Ancient History & Civilisation



Aiming to reconcile a population that was scattered and primitive—so quick to take up arms—to a peaceful and leisured existence by providing luxurious amenities, he gave private encouragement and public assistance to them to build temples, market places and urban mansions, praising those who were quick to do so, and criticizing those who were slow. This way a competition for honour took the place of compulsion. He provided the sons of the chiefs with a proper education, and he praised the natural aptitude of the Britons over the hard work of the Gauls, so those who had refused to learn Latin, began to acquire oratorical skills. Even our national style of dress became popular; the toga was often to be seen. And little by little they were led towards those things that encourage vice, colonnades, bathing and elegant banquets. In their inexperience they took all this for civilization; in fact it was part of their enslavement.

(Tacitus, Agricola 21)

A Patrimonial Empire

Every empire bears the mark of the kind of society that creates it. Nomad empires like that of the Mongols ruled through tribes and clans. The British Empire began as a trading venture, was conquered and governed by members of the aristocracy, and was administered by a colonial bureaucracy staffed from the professional middle-classes.1 Each of these social groups left its mark on the empire. Republican Rome was a city-state run by its greatest families. It was also a slave-owning society. It is no surprise that the empire it created was aristocratic, and that it depended for its management on the family and on slavery.

Family and slavery might seem an odd combination today. But in many pre-modern societies the two were fitted closely together.2 Many economic and governmental functions that are in the modern world organized by corporations, companies, and bureaucracies of various kinds were in the past mostly managed by individuals, who relied for help on networks of families and friends, ‘kith and kin’. Perhaps the most basic economic activity in antiquity is farming, whether that of tribal cultivators who organizing their work through ideologies of kinship, or that of peasant families. Slavery appeared in both kinds of society as a means of supplementing the workforce. Typically it appeared alongside friendship and clientage: slaves provided labour all the year round, others might help for particular needs. The aristocratic rulers of mid-Republican Rome had much more to organize than their family estates. Some owned several farms, others buildings in the city, trading vessels, potteries, and small shops. No one had enough relatives to staff or manage all these ventures. Wage labour existed, but it was rarely used, and mostly for piecework. Military aggression made the growth of slavery possible, and the more complex society that resulted from expansion generated new roles that slaves could fill. Roman property owners—and slaves were property of course—made use of slavery in every possible capacity. Slaves worked in the fields and the mines, served at table and in the bedroom, were teachers, financial managers, andconfidants. Romans famously freed many of their slaves and gave them a limited form of citizenship. The reason was not sentimental: the slaves who were freed were generally the most skilled, and as ex-slaves or freedmen they remained closely tied to the houses of their former masters. By the end of the Republic a great part of the city consisted of grand houses, each of which might include hundreds of slaves, and around them a penumbra of former slaves still closely tied to their former masters. Most Roman aristocrats spent only a small part of their lives in public service, as generals or governors or other officials: while on service their family, friends, and former slaves assisted them. The state owned a few slaves, but— until the emperors expanded their own family and slave household to form the kernel of a civil service—the empire was governed patrimonially, than is by the kith, kin, and slaves of its leading members.

The family also generated powerful images of authority, images which were easily transferred to other spheres. The ideological focus was the paterfamilias, the normal head of the household. Roman fathers were imagined to exercise benevolent care and moral leadership as well as authority. Formally, the Roman paterfamilias owned all the property of those persons under his authority, a group that included his adult children, the children of his sons, their slaves and ex-slaves. He also exercised a kind of guardianship over his female relatives, and even his married daughters remained under his authority. The paterfamilias was magistrate and priest in his own household, representing it to the state and to the gods. He presided over the family cult, might convene a council of his friends to help him decide on family matters, and might turn this into a family court to try members of the household: until Augustus even adultery was a matter for the jurisdiction of the head of the household. Slaves might be subjected to beatings at his command, or set free: ex-slaves might in principle be re-enslaved. Recent research on the Roman family has shown that reality was more complex. For a start, the idea of most adult males being completely under the thumb of an aged paterfamilias has to be rejected for all periods of Roman history. In a world where men typically did not marry for the first time until their late twenties and where life expectancy was at pre-modern levels, many adult Romans will have had no living parents. Those old men who did survive were treated with enormous respect: the situation was closer to traditional Japanese and Chinese society than to that of western Europe today. Tales of antique severity were part of a general tendency of Roman writers to evoke a morally stable past when attacking individuals in the present. Yet this myth made the Pater an excellent figure with which to represent benevolent authority in other contexts. Senators were formally addressed as patres conscripti. The title pater patriae (father of the fatherland) was given to Cicero, to Caesar, and then to Augustus after whom it became a standard component of imperial titulature.

