Every time I think I am getting close to understanding the Romans, I come up against that most abhorrent of institutions, slavery. Slavery was a fact of life to most Romans: it also existed in nearly every culture the Romans encountered. It is probable that many of them would never have thought to challenge slavery’s existence, though they may well have discussed, even argued over, the treatment of slaves.
The sources present us with many examples of how slaves were treated, from appalling brutality to inclusion in the family. Indeed, the Latin word, familia, included the slaves in a household. In Roman law, a slave was classed as a res, a thing, but we know some slaves were friends with their owners. An owner could treat a slave almost with impunity, but slaves were also expensive commodities, and treating them badly made no sense to many Romans. This at least meant that some slaves had decent working conditions and the hope of freedom in the future. One of the most horrific accounts that comes down to us arose from the law that if a slave killed an owner, then all the slaves of the household would be executed. When that actually happened in a famous incident under the emperor Nero, the Roman people demonstrated vociferously in support of the hundreds of innocent slaves, alas to no avail (Tacitus Annals, book 14).
In writing a picture of Roman life in which I try to reflect how things were, I am being true to my idea of how a historian should behave. If I pretended that slavery did not exist, or conversely if I depicted all Romans as brutal abusers of slaves, I would be lying.
History has a way of making us reflect on our own world. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are over 40 million people in modern slavery (The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery). It’s a desperate figure but there are also many people leading the fight against modern slavery. The organization End Slavery Now has a list of actions anyone can take at https://www.endslaverynow.org/act/action-library. Maybe this is the reason we have to be honest about the way in which human beings have treated each other in the past – so that we can act to change things now.