Pompeii is a rich source of archaeological evidence for the lives of slaves and the role they played in roman society.
Pompeii preserves abundant evidence of slavery. Remains in the town and the surrounding countryside highlight the back breaking drudgery of agricultural work and urban construction.
But slaves were not just beast of burden. Inscriptions also show that ‘higher status slaves’ held positions of relative responsibility, not only worked in their master’s businesses but also running them. It was also possible for slaves to enjoy a social role, acting as attendants in certain Roman religious cults.
Roman Slaves in Agriculture.
Evidence from rural villas suggests that life was much harder for agricultural slaves than for domestic slaves. Farm slaves were only given the minimal food and clothing. The nature of the work and the sheer numbers of slaves to compete with also meant that the chance to earn manumission was slim.
Unlike roman town houses, country villas did have slaves living quarters. This is because of the sheer numbers of agricultural slaves made it impractical for them to sleep in stables and storage areas. The living quarters found demonstrate just how basic life was for these laves. The cells where they spent their resting hours had plain walls and earth floors. Windows were slits and the interior light would have come from a lamp contained in a niche in the wall.
Country villas were also usually equipped with what were essentially underground prisons for unruly slaves. At the Villa of the Mosaic Columns just outside Pompeii, the skeleton of a slave was found in such a prison chained by both legs. No one had deemed it worth freeing him at the time of the eruption.
Roman Public Slaves.
Life could be no easier within the town. Slaves were used in construction and repair work about Pompeii as well as other unpleasant manual tasks such as stoking the furnaces of public bath houses. If they were not involved in hard labour, physically fit male slaves could find themselves sold as gladiators. Good looking slaves of either sex could also find themselves working in the Pompeii’s brothels.
The hopes of manumission for such slaves was little better than their country counterparts. Yet opportunities for a better life did exist for some groups of urban slaves.
Roman Slaves in Business.
Slaves who were highly skilled and worked closely with their masters could become a trusted and essential part of the business. The Murecine tablets, found outside Pompeii, date to the time of the 79AD eruption. They detail the business affairs in Puteoli of a Pompeian citizen. But the master himself did not keep his records. One of his slaves did, possibly because he was illiterate.
Even if a master could write, it was common for slaves to keep accounts and records on his behalf. One slave, sold by his master to the Pompeian banker Lucius Caecilius in 54AD actually wrote out the receipt for his own sale. Such highly skilled slaves were well placed to be able to earn their freedom.
Usually freedmen acted as their old master’s business representatives. But slaves could also manage their master’s business. Some even had their own seals inscribed with their names so that they could act on their master’s behalf. Inscriptions relating to the fish sauce business of a man called Scarus in Pompeii shows that one of his many manufacturing workshops was run by a female slave called Eutyche. Likewise, a property magnate called Alleius Nigidius Maius also used his slave Primus as an agent for rentals and sales.
Slaves and Roman Religion.
Slaves could not take part in the main cults of civic roman religion. However, various minor cults were open to them.
One example was the cult of Mercury and Maia which later became dominated by the genius of the Emperor Augustus. Inscribed plaques for the years 14-2BC show that slaves from important families were a major part of the cult in these years, acting as assistants to the freedmen who officiated.
Another cult which encouraged slave participation was the cult of the District Lares. The Lares were ancient roman deities, each responsible for particular area of land and so regarded as the guardian spirits of specific districts. Their shrines were set up on street corners. Evidence from a shrine on the Street of Abundance shows that slaves did not just assist freedmen in the cult; they could also be presidents of the cult.
But roles in these Roman cults were not open to every slave. They were usually allocated to slaves marked for freedom. The responsibilities and expectations of cult life were a way of preparing the slaves for their new roles as freedmen.
Cooley , Alison E and M.G.L. (2004) Pompeii: A Sourcebook. Routledge: London and New York.
Dobbins, J J and Foss, PW. (2007). The World of Pompeii. Routledge. London and New York.