Beyond the family extended webs of patronage, that complex of relationships that connected powerful Romans to their freeborn clients of various kinds. Patronage meant exchanges of favours and respect between people of different status or standing.3 It included the senior senator offering support to a younger one, the landowner helping out a poorer neighbour, and the backing provided by a patron of the arts for poets: it faded out into the social dimensions of the legally enforceable dependence of ex-slaves, tenants, and debtors. The powerful could offer their social subordinates allowances, loans of capital, or positions as managers of businesses and the occasional meal. Relationships of this kind were in principle inheritable, and some lesser families probably did remain in the orbit of larger ones for a few generations. The returns might be financial or presented as political support— although it was impolite to mention it—and urban clients also provided an entourage on formal occasions. To their grander friends—younger senators on the make, equestrians, and members of municipal aristocracies—the powerful could make connections, and perhaps obtain for them through their brokerage magistracies, priesthoods, social promotions, and the like. Friends also felt an obligation to help the widows and orphaned children of their connections. Orators offered free representation in the courts for their greater and lesser friends, and literati read and listened to each other’s compositions. For these services, the return was gratitude, and the reputation of a man who honoured his social obligations, his officia.

Patronage offered many models and metaphors for imperial rule. Provincial communities who wished to prosecute governors for corruption needed to first find a senator who would represent them as patronus: some were honoured for the service by Greek cities.4 Roman generals on occasion became the protectors of foreign communities, first in Italy and then overseas.5 Some bonds endured for a surprisingly long time. When Cicero was consul, in 63 BC, a group of conspirators tried to get the support of the Gallic Allobroges: they were not persuaded and exposed the plot, but did so by approaching Cicero through a minor senator named Fabius Sanga, whose ancestor had originally defeated them in the 120s. The language of patronage could be applied to relations between entire peoples and the Roman state as a whole. During the late Republic various foreign peoples and kings were formally hailed as ‘friends and allies’ of the Roman people.6 No one in Rome would have understood this as a relationship between equals. All the same the relationship carried a real sense of mutual obligations. When Rome was divided against itself, these relationships might draw in foreigners. Sallust opens his account of the war against the Numidian prince Jugurtha with Scipio Aemilanus advising his young ally to seek the friendship of the Roman people as a whole, not of individual Romans.7 The civil wars of the 40s and 30s BC were fought mainly outside Italy, and involved tribes and kings from all around the empire: Cleopatra in Egypt, Herod in Judaea, Juba of Mauretania were among those trying to guess future winners in Roman politics. That problem only resolved itself with the end of political pluralism. The emperor became the ultimate source of all benefits, senatorial patrons increasingly acted as brokers connecting their clients to imperial largess, and Augustus boasted in his autobiography how distant German tribes had sent envoys seeking his friendship and that of the Roman people.8

Slavery and the Roman Economy

Slavery and the family acquired more and more functions as Roman power expanded over the last centuries BC. Nowhere is this clearer than in the management of the public and private proceeds of empire.

Perhaps most original was the development of legal devices to enable these institutions to be used more effectively to manage economic activity.9 A good example is provided by the peculium, an amount of property that an individual might use, despite the fact that the ultimate owner was the head of the household. Families needed all their adult members to be able to operate as effective economic agents: a peculium allowed a son to run a farm, or to buy and sell goods without constant reference to his father. By allowing some slaves a peculium they could act as commercial agents and farm managers or could run shops or tenements. It became common for some slaves to retain money they earned with the intention of eventually buying their freedom from their owners: the sum would allow the master to replace the slave, and he retained the services of a freedman. Augustus allowed soldiers a peculium, a practical measure given some would spend decades at a great distance from their fathers. From the early second century BC, a law of agency, the lex institoria, supplemented these arrangements. Roman property owners were able to appoint free, freed, or even slave agents (institores) who could enter into contracts and incur liabilities on their behalf. Something of this kind was vital once some Romans had business interests and estates in several provinces, or might be engaged in long-distance trade or contracts to provision distant Roman armies. Yet another example, also from the early second century, is the development of partnerships (societates), originally a device to allow heirs to manage an inheritance jointly, but now adapted to allow a number of parties to pool their assets and share the profits and losses of common enterprises. This was especially useful as the potential scale of economic activities increased: the Elder Cato is said to have joined in a partnership of fifty to fund a commercial voyage.10 The greatest public contracts of the late Republic—the collection of five years of public revenues from the province of Asia is the most famous example—demanded huge financial guarantees. Partnership was vital to enterprises of this sort. Other empires faced similar problems but dealt with them in different ways. Early modern Europe developed the joint-stock company as a means of pooling capital and risk. Rome strengthened and employed the institutions of the family and slavery.

