As in many ancient civilizations, slavery played a big part in the culture of Rome. Slaves performed much of the labor and hard work that helped to build the Roman Empire and keep it running.
Did they have a lot of slaves?
A fairly large percentage of the people living in Rome and Italy were slaves. Historians aren't sure of an exact percentage but somewhere between 20% and 30% of the people were slaves. During the early parts of the Roman Empire, as many as one third of the people in Rome were slaves.
How did someone become a slave?
Most slaves were people captured in times of war. As the Roman Empire expanded, they often captured slaves from new lands they conquered. Other slaves were bought from slave traders and pirates who captured people from foreign lands and brought them to Rome.
Children of slaves also became slaves. Sometimes criminals were sold into slavery. A few people even sold themselves into slavery in order to pay their debts.
What work did slaves do?
Slaves did all sorts of work throughout the empire. Some slaves worked hard labor in the Roman mines or on a farm. Other slaves worked skilled jobs such as teaching or business accounting. The type of work generally depended on the previous education and experience of the slave.
There were two main types of slaves: public and private. Public slaves (called servi publici) were owned by the Roman government. They might work on public building projects, for a government official, or in the emperor's mines. Private slaves (called servi privati) were owned by an individual. They worked jobs such as household servants, laborers on farms, and craftsmen.
Were they treated well?
How a slave was treated depended upon the owner. Some slaves were likely beaten and worked to death, while others were treated almost like family. In general, slaves were considered valuable property and it made sense to treat them well. Sometimes slaves were paid by their owners if they worked hard.
Were slaves set free?
Yes, slaves were sometimes set free by their owner (called "manumission"). Sometimes slaves were able to purchase their own freedom. Freed slaves were called freedmen or freedwomen. Although they were free, they still had the status of a "freed slave." Freed slaves were considered Roman citizens, but couldn't hold public office.
The slaves of Rome banded together and rebelled several times during the history of Ancient Rome. There were three major rebellions called the "Servile Wars." Perhaps the most famous of these was the Third Servile War led by the gladiator Spartacus.
Interesting Facts About Slavery in Ancient Rome
The children of freed slaves could hold public office.
It was against Roman law to help a runaway slave. Captured runaways were punished severely and sometimes killed as an example to the other slaves.
The Emperor Pertinax was the son of a freedman. He was only emperor for a few months, however, before he was assassinated.
During the Roman festival Saturnalia, roles were often reversed between masters and slaves. The masters sometimes served their slaves a fancy banquet and treated them as equals.