautus, the comedic writer of the Roman Republic; Diogenes, the Greek founder of Cynic philosophy; Epictetus, the Roman Stoic philosopher of the early empire; and the fabulists Aesop and Phaedrus all claimed or have been claimed directly or indirectly to have begun life as slaves, or to have been enslaved during a portion of their lives. What is most striking is that no author who demonstrably is or was a slave explicitly takes on the task of writing about his experience as a slave. Epictetus and Plautus come the closest, for the former’s use of slave examples and the latter’s use of slave characters in his plays clearly address the three main concerns of a slave’s outlook. Still, one might expect to find among the tens of thousands of pages of Latin and Greek works one that was explicitly written by a slave about the slave experience – or at least among the thousands of titles of ancient Latin and Greek works that once existed but no longer survive. After all, we know that many slaves were educated. For example, one, Phlegon of Tralles, wrote history and other matters during the time of the emperor Hadrian, while another, Q. Remmius Palaemon, once he gained his freedom was a famous professor of literature at Rome. But there are no nonfiction works that even claim to be by slaves about slaves, and only one piece of fiction: The Life of Aesop, written by an unknown author. There are fictional works that famously foreground the ‘slave experience’: Petronius’ Satyricon, Apuleius’ Golden Ass, various ancient romances, and Lucian in The Runaways and some other tales speak at various times and in various ways from a slave’s perspective. Satyricon and The Golden Ass are certainly written by elites – Petronius was of the imperial court and Apuleius a provincial elite. The background of the authors of the romances is unknown. The Life of Aesop would seem from its simple language and style to come from the pen of an ordinary person, while Lucian was raised in an artisan family and has some claim to firsthand knowledge of nonelite life and outlooks.

Of course historians and other elite literary and legal sources mention slaves. Traditionally, these have formed the backbone of all discussion of ancient slavery. My project, however, is to seek the slaves’ mind world without the cultural bias and contamination that inevitably exists when these elites touch on slaves and slavery. It can be argued, quite properly, that the standard elite sources can be used if care is taken to account for their social point of view; many scholars have done just that. But I wish to leave them aside in order to emphasize the picture that can be painted without them. It is an experiment of sorts, but I believe a more immediate experience of the slave mind world is accessible without their interference. As a result, although I use some elites such as agricultural writers and the novelists Petronius and Apuleius who are striving to see the slaves’ world, standard elite historians, biographers, and letter-writers only occasionally figure in my narrative.

There might be some hope of finding slave voices in Christian literature given the participation of slaves in early Christian worship and social groups. In the Gospels there are forthright examples of slavery in action, as well as some understanding of slave attitudes. But in the New Testament epistles only the First Letter of Peter seems to speak of slaves from a slave’s point of view, despite all the rhetoric about slaves being a significant part of the Christian community, and if the author was a slave, he has disguised this well. Later Christian literature is also unhelpful. So in Christian as in pagan literature the voice of the slave is hard to find.

At a slight remove, the many references to issues of concern to slaves, particularly those relating to sexuality and to running away, show that dream interpretation and astrological works were responding directly to slaves and their concerns. And fables, while applicable to a wide range of statuses, were rightly seen in antiquity, as now, as in many cases expressing genuine attitudes and strategies of slaves. But this makes it puzzling to realize just how unexamined the life of a slave was in other popular literature. In proverbs and gnomic sayings, slavery is virtually invisible. It remains strange that fables should seem to evoke the situation of slaves, while proverbs and other popular literature do not.

Outside of literature, certainly slaves left their own voices as epitaphs, mostly very short, on their graves. These gravestones are more easily imagined as the true voices of slaves and are a valuable window onto their slave experience; I use them extensively. Other archaeological evidence for slavery is rather limited, and what does exist is difficult to relate to the slaves’ mind world. Thus material culture does not add much to the discussion here. Papyri, though, offer a very useful source for thinking about slaves, providing demographic as well as contextual evidence that greatly enriches our understanding.

Numbers and sources of slaves

The demography of slavery helps to provide some background for the slaves’ mind world. Slavery was not the predominant form of rural labor in the empire; there were heavy concentrations on a relatively few broad estates, mostly in Italy and Sicily, plus a higher than average percentage of slaves in larger towns and cities. Although the regional variation was obviously great, overall perhaps only one household in seven owned a slave, with most of these being owned by the elite and employed not in agriculture or trade, but in domestic work. Very many subelite economic units would not have been able to afford a slave, or make slave labor economically viable (as Aristotle from an earlier age put it, ‘Because they have no slaves, it is necessary that the poor use their wives and offspring to do what slaves would normally do’ (Politics 5.1323A)). An educated guess – and the sources, scattered and fragmentary as they are, allow little more – would put the number at about 15 percent of the entire population, and much less in many places. As I look at the slaves of the Romano-Grecian world, it is important to keep these facts in mind. Slaves lived in a society with many other slaves, but their numbers and importance varied from place to place. This truth does not mitigate the often terrible conditions of ancient slavery, but it does mean that slaves’ lives might be less restricted, less oppressed, and less close-ended than would have been the case had society depended on many more of them.

Besides the importance of understanding the relative paucity of slaves and their concentration in the hands of the more well-off city-dwellers, it is also relevant to point out that slaves in large measure shared the same basic somatic features, cultural assumptions, and often language with their masters. Slaves with radically different skin color and facial features were always rare, although sub-Saharan Africans were enslaved and appear in the Romano-Grecian world, as do tall, blond, light-skinned Germanic types, for instance. The ability of the majority of slaves to blend into the physical ‘look’ of society as a whole, combined with the fact that in most instances slaves dressed exactly like ordinary people of similar occupation, meant that there was no easy, visible signal of slavery unless a brand, haircut, tattoo, slave collar, or other purpose-specific marker existed. Thus during slavery it was easy and natural for slave and free, especially recently freed slaves, to associate with one another – and if a slave ran away, it was easy to blend into the population while attempting to escape detection. The lack of physical and somatic markers of slavery created opportunities for life that were lacking in some other historical societies with slaves.

People could come into slavery in a variety of ways. While war captives provided the most spectacular and perhaps even most numerous slaves during the expansion of Roman rule in the days of the republic, by the time of Augustus massive wars that produced large numbers of captives were relatively few and far between. Another source involved raising offspring slaves to adulthood. Births to slaves were of course slaves themselves, so children born to slaves were raised in slavery. Unwanted births to free persons could be and were abandoned, and anyone taking in such a child could raise it; although Roman law asserted that such foundlings always remained freeborn, in fact if raised in slavery it was virtually impossible to prove ‘original freedom.’ Thus foundlings were a steady source of new slaves.

The fourth main, though less important, source was enslavement of grown men and women. Although occasionally still war captives, these came primarily from bandits and pirates who were ready to kidnap travelers and other vulnerable people in towns or the countryside. Augustine attests to the horror of their indiscriminate raids on free populations in isolated areas and across the imperial borders:

So great is the number in the province of Africa of those who are called in common parlance ‘slavers,’ that they practically clear the province of human beings by carrying off people to sell in places across the sea – and almost all are free persons. For very few are discovered to be sold by parents – and even these are not sold as indentured for twenty-five years as is allowed by Roman law, but indeed they are sold as true slaves and sold across the sea as slaves. The slave traders buy real slaves from their masters only very rarely. Moreover, because of this mob of slavers a throng of predators and kidnappers is so out of control that in hordes fearsomely dressed like soldiers or wild men they swoop down on certain underpopulated rural areas screaming like banshees and forcibly drag off the people whom they then sell to the slave dealers. (Letter*10)

Gaius Tadius was one such unfortunate, as his grave attests:

Dedicated to Gaius Tadius Severus, son of Gaius, kidnapped by bandits at age 35, and his son Proculus, 6 years old. Limbricia Primigenia, freedwoman of Lucius, set this monument up for her husband and son. Alas, the son ought to have put up the gravestone for the mother! (ILS 8506)


10. A slave on the block. The man stands on a dias for display during the auction. An auctioneer and bidder stand nearby.


11. Auctioning a slave. The auctioneer is at left, while the portly bidder turns the naked slave to examine him closely.

Despite the fact that the Roman Lex Cornelia forbade the sale of citizens into slavery, slave dealers were notorious for not asking any questions. And regardless of the existence of a legal ‘plea for restoration of freedom’ before a magistrate, it must have been fairly rare for a person once kidnapped and sold to be able to assert his freedom through the legal process. In addition a father, who had total legal control over offspring, could sell a child into slavery, often to pay a debt or stave off starvation; although Roman law fussed about this, it is clear that both in the case of Roman citizens and provincials, children continued to be sold throughout our period; the quotation from Augustine above is one of the many confirmations. And there was also legal self-enslavement. While debt slavery – selling a free person into slavery to pay that person’s debts – was illegal, and technically at least a Roman citizen could not sell himself into slavery, a person could, in fact, ‘contract’ himself to become a slave, giving up his rights as a free man in return for money. ‘Many men being free sell themselves over into slavery, with the result that they are “contract slaves,” at times on difficult terms, or rather on the most harsh imaginable’ (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 15.2). Evidently, sometimes whether legally or not, a free person voluntarily became a slave. Finally, ordinary people condemned for especially heinous crimes could be punished with slavery. The relative numbers from these sources cannot be known, but each would have its own effect on the psychology of the slave. A child raised as a slave could easily have a different outlook than an adult captured and enslaved later in life, after having lived as a free person for years. A kidnapped person must have felt the injustice of it all even more, while a self-enslaved person presumably knew what he was getting into.