The economic sphere in which we can best track change is agriculture. It is not clear how early some Romans started to acquire multiple properties up and down the peninsula: for the fourth and third centuries there is much more evidence of colonial and other settlement. Archaeological evidence for villa building and an increased concern with surplus production is scarce in many parts of Italy before the late second century BC. Literary accounts of tranquil rural retreats begin even later. But around 160 BC, Cato the Elder wrote a treatise On Farming, which borrowed from earlier Greek manuals on farming, yet was adapted to Roman needs. It includes, for example, lists of the Italian towns in which the best items of various kinds of equipment can be purchased. At its heart is a thoroughly Roman model of slavery. Cato’s prescriptions suit a moderate-sized farm practising a mixed agriculture based on the most common Italian crops. It produced a little of everything to supply the needs of the servile workforce, the farm manager, and the owner, but was also designed to produce a surplus for the market.

The market for agricultural produce was a growing one in the second century BC. Powering this was urbanization. The city of Rome probably already had more than 100,000 inhabitants. It was expanding rapidly as a result of the public spending organized by the censors, and perhaps too because colonization had stopped at the end of the 170s. After the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC it had also became the central commercial hub of the western Mediterranean. As the proportion of the population who did not live on the land grew, so did the demand for foodstuffs. Importing from a distance was expensive and risky: Rome would resort to this eventually, as the city approached a million souls in the reign of Augustus. But for now there was a simpler solution. The confiscation of land from disloyal allies after the Hannibalic war had increased the amount of public property, and wars of overseas conquest had enriched some at least of the landowning classes. Some of this wealth they used to purchase farms, some of it to invest in them. Slaves, in the period of overseas expansion, offered a cheap workforce. Capital-intensive agriculture became a way that short-term windfalls of booty could be transformed into ventures that would make money in the long term. That was the logic to which Cato responded. There was, in fact, a widespread and consistent interest in ways of improving the value of farmland. Varro produced a longer treatise on agriculture in the early 30s BC, and by the time Columella and Pliny were writing in the later first century AD they could evidently draw on a library of agronomical works. At the heart of all of them was slave labour.11

Cato wrote for landowners who were planting vineyards, equipping their farms with mills and presses, building storage facilities, purchasing iron farming equipment and, to use it, slaves. The farm he envisaged was run by a manager with a permanent staff of a couple of dozen slaves, supplemented when needed, as for the vintage, by the casual labour of free peasants or townsfolk.12 Slaves offered a core workforce that could be worked exceptionally hard, the sick and old could be easily disposed of, no idle mouths need be tolerated, and the workforce could be increased or decreased in size easily enough. Slaves were not subject to military levies. Cato’s recommendations have horrified many for the banality of their cruelty. The production of grain and wine were the key market-oriented enterprises. Landowners also exploited non-agricultural resources on their estates, such as clay-pits and woodland. Clay-pits were vital for making the pottery container amphorae in which wine and oil were exported and the vats called doliaused for storage. The city of Rome was greedy for bricks and tiles. Some properties could supply timber and firewood. Farms close to Rome developed irrigated fruit and vegetable gardening, the raising of fowl, bee keeping, and even the cultivation of game of various kinds.13 Property owners also invested in transport infrastructure, they built markets for fresh produce, and rented out shops to their clients along the frontages of their homes. At all stages of this economic growth the propertied classes led the way. No new commercial classes emerged, as the capital came from the social elites and they entrusted the management of these enterprises to their clients, freed-men, and slaves.14

Roman landowners needed farm bailiffs, building managers, shopkeepers, and supervisors of small workshops, trusted representatives to collect rent from urban and rural tenants, to conduct business in distant ports, and to manage the complex bookkeeping on each estate and of the household as a whole. Those who dealt with contracts or had to report or else receive written instructions had to be literate. Landowners depended on numerate individuals to manage what must have been complex flows of cash, to record and chase arrears, and to check the returns on loans. They used slave and ex-slave secretaries, some of whom travelled with them wherever they went, assisting in their official business as well as their private affairs. Slaves and freedmen provided for all this.15

