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Exploring the Ancient Past

Roman Domestic Slavery

By Natasha Sheldon

The lives of domestic roman slaves could be easy. But archaeology shows that they were never allowed to forget their inferior status and could be harshly punished.

Slaves played an important role in the running of the Roman house. Often intimately involved with the lives of their masters, they often received trust and affection. In turn, they often felt great loyalty towards their owners.

 

But even the most liberal householder would be willing to punish their slaves if necessary. The slaves inferior position was also always emphasised, no matter how highly regarded they were by their masters.

 

The Roles of Slaves.

 

Slaves  were involved in a range of jobs. They did the most menial work, cleaning the house, preparing food in the kitchen, weaving cloth and dealing with animals in the stables. Such slaves were largely in the background although the distribution of domestic implements in houses in Pompeii indicates that their duties could have taken them into public areas of the house such as the peristyle and atrium.

 

But certain slaves had specialised roles that brought them into intimate contact with the family. Children’s nannies, body servants and trusted secretaries were usually servile.

 

Slaves and the Roman Family.

 

In a good household, every slave was part of the wider familia. Evidence suggests that slaves could be thought of with great affection by their masters. Children would become very attached to their nannies. House born slaves, known as verriae were also great favourites. Verriae were the offspring of two slaves of the house or a master and slave. They were often held in great affection.

 

Funerary evidence demonstrates this close relationship. The tomb of the Augustali, Munatius Faustus includes not only his own memorial but that of some of his slaves. That these individuals were servile is indicated by their single names. The names were accompanied by their ages. The slaves were very young children when they died, probably verriae that Faustus favoured.

 

Slaves and Domestic Roman Religion.

 

Religion was another way slaves were included in and bound to their master’s family. It was customary for slaves to join free members of the household worshipping at the household shrine or lararium . This was usually in the atrium but  many houses also included a lararium in the kitchen for the sole use of the slaves.

 

Inscriptions have been found on some household shrines in Pompeii which demonstrate the loyalty and concern slaves felt for their masters. The lararium in the House of Gaius Iulius Polybius is inscribed by a vow by one of Polybius’s slaves, dedicated to his master’s safe return home.

 

Punishment and Ill-treatment of Slaves.

 

Although life as a domestic slave may have been better than for a manual worker, it could also be harsh. Not all masters were kind. Graffiti on some houses in Pompeii shows that verriae, far from being privileged pets were rented out for sexual purposes.

 

Even a reasonable master would not hesitate to discipline a disobedient or unruly slave. One Pompeian house was found to keep leg irons in a cupboard. Some villas often had special cells for the punishment of unruly slaves.

 

Roman Slaves as Household Objects.

 

No matter how kindly the household, Roman slaves were still not regarded as fully human or equal to their masters.

 

Slaves were human tools who did not require privacy or their own space. Houses in Pompeii have no discernable sleeping quarters for slaves. Kitchen slaves probably slept where they worked, as did stable slaves. Porters would have bedded down in the small cubicles they used to guard the household entrance. Personal servant would have slept in the rooms of their master’s or across their thresholds.

 

This attitude towards Roman slaves is well illustrated by wall paintings from Pompeii which shows slaves standing around with basins, towels and lamps whilst their masters have sex. Romans would not have dreamt of having sex so publically in front of other free people. But it was acceptable to do so in front of slaves because like lamps or beds, they were household utensils.

 

The  lesser status of slaves  continued to be emphasised even after death. Although many slaves had grave markers in or around the tombs of the family they had served, most were marked by simple stone stelae that did not record their names.

 

Sources

Cooley, A E and M G L (2004) Pompeii: A Sourcebook.   Routledge: London and New York

John J Dobbins and Pedar W Foss. (ed) (2007) The World of Pompeii. Routledge. London and New York.

 

Picture Credit: Roman Museum in Butchery Lane, Canterbury, Kent. Reconstruction of Roman woman with polished metal mirror and slave. By Linda Spashett . Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. c/o wikimedia commons