Life enslaved: subjection

Despite the range of reactions to slavery it is possible to imagine arising from the various origins of individual slaves, the central fact of servitude was the total subjection of the slave to the master; they were available at all times and had to labor at the master’s will. Surely it is highly probable that Augustine got it right: ‘All slavery is filled with bitterness: everyone locked in slavery at once does what he has to, but does it grumbling’ (Commentary on Psalm 99.7). Lucius in his asinine form describes the hard lives of slaves in a bakery:

Great gods! What miserable, pitiable creatures! Their entire bodies were a welter of inflamed bruises; their backs scarred by the rod were shaded more than covered by their sorry, ragged garments; some had a slight covering over their private parts; all wore such wretched tunics that their bodies showed through the tatters; their heads were half-shaved; they bore letters branded into their foreheads and their feet were in shackles. Eyelids scorched by the steamy dank of the dusty darkness, they were half blind in all their sallow ugliness. Just like boxers who fight sprinkled with dust, these men were white with a dirty flour ash. (Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.12)

And, Apuleius tells us, the owner of these slaves was ‘a decent and very sober person’! Harsh treatment was synonymous with slavery. In a letter from Egypt, one brother chides another for treating their mother ‘harshly, as if she were a slave.’ And in another a woman complains to the authorities that her husband has treated her and their children ‘as if she were his bought slave,’ abusing them and locking them away.

Of course, it was always possible that fate found a particular slave in the possession of a thoughtful master. An example may be Servandus:

Valerius Servandus, freedman of Lucius, Gaius, and Sextus Valerius, age 20, lies in this grave. His patrons set up the monument in recognition of his many merits. ‘Servitude, you were never hateful to me. Unjust Death, you took freedom from this wretched man.’ (CIL 13.7119, Mainz, Germany)

As it was part of the master’s ideology to suppose that slaves could be content to serve, one must wonder if it was Servandus himself who thought his slavery happy, or only his patrons. And ‘kind’ or ‘good’ would perhaps be too generous a term for these owners; their motivation was purely practical – but some actions did make their slaves’ lives better than they might otherwise have been. The agricultural writer Columella offers his practical approach to managing slaves well. He saw and tried to avoid at least some of the pitfalls of slave ownership, especially by setting reasonable goals for work and sufficient levels of outfitting and feeding, by controlling cruel overseers, and by having venues for slaves to bring problems to him to be resolved (On Rural Matters1.8.17–19; 11.1.13–28). One can wonder if many estates or households were run on these principles of enlightened self-interest, but at the very least it is possible that some slaves found themselves in situations that while still grossly exploitative, were at least mitigated with regard to the worst of the many possible abuses.

And abuses abounded. Physical abuse was the most frequent and violent form of degradation. The legal material in the Digest repeatedly makes allusion to all sorts of violence against slaves, with very few notices that repercussions might follow for the masters. Slaves could be and were beaten in the normal course of things either to encourage good behavior or punish bad, or both at once – or simply out of anger, frustration, or sadism. There was in practice no control over the master’s powers to physically abuse out of all proportion to any act: ‘Is not a penalty of many years’ confinement imposed on the slave who has provoked his master with a word, or has struck him a blow that is quickly over?’ (Augustine, City of God 11) The old standbys were flogging (perhaps the favorite routine punishment) and confinement in chains to a cell (ergastulum); Aesop’s master, for example, refers to these (Life, p. 123). But there were an unlimited number of specific abusive behaviors, often accompanied by long-term marks of degradation such as branding: ‘Eumolpus covered both our foreheads with huge letters and wrote with a rough hand the stigmatic mark of runaway slaves all over our faces’ (Petronius, Satyricon 103). This sort of abuse was a constant theme in fiction involving slaves, as is easily seen from the many examples in the plays of Plautus or the novels of Apuleius and Petronius. There is no indication that Christian slave holders engaged in such behavior any less than polytheists; indeed, the defenselessness against physical abuse was everywhere the preeminent marker of slavery. The evidence of early modern Brazil and North America paints a similar picture:

At the beck and call of his master day and night, the domestic servant had no regular hours. Added to the long hours was the discomfiture of constantly being under the watchful eyes of the whites and being subject to their every capricious, vengeful, or sadistic whim. Domestic servants frequently had their ears boxed or were flogged for trifling mistakes, ignorance, delinquent work, ‘insolent’ behavior, or simply for being within striking distance when the master was disgruntled (W. Blassingame, The Slave Community)

Apuleius tells the story of a cook who feared death as punishment for allowing a deer’s haunch to be stolen (The Golden Ass 8.31); Martial notes another cook who was whipped because a rabbit was not prepared correctly (Epigrams 3.94). And beyond the beatings and brandings, the general physical living conditions of most slaves were abysmal, although these varied especially between rural and urban household slaves. They were dependent for food and clothing on the master; despite repetitious advice from agricultural writers and philosophers, denial of adequate supplies in all likelihood was rife.

As for living conditions, there is very little evidence for slave quarters in houses, although such have been identified at a few rural estates in Italy; it seems probable that, as occurred in the slave society of Brazil, slaves must often have lived in the hallways and under the stairs of great houses, pulling their cots out at night and putting them away during the day. There is an example of this when Lucius, not yet in his donkey-form, waits for his love, Photis, in his bedroom. He notes that ‘the slaves had their floor-space arranged as far as possible away from the door; I imagine that this was so that they would not be near enough to overhear our chat during the night’ (The Golden Ass 2.15). So not only the beatings, but the general living conditions could be abusive. One of the most desired privileges would be to have one’s own living space, however humble. Small cells have been identified in some great houses as probably slave quarters; even a makeshift shack on the grounds must have been welcome.

Just as bad as the physical abuse was the mental abuse: ‘“Aesop, lay the table. Aesop, heat the bath. Aesop, feed the livestock.” Anything that’s unpleasant or tiresome or painful or menial, that’s what Aesop is ordered to do’ (Life, p. 116/Daly). The author Athenaeus gives a peek into the slave’s demeaning world:

Epikrates, in ‘The Hard to Sell Slave,’ makes a slave indignantly say: ‘What is more hateful than to be summoned with Boy, Boy! to where they are drinking; to serve, moreover, some callow youth or bring him a piss-pot, and to see things laid out in front of us – half-eaten cakes and pieces of chicken which, although left from the meal, the women forbid us slaves to eat. But what really makes our blood boil is to have them call any of us greedy gluttons when we do eat some of those things! (Intellectuals Dining 6.262(d))

And Hermeros in Petronius’ novel emphasizes the demeaning treatment that accompanied the slave servant’s life: ‘I bought out of slavery my slave wife, so that no one could wipe his hands on her bosom’ (Satyricon 57.5–6).

Leaving aside wider cultural and personal reasons for such behavior by the masters, the practical goal of the physical and psychological abuse was submissiveness training. The ideal was to get the slave both to obey without question, and to use his abilities positively to perform whatever the master needed. While one might wonder about the efficacy of beatings and mental torture in creating a willing, thinking slave, this disjunction did not normally occur to masters. The burden of willing obedience was rather transferred mostly to the slaves, as Paul emphasized to the Christians at Colossus:

Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward … Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:22–4:1)

And the unknown author of 1 Peter even drops any admonition at all to masters, and puts the entire burden on the slaves:

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. (1 Peter 2:18)

Others such as Apollonius were in total agreement in placing the responsibility on slaves, regardless of what sort of terrible person the master was:

What is more, though masters would incur no reproach for neglecting slaves, for whom they probably may feel a contempt because they are not good, yet the slaves who did not devote themselves wholly to their masters, should be destroyed by them as cursed wretches and chattels hateful to the gods. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius4.40/Conybeare)

The worst was perhaps that combination of physical and psychological: sexual abuse. This most usually stood outside the sadism and submissiveness training of the run-of-the-mill abuse. It, of course, could be rape as an act of violence against the victim, but the casual, deeply ‘normal’ assumption by slaves and free alike that slaves were available as sexual objects meant that overt violence often was not involved. A bit later than the period covered in this book, Salvian wrote in the fifth century ad, ‘Female slaves are forced unwillingly to service their most shameless masters; these sate their lust on them, trapped as they are by their condition, unable to resist’ (On the Government of God 7.4). And it was not only women who suffered. Petronius tells the tale of Glyco’s slave, who was forced by his master’s wife into her bed. ‘The slave did no wrong; he was forced to do it’ (Satyricon 45). Male slaves were also the subject of their master’s sexual ravishing. Despite the fact that characters like Trimalchio boasted that they had advanced from master’s favorite in pederasty to his favorite in the household (‘For fourteen years I was the object of my master’s sexual attentions – it is not a base thing to do what your master commands’), to freedom and wealth, the reality of rape must have been very much on boys’ as well as girls’ minds. As the Elder Seneca put it, shameful sexual behavior is criminal in a freeborn person, a necessity in a slave, and a duty in a freedperson (Declamations 4, Preface 10). Nothing in the New Testament speaks out against this sexual abuse. Rabbinical literature describes when it is all right to have sex with one’s female slave. Even the enlightened Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus wrote, ‘[E]very master has full authority to use his slave as he might wish’ (Discourse12.88). The expectation that slaves would be sexually available anytime, anyplace was well-nigh universal, and so they had to take this into account in their own lives.