Why slaves? Roman society had no equivalent of the educated but relatively poor urban classes who supplied Victorian entrepreneurs with their waged clerical assistants. The citizen army produced no retired officers with the kind of generalized administrative experience depended on today in many sectors of business and government. Nor did the freeborn have access to anything like the social and commercial institutions that today allow those with talent and energy to develop career paths to positions of increasing responsibility. Slaves, on the other hand, were malleable. Some were highly educated, indeed most Roman education took place within aristocratic households. Owned for long periods they could be trained and disciplined to suit their masters’ needs. Most slaves were completely detached from the societies in which they had grown up, or else they were ‘home-bred’: neither group had any real hope of achieving better conditions except with their owners’ support. Besides, slaves were utterly dependent on their masters.16The sanctions for disobedience or dishonesty were horrifying. It was in principle illegal to kill a slave, deliberately at least, although who would bring a case against a master? But slaves might be routinely confined, beaten, even tortured, and there were many lesser sanctions. Cato recommended access to slave women be used as an incentive. Some slaves were allowed to start families, but their partner and children could be sold at a master’s whim. Slaves might hope for softer jobs and their eventual freedom, but they could be reassigned to hard labour if the master preferred. Was there a connection too between the Romans’ increasingly autocratic treatment of the enemies and their habitual command over their slaves? It is difficult to test such a thesis, but reading Cato on his slaves it is difficult to forget him ending every public speech he made at the end of his life with the words Delenda est Carthago, ‘and Carthage must be destroyed’.

Cato’s ideal farm would have looked tiny to later generations. Purpose-built villas with slave quarters appear in the last century BC, often equipped with luxurious residential quarters. A great mansion excavated at Settefinestre in Tuscany provides a vivid model. An entire urban mansion, secluded garden included, has been transplanted into the countryside and bolted onto a working farm. When the master was present, he would arrive with servile attendants to look after his every need and desire. Meanwhile a very different category of slaves worked his vineyards, his fields, his mills, and his potteries. Most agricultural slaves were not made to work in chains—hardly practical in most circumstances—but many were branded or wore collars. Even worse were the conditions of the slaves that worked in the mines. And Apuleius, in his novel the Golden Ass, provides a horrific description of a grain-mill where slaves ground grain by turning a horizontally mounted wheel in unbearable heat.


Fig 6. A slave collar (original in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano in Rome)

O gods above, what poor subhuman creatures were there, their bodies bruised all with livid marks, their back scarred from beatings, covered rather than clothed, in rags, some just wearing a loincloths to preserve their dignity, all of them so practically naked. Some had been branded on the forehead, some had their hair shaved off and some wore shackles. They looked ghastly, and in fact they could hardly see as their eyes were dimmed with muck and smoke in the foul smelling darkness of that place.17

Meanwhile the lavish servile households of the super-rich kept growing. Slave teachers and barbers took their place alongside concubines and all kinds of chefs, doormen and dressers, bakers and wet-nurses, poetry readers, gardeners, and physical trainers. Literally hundreds of occupational designations are known from the elaborate graves their masters often provided for them. Extraordinarily complex societies arose within single households, societies marked by subtle hierarchies and minute differentiations of role and title. Slaves were so ubiquitous they often seem invisible. It is easy to forget that a free man or woman of any status was almost never alone, and never needed to exert themselves, because there was always another pair of hands to do it for them.

Slaves, Citizens, and Soldiers

Slaves, to begin with, were luxuries. When we can tell—rarely—how much a slave cost, the price in today’s terms is about that of a new car. Only the rich needed or could afford such skilled servants, to supplement their clients and tenants and dependent relatives. Yet Cato’s farm employed less skilled slaves. How did Rome become a society based on mass slavery? And how did this change relate to Roman imperialism?

Part of this story has been told already. During the second century BC there are many signs that slavery was becoming more and more important in the Roman economy. Cato’s description is an early piece of evidence. Anecdotes begin to pile up. At the end of the second century BC, Nicomedes, King of Bithynia, refused to send troops to fight alongside Rome on the grounds that so many of his subjects had been captured by slave traders. Nearer to home there were two major slave rebellions in Sicily in the late second century (135–132 and 104–100), while the Spartacus war of 73 BC took two Roman armies to suppress. If the growth of agricultural slavery can be matched to the development of wine production for export, then the pace of the transformation through the late second and early first centuries BC can be measured by a wide range of archaeological criteria from the number of container amphorae found from each period, to the growing number of wrecked cargo vessels that have been located by divers along the Mediterranean coasts.18