In the face of even the most violent physical abuse, slaves had little recourse. While good masters might hear a slave’s complaints and actually do something about them, the very poor opinion of slaves held by the vast majority of masters led them not only to initiate violence against their slaves, but to condone it in their overseers, all in the name of obedience. In theory a slave could take refuge in a temple or at a divine statue, using the ancient right of asylum as a protection against an abusive master. And they did, as a number of anecdotes mention. One must wonder, however, how often this desperate recourse met with long-term success. True, slaves had various legal rulings in theory limiting the almost unlimited arbitrary action of masters. Through the period covered in this book, laws and decrees were issued to prevent owners from throwing their slaves to the beasts, from retrieving abandoned sick slaves if the slaves recovered, from killing a slave with impunity, and against the castration of slaves. There is legal evidence of slaves pursuing justice with regard to such things, but surely it was the rare slave who would find success in a complaint against his master – through a representative, of course, because the slave was not a person at law. The only legal action that seems to have been fairly common and sometimes successful related not to slavery, but to freedom: processes to determine if a person was free born and illegally in an enslaved condition. So the matter at hand was not treatment of a slave, but treatment as a slave of a person claiming to be free. Society in general had some sympathy for people who claimed to be free but were in slavery. The issue was very different from a slave claiming abusive treatment as a slave, and was treated as such. But in any case, an attempt at law ending in failure would most surely also lead to heinous punishment for the slave who tried this. The law therefore offered scant to no aid to a slave in an abusive situation. In fact, the law was a primary tool of control for masters. The fear of gruesome capital punishment meted out to ‘criminal’ slaves on a routine basis by magisterial judgments – crucifixion, burning alive, being torn apart in the arena by wild beasts – was very real. Only the most confident and the best-connected slave would have dared try the magistrate’s judgment. Almost all would have thought about the legal system in terror, not in hope.

A slave identity was a combination of what was imposed upon him, and what he could fashion for himself. The naming of a slave by the master is the most symbolically laden act of identity management. The act of naming reidentifies the slave as the property of the new owner; it embodies the attempt to eliminate that person’s former self and to show that identity is under the control of the new master. But the new slave did not simply forget all that had gone before. In the case of a person sold into slavery by force as an adult, the memory was vivid and remained. One epitaph records this in the case of a Parthian who was captured when young and sold as a slave; he ended up in Ravenna, where eventually he was freed and set up a marker that noted this fact:

Gaius Julius Mygdonius, born a free man of the Parthian race, captured at a tender age, carried over into Roman territory into slavery, then made a Roman citizen thanks to Fate … (CIL 11.137 = ILS 1980)

Another enslaved captive, Claudia Aster, ended up in Puteoli (Puzzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, was freed but remembered her origins as a captive in Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish War of ad 70 (CIL 10.1971). A third, one Arrius Capito, a financial manager while a slave and a moneylender upon gaining his freedom, recalled his origins in Pannonia, across the Danube:

Capito the freedman of Arrius, a moneylender of the Pannonian nation, lies here having lived 35 years. (CIL 13.7247, Mainz, Germany)

While yet another recalls his father’s name even after years in slavery:

Gaius Ducenius Phoebus, freedman of Gaius, son of Zeno, was born in Nisibis in Syria, and made a freedman in Rome. (CIL 6.700 = ILS 3944, Rome)

Finally, a man taken across the imperial borders and sold into slavery in Gaul eloquently speaks of his enslavement and winning his freedom:

Gaius Ofilius Arimnestus, freedman of Caius, of the Palatine voting district, while still living set up this monument to himself and to Mindia Prima daughter of Marcus, his wife, and to Gaius Ofilius Proculus, his son. A barbarian land gave me birth. Profit handed me over to undeserved slavery so that my whole being changed. Yet I did all that I could to honor the name received from my father. When I could not prevail with entreaties, I obtained my freedom with my own money. I won over my master through carrying out my duties – I never had to be beaten, I received no rewards … (CIL 12.5026, Narbonne, France)

While such documentation is scarce, the slave’s memory of life before slavery surely remained clear; certainly slaves in the American South and in Brazil, as a comparison, vividly recalled their lives in Africa before capture and slavery. I would fully expect the same retention of memories as a form of maintaining an identity beyond that imposed by the masters.

In a stimulating retrieval of the voices of invisible Romans, Sandra Joshel has emphasized how important occupation was to the formation and maintenance of identity among slaves. Her careful, convincing study highlights how in epigraphy slaves mention occupation far more than free persons do, and how this is the slaves’ decision, not the masters’. In work the slave could establish an identity because occupational excellence served to satisfy the master, who valued and even rewarded skillful slaves; to mark off one’s excellence in relationship to fellow slaves; and to garner money that might ultimately be used to purchase freedom for himself and, perhaps, also for loved ones among the other slaves. There was simply no downside to being good at your occupation, so given the opportunity slaves could work hard and be proud of it.

Not that I for a moment think a slave’s work was sweetness and light. Many slaves never had a chance to learn a trade or skill, so could not take advantage of excelling in it. Others neglected opportunities when they arose. Masters worked slaves very hard, both as a practical matter of getting necessary jobs done and as a way of maintaining order and submission. Still, pride in work was possible on various levels, and many slaves were able to center themselves through focusing on this element of their lives over which they had some control, for a master was not likely to tell a slave to stop doing an excellent job, and there was at least the chance of reward.

Thinking in slavery

As slaves thought about their lives and its limited possibilities, slavery itself channeled their thinking. The most fundamental aspect of this thinking was a lack – the lack of any possibility of a changed or alternative society, one without slavery. There was simply no social existence conceivable that did not have slavery as an accepted, integral part of it. Whereas from the mid eighteenth century ad in the West the concept of the intrinsic wrongness of slavery gained ground and spread to the slaves themselves and abolition movements steadily gained steam, nothing of the sort ever happened in the Romano-Grecian world. So one aspect of slave thinking, the hatred of slavery as an institution and the belief that not only could one escape personally, but the whole edifice could and should be dismantled, was entirely lacking to slaves of the period covered in this book. Thus the most radical thought was to escape slavery – never to end it unconditionally for all. This outlook framed all other thought. When slaves thought about their situation and the ways to deal with it, considerations were exclusively practical.

Insecurity was always on a slave’s mind. The very fact of being owned created this fundamental condition. Nothing was assured. One might do everything the master wished, and do it well, and still be sold, or be separated from loved ones, or grow sick and be abandoned, or old and be left to wither away in neglect, or worse. Some solace and guidance could be found in homespun wisdom, popular philosophy, and other attempts to reconcile the human condition with the reality of a slave’s existence. Groaning, grumbling, and dissatisfaction were weak resorts; in the end, recognition of the unfairness of life and resignation to the lot that fate had spun must usually have been the only mental defense against the angst produced by the inherently insecure and stressful situation. The guard in Plautus’ The Prisoners (196–197) had advice, cold as it was: ‘Now, you men … if it’s gods’ will that you have to be the unlucky ones [to be enslaved], the best thing you can do is to take it patiently; that way, it won’t seem so hard.’

The slave community

Slaves’ thoughts also turned to trying to take some control to relieve the stress and to bring a measure of normality to their lives. The place to begin this process was within the slave community itself. Although the master sought work and obedience, all understood that slaves, as human beings, interacted with each other. A master might isolate ‘troublesome’ slaves, and in particularly dangerous conditions such as mining the possibilities for community were severely attenuated. But under normal conditions, whether in a great house, a smaller establishment, or in a rural situation, slaves formed bonds and negotiated interrelationships that gave meaning to their lives, despite the underlying insecurity and brutality of it all. There is much evidence of solidarity and friendship among slaves. Here one ex-slave recalls a lifelong friendship reaching back into common slavery:

Aulus Memmius Urbanus set this up to Aulus Memmius Clarus, fellow freedman and companion most dear. Between you and me, my most valued fellow freedman, I know there never was ever a quarrel. I also with this inscription bring the gods above and below to witness that you and I, bought at the same time as slaves in the same household, were freed together as well. No day ever separated us except that of your fateful death. (CIL 6.22355a = ILS 8432, Rome)

The case of Jucundus in the household of Taurus is another example:

Jucundus, slave of Taurus, a litter-bearer, was a real man as long as he lived. Throughout his life he watched out for himself and for the others. Callista and Philologus, fellow slaves, set this up. (CIL 6.6308 = ILS 7408d, Rome)

The use of the word for ‘real man’ (vir) captures the fact that this slave and others like him were able to see in themselves and others the trait prized in the culture as a whole, manliness. And Jucundus’ habit of watching out for his fellow slaves embodies the solidarity of the slave community, which is often seen, although, as I will discuss shortly, often subverted as well. An example is the fact that when the Roman senator Pedanius Secundus was murdered by his slaves, not a single fellow slave tried to stop it, or betrayed who had done it, despite the most savage punishment (Tacitus, Annals 14.43). And in the Life of Aesop his fellow slaves act as a group in their opposition to him as an outsider, as well as trying to make him take the blame for their own wrongdoing.

Groups of slaves also acted together in religious life. A votive set up in Gaud (southwestern France) states:

To the God Garris. Geminus, a slave, paid the vow freely also on behalf of his fellow slaves. (CIL 13.49, Gaud, France)

As a further example, slaves often organized themselves into burial societies, either within a household, if it were large, or across households or as fellows in a common endeavor, for example as the gold miners in Dacia, or wool workers in Italy:

The wool combers set up this monument to Acceptus, slave of Chia, their fellow. (CIL 5.4501, Brescia)

In Luceria, in Italy, slaves buried one of their own under this headstone:

To the Gods of the Netherworld and to Gelasmus the slave of Sittia. His colleagues from the Hercules and Apollo Association set this up. He lived 25 years, 3 months, and 21 days. (AE 1983.213)

But as in the case of Aesop, there could also be competition within the community. Rivalry for the master’s favor naturally occurred. The fictional Hermeros describes this:

I tried very hard to satisfy my master, who was a dignified and august man. And in the household I was dealing with people who tried to trip me up whenever they could. But in the end I won out, thanks be to my master! (Petronius, Satyricon 57)

Among the slaves there could be vicious gossip, quarreling, and sabotage of each other’s work, as is well illustrated by the stressful household Augustine describes in his Confessions in which the slaves were drawn into the strife between family members. It was necessary to have dispute resolution mechanisms in place to settle quarrels that could arise over just about anything – in the case of Aesop, the women of the household argued over who would get his sexual favors. Perhaps the most insidious undercutting of slave solidarity were the silentiarii, those slaves whose job it was to keep order among them.

They fear their fellow slaves, the drivers and the informants [silentiarii] among them to enforce their submission, as well as the overseers set to manage them. Indeed, slaves are slaves to these almost as much as to their actual masters: any of them can flog or kill them, any can grind them down. What more can be said? Many slaves take refuge at their master’s feet, since they fear their fellow slaves so. For this reason we ought not blame those slaves who flee such a situation; rather look to those whose treatment compels them to become runaways. (Salvian, On the Government of God 4.3)

The general way slaves were organized invited abuse of slave on slave; for example, Aesop states that a handsome slave would make sexual advances on another who ‘caught his fancy’ (Life, p. 125). Free men were not hired as overseers and managers; rather, slaves were given these responsibilities. This was true whether the household needed the managing slaves, or it was a rural property with an absent owner. As in other slave societies, such foremen were deeply hated by the other slaves. Especially if they were unsupervised by the master, they had no restriction on the punishments they could inflict, their assignment of slaves for their personal benefit, and their sexual depredations – not to mention cheating the master by cooking the books, conducting personal business, and the like. One of the strongest admonitions of the agricultural writers is to keep close track of the slave overseers to be sure they do not treat the slaves cruelly. Slaves could in theory appeal to the master against the abuses of overseers and fellow slaves, and a good master is advised to facilitate such appeals. But as the quotation from Salvian above attests, often the only escape from a fellow slave was to run away.

Besides the powerful and hated overseer, slaves feared also their fellow slaves who were torturers and punishers. While routine floggings and other sorts of corporal abuse took place at the hands of fellow slaves under the master’s direct authority, it was common practice to outsource more serious physical punishment simply because to do it ‘in house’ was much more disruptive to life in the slave community. There were, therefore, professionals who specialized in dealing with slaves that masters considered exceptionally recalcitrant or vicious. A good example can be found in Matthew 18:21–34. In this story, Jesus tell of the king who forgave a servant of his a great debt; the servant then went to a man who owed him money in turn – but refused the poor man’s plea for mercy in collecting the debt and sold him and his family to meet the obligation. When the king learned of this, he ‘turned him over to the torturers, until he should pay back all he owed.’ And Apuleius in his novel has slaves punishing other slaves.

Life in the slave community was complex: individual slaves had to make judgments about their fellows, form friendships and alliances, and ward off as much grief as possible. The same complexity extended to life beyond the immediate slaves around him to the free population outside the household. The basic issue to decide is whether slaves and those free in the world at large were fundamentally divided from one another by the free persons’ feeling of superiority over slaves simply from the fact of being free. While there is no doubt that the elite and in all probability the fairly well-off felt such a disdain and maintained a huge psychological barrier between themselves and any slave, we have to ask if most ordinary people would feel that way. Modern opinions differ. Some think that any free person would have marked himself off from slaves, proud in his freedom and sure in a superiority it gave him over slaves, even if a given slave had more money, influence, and prospects than he did. Others point out that the actual lives of ordinary people were very similar to those of many slaves, and so there is every reason to suppose that slave and free persons in the same conditions thought more about the things they had in common than a designation ‘slave’ or ‘free.’ They also had in common a huge distance from the elite and could easily share a resentment, even hatred, toward the tiny ruling minority. When the senator Pedanius Secundus was murdered by his slaves, for example, and the whole of the household slaves were condemned to be crucified as a punishment and object lesson, since none had divulged the plot nor prevented its carrying out, the common people slave and free formed a large, angry mob and at first prevented the punishment from being inflicted; only Emperor Nero’s assignment of troops to clear the way allowed the executions to proceed (Tacitus, Annals 14.42–5).

Even if one wished to separate slaves from ordinary people, it would have been hard. I have noted that for the most part slaves looked and spoke like freemen. Slaves as a rule wore no distinctive clothing. There were exceptions, of course: branded slaves, or those with a ‘slave cut’ – closely cropped hair, or those wearing a master’s special livery. But apart from those in business and formal wear – the toga – all men looked pretty much the same in daily life. Petronius has his character Hermeros say, ‘I was a slave for forty years and nobody knew whether I was slave or free.’

Slaves were active outside the doors of households and often lived outside. They were entrusted with duties great and small by their masters that free persons also performed at times, such as work in construction and carrying, artisanry, mercantile trade, and moneylending. Given the similarity in background, culture, and occupation, it is no wonder that slave and free belonged to the same religious and secular organizations. There are many examples of freeborn, ex-slaves (freedmen), and slaves belonging to the same association. Some with a recent past of slavery held no empathy for those still enslaved; one such was Larcius Macedo, son of a freedman, who was especially cruel to his slaves and was killed by one (Pliny, Letters 3.14). Many more maintained ties with slaves on an equal basis in professional and religious associations whose purpose was ostensibly funereal but, in fact, were social gatherings. At Praeneste an association of fullers was mixed: several slaves are listed as well as a freedman; at Ostia a society of freedmen and slaves of the town set up a monument to the divinity Bellona; at Lanuvium they participated with freeborn in the cults of Antinous and Diana, although masters’ permission was required. Slaves were challenged to negotiate a world in which at times they lived and acted with and almost as free persons; but they were always aware that a run-in with the authorities would reveal their fundamental difference in civil and criminal law, particularly with regard to swift recourse to physical punishment in the case of a slave, even if the only charge was littering:

Marcus Alfius Paulus, city manager, orders this: Whoever might wish to throw away excrement in this place, take warning that this is not allowed! If anyone act against this proclamation, let him if a free person pay a fine – if a slave, whip his ass as a warning! (AE 1962.234, Herculaneum)

Slaves and their masters

In the midst of life as a slave among other slaves and among the free population, four topics were always on his mind. These are revealed by three questions which appear in the Oracles of Astrampsychus, and which are particularly appropriate for thinking about slave attitudes – ‘Will I come to terms with my masters?’; ‘Am I going to be sold?’; and ‘Will I be freed?’ – and a fourth question asked not by slaves but by masters, which is indirectly related: ‘Will I find the fugitive [slave]?’ Thus slaves were concerned about relationships with their masters, about being sold, and about being freed, while the masters’ focus on fugitives indicates a slave’s mind was frequently on running away. These concerns are reflected in much the same way in various dream interpretations found in Artemidorus. The commonest reference is to gaining one’s freedom, to various relations with a master (good, bad, changing), and to running away; being sold seems to appear only once as a topic. If these concerns are combined with those interpersonal behavioral traits mentioned on gravestones, it would seem that a reasonable sweep of a slave’s mind world was focused on survival in the moment, with hope alternating with fear about the future. What is missing is much indication of dwelling on the status of ‘slavehood’ itself, of any of the interiority that one might assume must have occupied a slave’s mind. And there is little outcry against the injustice of this slavery, only recognition of the personal situation a slave might find himself in – although the epitaph from Rome of a slave is evocative:

Here I, Lemiso, lie. Nothing save death ended my toil. (CIL 6.6049 = ILLRP 932, Rome)

Still, it is reassuring to know that the slaves themselves, with their own voices, offer at least a general delineation of what was paramount in their minds. The picture that emerges is one of active slave lives forging spaces of action and, if possible, working for their freedom.