The growth of Roman slavery was so rapid that it was one of the very few social transformations actually noticed by ancient writers. The geographer Strabo explained how one part of southern Asia Minor, Cilicia, became a major centre for piracy.19 It began with a local rebellion against the kings of Syria. The rebels then began to raid Syria for slaves, because they discovered the slave market on Delos could handle a turnover of 10,000 slaves a day. The reason, says Strabo, was that after the defeat of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC the Romans had become rich and started to use great numbers of slaves. Other powers in the area—the city of Rhodes, the kings of Cyprus and of Egypt—were either enemies of Syria, or for other reasons did not interfere, and the Romans were not concerned with matters beyond the Taurus. Strabo got it right—more or less—but even he did not appreciate the full combination of factors that had turned the eastern Mediterranean into a playground for pirates and slave traders. Roman expansion was the root cause of most of them. First, it was Rome’s wars against the kings that had left the eastern Mediterranean unpoliced. Rome would not even begin to try to suppress piracy until the very end of the second century BC. It remained a menace until Pompey swept the inland sea from end to end in the 60s, and Augustus created the first permanent Roman fleets.20 Second, Romans had indeed begun to gear their economy to slave labour, but not just because of their wealth and not just after 146 BC. Cheap slaves first become available during Rome’s Balkan wars in the first decades of the second century. One notorious agreement made between Romans and their then allies the Aetolians promised the latter any cities and territory captured, so long as Rome could take the movable booty and the population.21 Prisoners of war were from that point on a major component of booty from most major campaigns.

Not all agricultural slaves were used on villas like those described by Cato. Accounts of the Sicilian Slave Wars also mention slave shepherds on the great ranches of the south. But the great demand was to staff the new-style villas, and Roman warfare was not quite regular enough to ensure a steady supply of captives. Many fewer legions were fielded during the 160s, for example, than in the 190s when Rome faced both Macedon and Syria, or in the years leading to the fall of Corinth and Carthage. This is where Delos came in. When there were no captives available, Rome turned to slave traders, who supplied themselves from piracy and raiding in the chaotic conditions left by Rome’s ventures in the eastern Mediterranean.22 At other times there were fresh consignments of war captives. Traders followed the armies, buying captives from individual soldiers. Others began to exploit new populations in northern Europe: there is some sign that—just as in Africa in the early modern period—some tribes took to raiding their neighbours for slaves which they could exchange for imported goods, goods that in antiquity included Mediterranean wine. As long as Rome had the appetite for slaves there would be no end to the trade in one form or another.

Why were Roman landowners so committed to slave labour? The population of Italy was not small; indeed it had probably never been so high as under Roman rule. Until the early second century most of the agricultural workforce was supplied by peasants, some owning their own land, others tenants on state land or on farms belonging to others, a few working for cash, and probably many families doing a little of all these things. Arguments have raged since antiquity over how far and how fast free peasants were displaced by slaves, and they continue today.23 Changes certainly took place, and they seem to have unfolded gradually. Peasant freeholders, sharecroppers, and tenants are well attested in the Principate. Citizen death rates on campaign were never catastrophic. Regional differences are clearer than ever in the archaeological data. Yet agricultural slavery and intensive agriculture did expand, and many of the soldiers who fought in the armies of the late Republic were landless. One way or another the ancient link between soldier-citizen and citizen-farmer had been broken, and Roman Italy had become a slave society.

Further Reading

One of the great achievements of the last generation of research has been a realization of the centrality of the family to all aspects of Roman society. Beryl Rawson’s collection The Family in Ancient Rome (London, 1986) is an excellent starting point, including papers by most of the major scholars in the field. Paul Weaver’s Familia Caesaris (Cambridge, 1972) revealed the use the emperors made of slaves in governing the empire. Rawson and Weaver together edited a follow-up volume entitled The Roman Family inItaly (Oxford, 1997). Richard Saller’s Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge, 1994) harnessed demography and social science to show the gap between myth and reality when it came to the power of the paterfamilias.

The best starting points for finding out more about Roman slavery are the first volume of The Cambridge History of World Slavery (Cambridge, 2011) edited by Paul Cartledge and Keith Bradley, and Bradley’s Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge, 1994). For the relationship between the growth of a slave society in Rome and Roman imperialism, see the books by Hopkins and Rosenstein noted in the Further Reading for Chapter 5. The great debate over the significance of slavery in the Roman economy has been conducted mostly in Italian. Dominic Rathbone’s article ‘The Slave Mode of Production in Italy’, published in the Journal of Roman Studies in 1983, provides a sympathetic overview. Ulrike Roth’s Thinking Tools (London, 2007) offers an important challenge to the orthodoxy. Jean-Jacques Aubert’s Business Managers in Ancient Rome (Leiden, 1994) shows brilliantly how Romans adapted traditional institutions to cope with the demands of an ever more complex society.

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