Negotiating relations with masters consumed much of a slave’s thinking. The Life of Aesop takes as fundamental the conflict between slave and master, and shows how the slave could effectively deal with this. Some masters were better to their slaves than others; some slaves were more entrepreneurial in their adjustment to slavery than others. The permutations were potentially infinite, but each slave had to develop specific responses to his specific situation.

First of all, there were various ways that a slave could accommodate himself to his circumstances. The simplest was to accept the fate of slavehood and make the best of it. ‘There’s no need to go on wailing. It’s clear enough that you are unhappy. In bad situations it is best to keep your spirits up’ (Plautus, Prisoners 202). So the guard advises the prisoners of war who have just been sold into slavery. The sentiment is echoed by a saying of Publilius Syrus (Maxim 616): ‘The slave who pulls against the bit makes himself miserable – but he is still a slave.’ Making the most of a bad situation was therefore one accommodation: ‘The slave who serves shrewdly holds a share of his master’s role’ (Maxim 596). This would be easier if the master had some sense and took the advice of the agricultural writers to maintain as positive and reciprocal a relationship with slaves as was practicable.

It might also be easier if the master took a fancy to you, and the relationship developed into something other than just sexual abuse. Illegitimate children of slave owners might not only be loved, but even be bequeathed money: Steia Fortuna, a slave of Publius Steius Felix, inherited one-sixth of his property – she was probably his illegitimate daughter (CIL 14.1641, Ostia Antica, Italy). Fiction is full of slaves who advanced from sexual favorites to more important roles in the household and, ultimately, to successful lives as freedmen; Hermeros and Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon are famous examples of this ilk. And many masters had favorites among the slaves. One adopted a slave as his son and set him up in a successful tavern business:

Vitalis, a household slave and also a son of Gaius Lavius Faustus, lies here. He lived 16 years. As manager for the Aprianas tavern, the patrons loved him – then the gods summoned him away. You passers-by, if I ever gave you short measure so that I could add to my father’s profit, forgive me. I ask in the name of gods above and below: take care of my mother and father. Farewell! (CIL 3.14206.21 = ILS 7479, Amfipoli, Greece)

Another recalled with affection a favorite little slave girl:

Celerinus the master set up this grave monument to the most unfortunate Valentina, his nursling and dearest delight, daughter of the slave Valentio, his steward, who lived but 4 years. (CIL 3.2130, Salona, Croatia)

Pliny the Elder gives a real-life example of a slave who was propelled to the heights of wealth through the favor of his mistress:

[Corinthian bronze was famous and dear.] Once in offering for sale a candelabra of this material an auctioneer named Theron threw in as a free bonus a slave named Clesippus, a humpbacked fuller, and a fellow of surpassing ugliness. A wealthy woman named Gegania bought the candelabra for 50,000 sesterces and along with it came the deformed slave. So pleased was she with her acquisitions that she threw a party to show them off. There, just to give the guests something to make fun of, Clesippus came out stark naked. Shameless lust swept over Gegania and she took him to her bed, then soon after included him in her will as an heir. Wildly wealthy at the woman’s death, Clesippus worshiped that candelabra as a guardian god … Their immoral behavior was nevertheless avenged by the elaborate sepulcer Clesippus set up through which the memory of Gegania’s shame lived on above the earth ever after … (Natural History 34.6.11–12)

Pliny’s story is somewhat unusual for it involves a female master taking a male concubine. Male masters keeping female concubines from among the slaves is much more frequently attested; women could have found a certain security in this relationship, although they were always susceptible to bad treatment either by the master or his wife. And evidently a fair number of such liaisons turned out to be permanent, for they are noted with some frequency in the funerary epigraphy. For example:

This monument is set up to the Gods of the Netherworld and to Septimius Fortunatus, the son of Gaius, and to Septimia his concubine, first a slave and then freed. (CIL 5.5170 = ILS 8553, Bergamo, Italy)

Most slaves, of course, did not have long-term sexual relations with their masters. Habits that kept a slave in the good graces of the master included variations on what the master most wanted in a slave: efficient labor, profit, obedience, and faithfulness. Obedience meant control, so whether real or feigned, some level of obedience was the best way to adjust to the situation and avoid punishment. Paul advised Christian slaves to be genuinely obedient, ‘not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers’ (Ephesians 6:6) and so recognized the reality of feigned obedience as well as the desirability (in the slave owner’s eyes) of the real thing. Faithfulness was closely allied. So, again, either genuine or simulated demonstrations of trustworthiness were a fairly sure way to keep on the right side of the master. And flattery was always in order, whether of a master or of a slave overseer. Some might even genuinely love the master they flattered, obeyed, and worked faithfully for. All of this was easier with a kind master, of course. In such a situation it might actually seem preferable to remain a slave than to be freed. The ex-slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus has this observation about the perils of freedom as opposed to slavehood with an enlightened master:

The slave wishes to be set free immediately. Why? Do you think that he wishes to pay money to the collectors of twentieths [tax on manumissions]? No; but because he imagines that hitherto through not having obtained this, he is hindered and unfortunate. ‘If I shall be set free, immediately it is all happiness, I care for no man, I speak to all as an equal and, like to them, I go where I choose, I come from any place I choose, and go where I choose.’ Then he is set free; and immediately having no place where he can eat, he looks for some man to flatter, someone with whom he shall dine: then he either works with his body and endures the most dreadful things; and if he can obtain a manager, he falls into a slavery much worse than his former slavery; or even if he becomes rich, being a man without any knowledge of what is good, he loves some little girl, and in his happiness laments and desires to be a slave again. He says, ‘What evil did I suffer in my state of slavery? Another clothed me, another supplied me with shoes, another fed me, another looked after me in sickness; and I did only a few services for him. But now a wretched man, what things I suffer, being a slave of many instead of to one.’ (Discourses 4.1.34–7/Long)

The author of The Life of Aesop puts it more succinctly:

If you are good to your slaves, no one is going to run away from what is good to what is bad and condemn himself to vagrancy with the prospect of hunger and fear to face. (p. 122/Daly)

A smart master appreciated the hard and diligent work of ‘good,’ i.e. faithful and obedient, slaves and rewarded it. The rewards could be small – presents at Saturnalia, an occasional day off – or large, for example the opportunity to acquire funds with which to buy out the master and become free. The slave’s purse, called his peculium, was always technically the possession of the slave’s master, just like everything the slave ‘owned,’ including his very person. But in reality slaves accumulated sums small and large which they could spend on the same range of things free persons did. For example, they could make votive offerings, as this epigraph from pesaro in Italy indicates:

Faustus, the slave of Publius Versennius, paid for a statue and shrine to the god Priapus out of his peculium. (CIL 11.6314 = ILS 3581)

Others might spend on material improvements to their lives, or save to eventually purchase their freedom or the freedom of a loved one – or on wastrelry. Slaves of all sorts had a peculium, even, if we can believe Plautus, shepherds: ‘The keeper of sheep who pastures another’s flock has a little money of his own put away, upon which rides his hopes’ (The Comedy of Asses 539). They would use every opportunity to increase this. For an urban slave, the opportunities were great. These ranged from selling his own food, to stealing and selling a master’s possessions on the street, to accepting bribes for contracting the various services needed or for access to the master or mistress of the house, as in this instance:

Right away, then, a person calls, presenting a dinner invitation – and not a clueless house servant, either, and to keep him obliged, you slip him at the least five drachma, smoothly, mind you, so as not to seem awkward. (Lucian, On Salaried Posts in Great Houses 14)

A slave could also make goods or conduct business on the side, and sell these for his own income. The opportunities for town slaves were much greater because they had both more ‘free time’ and more access to resources and sales outlets. But even on the farm, the overseer (vilicus) usually did his own side business, as Columella acknowledges when he warns that an unsupervised overseer is likely to do business for his own benefit because the master is absent (On Rural Matters 1.8.14).

Slaves were also commonly used as extensions of the master in business dealings. The peculium was the great motivator for a slave to be an effective agent, for he could garner money in straightforward and not-so-straightforward ways as he carried out his master’s business, whether that was in trade, moneylending, or artisanry.

The slaves of the Pompeiian Lucius Caecilius Jucundus even had seals to use in business transactions, with their own names. The New Testament story of the faithful slaves clearly illustrates how the system worked. The master went on a journey and left each of three slaves varying amounts of money to manage in his absence. Two slaves invested the money and gave the profit to the master upon his return; the third, fearing repercussions if he invested and lost money, simply buried his allotment. When the master came home, he praised the slaves who had invested well, but was angry with the one who had played it safe. He rewarded the first two, but stripped the third of any further responsibility and, presumably, any hope of advancement within the household (Matthew 25:14–28). So trusted slaves were free to use their entrepreneurial skills to increase the master’s wealth; at the same time these slaves were making network contacts and otherwise positioning themselves for future profit, whether benefiting from added trust from the master or making money ‘on the side’ in various related transactions. One of Trimalchio’s favorite slaves developed resources in just that way. He was young and handsome – clearly an attraction for Trimalchio – but also talented and resourceful:

I kissed the boy not because he is pretty, but because he is trustworthy. He can do division and read books at sight, from what he earns he has bought a suit of Thracian armor, purchased a fancy chair with rounded back, and two braziers from his own money. (Petronius, Satyricon 75)

While one might question the wisdom of his purchases, he has an education suitable for commerce, and has earned money and purchased objects while still a slave.

Sometimes, as in the parable above, things could go terribly wrong for the master; even more than just failure to invest, the slave might take advantage of the situation to cheat and flee. A Roman legal text (Digest 14.5.8) tells of one Titianus Primus who appointed a slave ‘to put out loans and accept pledges as security for them.’ However, the slave went further: on his own (using his master’s funds?) he took to taking over debts owed to grain merchants by purchasers and then paying them off at a profit. Accumulating a tidy sum in this way, he absconded. This shows the position of trust a slave could be given, as well as how a slave might take the chance to accrue wealth. The only exceptional thing here is that the slave ran away rather than waiting until he was freed to set himself up in, presumably, financial dealings.

Such a picture should not delude anyone into thinking that the opportunities for most slaves were great. Only a select few would be purchased or chosen to be trained to be agents and so on for the master. But even for the run-of-the-mill slave in a household and for agricultural slaves there were opportunities to accumulate a small peculium and with it lighten the burden of slavery somewhat.


The constraints and abuses suffered in slavery naturally led slaves to paths of resistance; it was in a combination of accommodation and resistance that slaves were able to achieve their identity, and the mix of the two varied infinitely in the slave community as each slave adjusted to his or her peculiar situation, talents, and psychological disposition. Slave owners fully expected resistance, which they thought of as disobedience, faithlessness, and hostility. Whether in rural or urban settings, masters were perfectly aware of the (to their minds) negative actions of slaves, and that such actions were endemic. The Life of Aesop is full of examples of this sort of self-assertion. Slaves talked among themselves, gossiping, inciting each other to disobedience, talking back to the master if they dared, casting disrespectful glances his way if they did not. Masters might try to mitigate such chatter by having slaves work under close supervision, as Columella recommends, or by encouraging quarreling, as Cato urges, or by punishing slaves who tried to intimidate their masters with threats and hostile gestures, but collusion to get the better of the master could not be stopped. Masters often branded slaves as inveterate liars – and indeed they often were, for lying was frequently a way to try to avoid charges against them, real or false, and the accompanying punishments. As Salvian remarked, ‘Slaves lie in order to escape punishment. Why would anyone wonder that a terrified slave would prefer to lie rather than to be flogged?’ (On the Governance of God 4.3). Slaves complained whenever they could get away with it, and weeping and wailing in the presence of the master was a standard tactic (Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.21), as was the ‘slow-down.’ Slaves could shirk work by skulking around and hiding to avoid notice, going slowly, failing to complete tasks, and doing their assignments poorly. Masters sometimes thought this was due to fatigue or simple laziness – but the tactics are well documented in other societies holding slaves. Feigning illness was another standard recourse: slaves could hope to be allowed to lie abed, or be sent to the ‘sick house’ for a time. Pretending ignorance was also attempted – although it, as the other strategies, could end in a flogging.


12. Slaves at work. Here two women slaves making roof tiles left imprints of their shod feet, and their names scratched into the yet soft clay. The scratches read (in Oscan) ‘Delftri, the slave of Herrenneis Sattis, signed this with her foot’; and (in Latin) ‘Amica, the slave of Herreneis, signed this, while we were setting out the tile to dry’

More serious were overt acts against the master’s interests. Theft was a constant possibility. There is ample evidence from the documents from Egypt that slaves were not trusted, and often earned that distrust. Mistresses as well as masters and overseers had to assume that slaves would steal. Food was particularly tempting:

Slaves are accused of having greedy mouths and bellies. And this is nothing astonishing. He who often starves, craves satiety. And obviously, anyone would prefer to take care of his hunger with delicacies, rather than with plain bread. So we should forgive if a slave goes for food he is normally denied. (Salvian, The Governance of God 4.3.13–18)

Theft was endemic, whether to supply a real want, such as food, material to sell or trade to increase one’s peculium, or just to show defiance of the master.

Property damage was a form of theft, for it deprived the master of his possessions. Carelessness could always be pretended, and sabotaging equipment was a good way to avoid work, at least for a time. Failing to serve conscientiously was another way of retaliating – if the slave didn’t get caught:

Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. (Matthew 24:45–7)

So far so good – the faithful servant. However:

… suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and … there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:48–51)

It would be a rare but sweet revenge for a slave to do as Callistus did: His master had sold him as a worthless slave; his new owner made him a doorman, responsible for controlling entrance to his mansion. When his old master sought entrance, he turned him away, in turn, as unworthy (Seneca, Letters 47).

Often, slaves were tempted to harm. In Egypt they are attested as showing disrespect to masters, shouting at them and otherwise insulting them. They are even seen participating in assaults and physical violence in the streets. Such was the extent of this behavior that a life for a slave owner could carry some risk on a regular basis. Actual murder of masters was probably rare, although, living among slaves, the elite were always potentially the target of extreme violence and there were enough actual examples to keep the possibility fixed in their minds. Besides various instances given in elite literature, an inscription from Mainz tells a story of slave revenge:

Jucundus, freedman of Marcus Terentius, a cattleman, lies here. Passerby, whoever you might be, stop and read. See how I complain to no avail, undeservedly taken from life. I was not able to live more than 30 years. A slave tore life from me and then cast himself headlong into the water below. The River Main took from that man what he had taken from his master. Jucundus’ patron erected this monument. (CIL 13.7070 = ILS 8511, Mainz, Germany)

From Clunia (Peñalba de Castro) in Spain comes another:

Atia Turellia, daughter of Gaius Turellius, age 27, was slain by a slave. Gaius Turellius and Valeria [erected this monument] … (AE 1992.1037)

Violence against masters on a grand scale did not occur; slave rebellions practically cease before the empire, although escaped slaves provided a continuous feed for outlawry, which itself sometimes amounted almost to rebellion. Classic revolt conditions did not exist, however: the slave population was not heavily male, recently imported into slavery, or greatly more numerous than the free population. Nor were there proximate places to escape to even if there were rebellion. It is unlikely that slaves thought much about this ultimate violence.

They might, however, consider violence against themselves. From comparative material it is safe to assume that suicide was an accepted avenue of escape from the horrors of slavery. Slave suicides are mentioned in legal materials, and apparently one part of a standard description of a slave for sale included a statement of whether he had ever tried to commit suicide. Just above I have given the case of the slave who murdered his master, then threw himself into a river. But beyond this, there are surprisingly few examples of slaves committing suicide, although it is instructive that Lucius in The Golden Ass thinks of suicide as a way out of his plight – even if he never follows through.

What slaves did think about and do in large numbers – and this is clear from the dream interpretation and fortune-telling evidence noted above – was escape by running away. The main cause was abuse; the main constraint consideration of family and social ties that would need to be left behind. In The Life of Aesop there are constant references to running away as a logical act by a slave to escape a beating or other abuse, whether at the hands of the master or a fellow slave. Egyptian material documents the frequency of runaways and the worry this act caused masters. Epigraphy leaves us with the rather pathetic measure masters sometimes took to thwart running away: a slave collar. These collars were inscribed with such things as:

I am a slave of my master Scholasticus, an important official. Hold me so that I don’t escape from the mansion called Pulverata. (AE 1892.68, Rome)


Seize me because I have fled and bring me back to my master, the highly estimable Cethegus in the Livian market, third region of the city of Rome. (CIL 6.41335, Rome)


I am Asellus, slave of Praeiectus, an aide of the prefect of the grain supply. I have gone outside the walls. Seize me because I have run away. Bring me back to the place called ‘At the Flower,’ next to the barbers. (CIL 15.7172 = ILS 8727, Vellitri)

The Carmen Astrologicum of Dorotheus of Sidon has all the appearance of being used by slaves planning to or actually running away. The chart castings relating to their situation are eloquent: the runaway will ‘travel far away’ or ‘stay close by’; he ‘sticks to the street and does not stray and is not confused so that he arrives in his place which he wishes’; he ‘sheds blood in the place which he comes to so that because of this he will be seized by force so that he might be sent back to his master’; he ‘has caused suspicion and committed a ruse so that because of this he has fallen in chains’; ‘the runaway has lost the goods which he stole when he ran away, he wandered away from them, and the runaway will be seized and sent back to his master, and misery and chains will reach him in this running away of his.’ In six castings the runaway escapes successfully; in eight he is caught – perhaps in the house of a powerful person and retrieved only with great difficulty by the master, or returned but forgiven by his master, as seems to be the scenario desired by Paul in his letter to Onesimus’ master. On the run, life may be hard or even disastrous for the runaway: he could die in his flight, perhaps by burning or by the knife, or at the hands of men, or by an animal, or a building falling on him and killing him, or drowning in a flood, or suicide, or having his hands and feet cut off, or being strangled or crucified or burned alive, or drowning at sea. These predictions in sum cover just about anything that could happen to a runaway and are vivid evidence of many a slave’s focus on taking the radical step of escape from a master.

Once away, as the astrologer indicates, a slave might escape detection. One way to insure this was to have recourse to magic. Among the magic papyri is one that states that if a runaway carries three specified Homeric verses inscribed on a small sheet of iron, ‘he will never be found.’ On a more practical level, because most would look and speak like the population they were running to, there would be no obvious way to identify a runaway. If challenged, how would anyone know a man was not free, unless a master or someone with a clear physical description appeared to accuse him of being a runaway? If they lacked the standard documentation of freedom, a person could only be proved to be ‘free’ or ‘slave’ by such things as distinguishing features, friends’ witness, and their own evidence. So, too, documents from Egypt include authorizations to seek out and punish runaways, while Pliny the Younger tells of detecting slaves who had sneaked into the Roman army – many others presumably did this undetected (Pliny, Letters10.29–30).

While on the run, a slave might take shelter with friends or former slaves of the household, take on work as a hired laborer, try to (illegally) join the army, become a robber, attach himself to a landowner as a tenant, or do just about anything a poor free person could in society. He might have a very hard life, and he might eventually be recaptured. But the harping of the elite literature on runaways; the detailed indications of intense interest in running away which the fortune-telling literature reveals; and the practical ease with which a runaway could melt into the population combine to show that running away was a very live choice for a slave in hard circumstances.

I have so far looked at the slave voice with regard to those who control their lives, whether slave (e.g. a foreman) or a free master, and have seen that voice in the material related to runaways. Next I turn to slaves voicing their fears that they will be sold away. Some few slaves might view being sold as a positive thing, a way to escape a bad master, but for most it was a thing to be dreaded: conditions, while they might be better with a different master, might also well be worse. But more than concern for their own well-being, the specter of sale meant the potential disruption of close, positive, supportive ties within the slave’s community.

Marriage, sex, and family

The closest ties were those of family. Although in law slaves could not marry – someone who had no ‘personhood’ could not be legally joined to another – in fact they routinely developed long-term relationships. Indeed, a look at the evidence from inscriptions noting slave unions shows how hard it is to distinguish them from free unions in terminology or formulas. From time to time the mate is called a contubernalis, a ‘tentmate,’ the conventional term used to describe a partner in a slave union:

To the Netherworld Gods. Anna, slave of Quintus Aulus, lived 19 years. With no warning at all sudden death snatched her away in the flower of her youth. This is dedicated to the best mate (contubernalis). (AE 1976.173, Cosenza)

To the Underworld Gods. Hermes Callippianius set this up to Terentina, slave of Claudius Secundus, who lived 22 years, 3 months. She was the dearest, most dutiful, most deserving mate. (CIL 6.27152, Rome)

However, traditional words for ‘spouse,’ uxor and coniunx, appear more frequently than does contubernalis:

To the Netherworld Gods. Mercurius her fellow slave set this up to his well-deserving wife (coniunx), Fortunata. (AE 1973.110, Rome)

This is set up to Primus, slave of Herennius Verus by Hilarica, his wife (uxor). (CIL 3.11660, Wolfsberg, Austria)

And these words even appear in legal texts, clear evidence that they were accepted as descriptors of slave unions. Evidently, slaves could be thought of as ‘married’ by both slaves and free, whatever their juridical condition technically. Sometimes these unions were encouraged by the masters, as Varro advises: ‘Make the overseers more eager in their work by giving out rewards, and see to it that they can accumulate personal savings, and that each has a female fellow slave, so they can bear children together’ (On Agriculture 1.17.5). Other times, the slaves themselves initiated the unions without specific encouragement. These could be fraught, and certainly sex was not restricted to such unions.

Indeed, it is hard to disentangle a broad description of sex among the slaves. The masters’ assumption was that slaves, if left to themselves, would turn to dissipation, which included profligate sex among themselves and in brothels (Columella, On Rural Matters1.8.9–10). The main factor encouraging a loose attitude toward sexual mores among slaves was that masters male and female were free to treat men and boys, girls and women as available sexual objects who had no justification for or means of resistance to advances. Any right to sexual integrity was eliminated a priori by the very nature of the slave’s enslavement. A slave might strive to maintain that integrity in the face of powerless-ness to resist rape, but for the woman so treated or for the man unable to prevent it, the divorce of sex from its usual context of self-directed recreation, procreation, or profit meant that any social rules governing acceptable sex were extremely weak.

For many, the degradation produced only misery. For the most successful, sex became just another weapon in the arsenal of accommodation or resistance. As I have shown, sexual relations with a master might mean master-slave offspring who would normally be treated better than other slaves, and perhaps even result in a better place in the household for the mother/concubine. In some instances, a master even freed and married such a concubine. For a boy – and here Petronius’ Trimalchio is the fictional example par excellence – the male master’s favor might win long-term benefits, even after boyhood charms faded. A favorite male slave might catch the eye of his mistress, and turn out well. Despite these outliers, the usual slave expectation would have been to be used and cast aside, all a part of the degradation of slavery.

How would this situation have affected the creation and maintenance of long-term ‘marriage’ relationships among slaves? To judge by the evidence of the inscriptions, slaves worked around it. Unable to prevent abuse, impervious to their masters’ degrading views of their sexuality, they still formed lasting bonds.

These bonds produced children – and an epigraphic record that is impossible to distinguish from the expressions of affection and appreciation seen on the gravestones of free persons. The evidence of children is extensive; for example:

To the most unfortunate Pieris, slave of Gavianus, who lived 24 years. What it was proper that a daughter do, her unhappy parents, Anteros and Gallitana, did instead. They set up this monument for themselves – and for their daughter. (CIL 9.955, Troia, Italy)

To the shades of Primulus, the babe of Sequens and Primula. This is set up to their slave son. (CIL 13.4199, Hetzerath, Germany)

This is the grave of Martialis age 10, Loveus age 9, and Paternus age 4, slaves in the Laediensian house. Gemellinus slave of Florus set this up to his children. (Hispania Epigraphica 6.636, Lugo, Spain)

So, too, mention of parents:

To the Underworld Gods. Priscus and Primigenia, his parents, and Theophile, his wife (coniunx), set this up to Primitivus, slave of Violentilla, an eye doctor. He lived 18 years, 7 months, and 16 days. (AE 1953.59, Rome)

And of siblings:

Sacred to the Underworld Gods. Antinoe and Phoebe are two sisters and fellow slaves of the Volusii, Marcus and Aemilianus. Here lie Phoebe who lived 6 years, 10 months, 15 days, and Antinoe, 1 year and 20 days. Phoebus and Rhodope set this up to their most dutiful daughters, and Tertius did as well. (AE 1984.347, Pagus Interpromium, Italy)

In the following example, grandparents, who along with the father are still slaves, are mentioned, while the mother has gained her freedom:

To the Underworld Gods. Anthus slave of the Marci, his grandfather, Rhoxane his grandmother, Terminalis his father, and Julia Euphrantice his mother set this up to their son, Tiberius Julius. (CIL 6.35530, Rome)

Of course the children of slaves belonged to the master as slaves themselves. Slaves with children tended to be more cooperative with masters because of a desire not to be separated. In addition, if the master so chose, a woman could be freed from work or even set free if she produced three to five children. Slaves suffered the same torments of parenthood that the free did, including loss of a young child:

Novesis slave agent and Juventilla set this up to Surisca their most unfortunate daughter who lived well-deserving, but only 2 years and 3 months. (CIL 3.2126, Salona, Croatia)

And a child and mother lost in childbirth:

To the Underworld Gods. To Candida my well-deserving wife, +/-30 years old, who lived with me +/- 7 years. She was tortured in childbirth for four days and could not give birth. And so she died. Justus her fellow slave set this gravestone up. (CIL 3.2267, Salona, Croatia)

The breakup of such slave families could only cause great pain and suffering for the slaves involved and for their close friends. There is some evidence of some sympathy on the part of authorities late in the imperial period regarding the separation of slave families through sale. In AD 334 the emperor Constantine decreed:

Regarding the Sardinian imperial estates, see to it that the new possessors of land which has been distributed to different owners do not separate slave families. For who would tolerate children being taken from parents, brothers from sisters, husbands from wives (sic)? Therefore if anyone has dragged off rent families to different owners, compel these separated families to be reunited … Take great care to see that hereafter there be no complaint in the province about the distribution of loved ones among different masters. (Theodosian Code 2.25.1)

The decree, of course, highlights that fact that rending families was routine. And, indeed, records of sales from Egypt seem to indicate that in most cases owners paid no attention to selling slave couples or families as a unit, and from an owner’s standpoint there is scant reason why they should. Women of childbearing age, children, strong young men: all met different markets and would normally be sold individually. The rending of families must have been the most dreaded result of being sold.

Social and religious connections

Slaves also developed close attachments through sharing social interaction. Despite the advice of the agricultural writers to keep slaves working from dawn to dusk in order to make them so tired that all else they can think about is eating and sleeping (Columella,On Rural Matters 1.2.9–10), slaves found time to themselves. If nothing else, the accusations of masters bear witness to this: Columella, for example, complains that urban slaves have far too much free time on their hands. Echoing a commonplace of elite authors, he talks of slaves who have ‘spent a lot of time in frivolous, dissolute activities prevalent in cities. These lazy and sluggish sorts of slaves are usually hanging around doing nothing, idling about the Campus Martius, or in the circus, theaters, gambling dens, low eateries, and whorehouses, and generally daydreaming about them all the time they are not actually there’ (On Rural Matters 1.8.2). This situation was the result of ‘overstaffing’ in urban conditions. Whereas on the farm slaves could (and the agricultural writers urge this strongly at numerous points) be kept working from dawn to dusk, exhausted so that they didn’t have time or inclination for slacking, city slaves were more for show than for necessity; there were not nearly enough chores to be done to keep the slaves busy, and they were kept for conspicuous display and status as much as for the particular services each provided. Encolpius in his charade at Croton pretends that all his slaves have been killed in a disaster at sea. He says, ‘His recent shipwreck had added to his sadness – he had lost over two million sesterces, but this loss did not affect him nearly so much as the loss of his slaves, for without them he couldn’t even recognize his own high status’ (Petronius, Satyricon 117). He kept his slave entourage not because they all had important things to do, but because their very presence added to his dignity. Thus on a daily basis many slaves in households indeed had time on their hands to socialize.

Slaves could also look forward to festival days as well as to whatever time they could sequester for themselves in the course of daily duties. Masters were well aware of the value of occasional opportunities for diversion and letting off steam, both of which helped slaves to live more happily in their menial condition. Columella advises that on holidays a master should reward his slaves with little monetary gifts and associate with them in a friendly way, even eating with them; as early as the writings of Aristotle these strategies had been recommended. To judge from a slave rental contract from Egypt, a slave could expect eight days a year as holiday; the contract states that if more than this number of days is taken, pro rata deductions of rental would be made.

These sorts of festival days presumably varied from place to place, according to local customs. In Rome there were three ‘slave festivals’: the Saturnalia (late December); the Festival of Female Household Slaves (ancillarum feriae) (July 7); and the ‘Slaves’ Festival Day’ (servorum dies festus) (August 13). The Saturnalia was celebrated widely in the empire while the other two were local festivals; other festivals would have been celebrated elsewhere. In addition, slaves certainly participated in festival life during nonslave-centered celebrations, and at times the holiday would have been very local and even individual – for the spirit (genius) of the master, for example, or for the household protective deities (lares), or for the dead. During these festival times, slaves could look forward to laxity of rules governing their work and behavior, to better food, to wearing the nicest clothing they had, to socializing – and often to heavy drinking, and general carousing.

Not only social but also religious connections were sometimes broken by sale. But while some religious activities were grounded in local household and family units, others transcended these. In The Life of Aesop, Aesop shows piety toward the goddess Isis, an example of worship that transcended the local. Inscriptions give examples of slaves worshiping a wide range of traditional ‘greater gods’ such as Minerva, Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter, as well as Mithra, Isis, and the Christian deity. Not surprisingly, Fortune figures as an object of devotion as well, and Silvanus is particularly popular; Jupiter ‘The Free’ seems especially appropriate since the dedication appears on Delos, a major slave marketplace:

Marcus Granius Heras, freedman of Marcus, Diodotus Seius, slave of Gaius and Gnaeus, Apollonius Laelius, slave of Quintus, Prepon Alleius, slave of Marcus, Nicandrus Rasennius, slave of Marcus, erected this statue of Jupiter the Free. (CIL 3.14203.3 = ILS 9236)

And of course magic and superstitious practices abounded, as they did throughout the culture, slave and free. Columella recommends that the owner be sure that the slave overseer prevent soothsayers and witches (haruspices and sagaes) from the estate because these folks ‘appealing to empty superstition push ignorant minds first to waste their money, then finally to engage in immoral acts’ (On Rural Matters 1.8–9). Interestingly, however, the Greek magical papyri do not have a single charm or reference to a magical practice directed particularly at a slave’s situation or needs, except the one quoted above to protect runaways and ones directed at professionals who happened to be slaves, such as charioteers. From New World analogy, I would expect such spells (a curse on an overseer, for example), but none appears. I must assume that slave witches and wizards had their own spells, which, not surprisingly, were not a part of the magical manuals – or, at least, not of the ones that survive. Fortune-telling is another matter, however. As noted, Artemidorus’ dream book has many interpretations related directly to slaves. Clearly the customers Artemidorus has, and anticipates for his son, include slaves as regulars. It is not hard to imagine that less scrupulous ‘professionals’ such as soothsayers would have also done a brisk business among slaves whether in town or in the country. Consultation with them was one popular way to deal with the insecurities of slave life.


In the midst of ties and emotions of family, friends, and religion, the slave always feared separation through sale. The fear was real, a constant presence in his life. The best way out was to gain freedom. The desire for freedom consumed slaves. Despite the potential loss of some security, as the guard in Plautus’ play The Prisoners (119) says, ‘I’m sure we’d all rather be free than slaves.’ In The Life of Aesop, Aesop is constantly asking his master to free him – the master, Xanthus, promises repeatedly, but reneges just as frequently. As I interpret Lucius’ adventures as an ass in Apuleius’ novel to be a palimpsest for a life of slavery, the rose that Lucius needs to eat in order to regain his human form (and, as it turns out, salvation at the feet of Isis) is freedom itself. TheCarmen Astrologicum gives many castings that indicate that a slave will be freed; Artemidorus interprets dreams to promise the same thing. There are many inscriptions set up by freed slaves and many references in elite literature to them. In this one, an ex-slave gives thanks for divine help:


13. Free at last. A public manumission ceremony declares a slave free. Note the freedman’s cap.

Dedicated to the Spirit of the Annii Macer and Licinianus. I, Alphios their slave, set this up to fulfill my vow – I am now free! (CIL 12.619, Auriol, France)

Manumission was the route to freedom. Masters controlled this almost completely – the only exception was being able somehow to prove your improper enslavement and so free status before a magistrate. The masters often held out the promise of freedom as an incentive to get slaves to do what they wanted them to do – although it is interesting to note that the agricultural writers do not include this promise among the rewards they suggest to encourage slaves. Slaves could be freed through the declaration of the master before friends or before a magistrate, through self-purchase, or by testament. If officially manumitted before a magistrate they received a document proving this (Digest Although contracts for manumission are known from Egypt, the actual document proving freedom has rarely been found. There are a few examples in Greek; here is a Latin one:

Marcus Aurelius Ammonion, son of Lupergos, son of Sarapion, from Hermupolis the Greater, ancient and splendid, declares in the presence of his friends that Helen, his house-raised slave, age about 34 years, is no longer to be a slave and to now be free. He received as the price of her freedom 2,200 Augustan drachmas from Aurelius Ales, son of Inarous, from the Tisicheos district of the Hermupolite nome. Ales, son of Inarous, gave the money to Helen the aforementioned freedwoman and will make no claim for it against her. Done at Hermupolis the Greater, ancient and splendid, on the seventh day before the Kalens of August, when Gratus and Seleucus were consuls, in the third regnal year of Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Fortunate Revered. (M.Chr. 372)

In theory a freed slave could produce a document like this, but it was written on perishable material – an incised waxed tablet enclosed by wooden plates inscribed in pen and ink – so it was unlike another type of ‘manumission,’ the discharge of a solder from service, which was written in bronze. There does not seem to be any reference in fiction or elsewhere to a manumitted slave producing a document as proof of his freedom. When a master does try to reclaim a runaway, the man is identified by physical features, and the statement that he could not produce a liberation document is never mentioned. Thus although in theory this sort of identification could have made it harder for a runaway to escape successfully – or easily forged to prove freedom – it does not seem to figure importantly. Freedom itself, however, was celebrated happily when it occurred. In one club that had both free and slave members, the newly freed slave was to bring an amphora of wine to the next meeting – the equivalent of three cases of the stuff – to lubricate a fine celebration of a great event (ILS 7212, Lanuvio, Italy).

Certainly not all slaves were eventually freed; many died in harness. Probably few males were freed before the age of thirty (although the Egyptian evidence may contradict this), and few females before the end of their childbearing years (early forties). And to judge by comparative material, slaves in urban households were much more likely to be freed than those in the countryside. Still, slaves could see freedmen around them; the possibility of manumission could be real or remote, but at the very least, to judge from fiction and nonfiction sources and, most of all, from the slaves’ voices reflected in the fortune-telling material, it figured prominently in a slave’s mind as he contemplated his life and options.


A slave’s outlook was bounded by his possibilities. He focused on managing in his current condition vis-à-vis the master, up to and including escaping in flight; he developed strong ties with other slaves, even to the point of forming a family, and feared the disruption of being sold; he longed for a freedom that might eventually come. Slavery deprived the slave of self-determination, but it did not deprive him of self-identity. He remained a thinking, feeling, acting human being, and lived within slavery coping as best he could.

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