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Slavery: Ancient Rome and Its Modern Times Legacy

Slavery is one of the most ubiquitous institutions in human history. It has existed for centuries in different cultures. Thus, slavery differs in its economic and legal basis in relation to the society in which it is introduced. Through a comparative study, it is possible to highlight the similarities, alongside the differences, of the institution of slavery. In particular, historians have discovered that the way in which slavery was established in Ancient Greece, and later on, in Ancient Rome, influenced the institution of slavery in the New World. At the beginning of the 16th century, European explorers from Portugal and Spain arrived in America and began to build their overseas empires; since the colonizers were in dire need of workforce, they decided to enslave Native Americans and mobilise people from different parts of Africa in order to "solve" the problem.

Finley (1980) underlines how the modern institution of slavery and the ideology that has been used to justify its existence is rooted in the ancient practice of slavery. Greek and Roman scholars, like Aristotle, were used by politicians to persuade the population and its religious representatives with solid arguments in defence of the institution of slavery. However, the major contribution to the regulation of slavery has come from the laws of the ancient people. In particular, Roman law managed to survive to modern times, being adapted first into the Germanic codes and then revived during the Middle Ages, a time in which slavery was still practised notwithstanding the Christian ideology in Europe. Since Roman law was still followed in the 16th century, when the colonizers imported African slaves to the New World they already had a well-functioning legal system to use.

Slavery in Ancient Rome: Its Standardisation by Roman Law

Roman law, established in the Republican period (509 BC – 27 AD), allowed to regulate slavery which constituted an integral and essential part of Rome's economy and societal structure. Rome's economy, both in its republican and imperial periods (27 BC – 476 BC), was predominantly agricultural, and enslaved people were seen as indispensable to keep the system running. Moreover, slaves were so important for domestic services, that they were considered to be part of the domus ("the household"). Roman law defined slavery as the dominium ("mastery") of one individual over another; thus, slaves were considered as part of a domus in quality of res ("things") owned by the pater familias (the male head of the family). However, from an ideological standpoint, slavery in the Roman world was fairly ambivalent: «on the one hand, a slave was regarded as an object that can be subjected to ownership, but on the other hand, it was difficult to deny that slaves had human features and emotions» (van den Berg, 2016, p. 175). To overcome this ambivalence, the legal status of slaves was characterized by two elements: everyone could be enslaved, and everyone could be freed from enslavement.

Freedom was the natural status of any person but, under specific circumstances, one could have become a slave and thus be subjected to the ownership of another individual. Hence, slavery was strictly associated with an unfortunate twist of faith. In fact, slaves were taken as prisoners of war, which was the most common source of slaves in the Roman Empire, but also via piracy and brigandage. Furthermore, a child born from an enslaved mother (vernae) inherited her status, regardless of his father's status. An additional source of slaves was the long distance trade with other reigns and empires, which usually took the form of slave markets. Slave markets existed in all the major cities: in public squares, slaves were paraded and sellers advertised their virtues and abilities in order to make the best profit out of them. The most famous and visited slave market of ancient times was the one on the island of Delos, where enslaved people were mostly brought by Cilician pirates.

Taking a look at the different ways in which one could become a slave, it is clear that everyone could be enslaved regardless of their ethnicities, culture, and social class. The fact that slavery was seen as a circumstantial misfortune in Ancient Rome meant also that enslaved individuals had different ways of regaining their freedom. In Roman law, the manumissio ("manumission") of a slave could be granted by the owner or could be bought by the slaves through the use of the peculium; peculium was the earned assets of a slave which, although legally belonging to the dominus ("the master"), was considered the slave's property and could be used to buy their freedom. Once emancipated, the former slave (now called libertus) was granted Roman citizenship, thus becoming a full citizen with legal rights; However, the libertus was still socially bound to their former master by a patronage relationship similar to the one between a patronus (patron) and a cliens (client). As already stated, the condition of slavery was regulated by the law. The most comprehensive collection of Roman law is the so-called Corpus Iuris Civilis, issued from 529 to 534 AD by Emperor Justinian I: it is through this collection that Roman law came to influence medieval, and later on modern, European legal systems. Therefore, the way in which the institution of slavery was built during the conquest and domination of the New World is rooted in the legal fabric of Roman slavery. However, albeit the similarities, there is one major difference: in the American colonies, slavery was strictly associated with race.

A Brand New World: Modern Slavery and the Question of Race

In the early 16th century, Spain and Portugal began to build their overseas empires by colonizing entire areas of the Americas, soon followed by England, France, and the Dutch Republic. In Spain and Portugal, where the Catholic Church and its ideology was predominant, there was an initial uncertainty towards slavery, just like it happened in the Roman world. However, one of the central elements of the conquest of the "New World" was the alleged inferiority of non-white people; The mission of the European colonizer was to "help" them become more civilized by introducing Native Americans to the Christian faith. Soon this mission was extended to other non-white people, namely Africans and Indians. Thus, the more slavery became a central institution for overseas empires, the more the ideological justification based on the moral and intellectual inferiority of those enslaved spread in European countries.

This supposed moral and intellectual inferiority was intrinsically connected with non-white racial identities. Hence, people from Africa and the Indian subcontinent were always treated like slaves because of their darker skin tone, almost as if they were not entitled to be free. The consequence of this ideological preconception was that manumission was hardly ever allowed. Notwithstanding, there is one relevant distinction between slavery in Latin America (where the colonies were mostly owned by Spain and Portugal), and North America, colonized by the English and the French. In Latin America, because of the centrality of Catholicism, whose main value is respect for human life, together with the formal adoption of Roman law, an intricate system of racial classification emerged. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors were much more tolerant towards racial mixing and recognized a wide range of racial diversity, including mestizo and mulatto. On the contrary, in the colonies of North America interracial pairing was not allowed because of the racial boundaries between whites and blacks. The consequent racial segregation, which had long-lasting repercussions, was possible because northern European countries adopted the Roman legislation on slavery more freely; in the name of profit, they purged it from the ideological belief that would consider slavery as inhuman. In fact, besides being domestic helpers, black slaves were mostly housed in plantation fields where they were the main labour force.

Thus, if slaves were already important in the economy of Ancient Rome, in modern times, and especially in the Southern colonies of the United States, slavery has progressively become the pillar of the entire economy. The most tragic consequence of it was that slaves were not only granted the same rights as free individuals but were actually considered not fully human.

In conclusion, Roman law introduced the idea that slaves were res (things) that belong to an owner. In a similar way, in modern times slaves were considered chattel, that is to say, personal property of their master. However, there is a fundamental distinction: in Ancient Rome, slaves were still granted some degree of humanity and it was possible for them to regain their full freedom; on the other hand, the Atlantic slave trade created an oppressive social system based on the dehumanization of Black people who, since they were considered to be "lesser" humans, were deemed fit for slavery.


B.J.R. (1893). Features of American Slavery. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 474-490.

Cartwright, M. (2013). Slavery in the Roman World. World History Encyclopedia.

Engerman, S.L. (2000). Slavery at Different Times and Places. The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 2, pp. 480-484.

Finley, M.I. (2021). Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New Publisher; Revised, Expanded, Subsequent Edition.

Joshel, S., (2009). Roman Slavery and the Question of Race. BlackPast.

van den Berg, P. (2016). Slave: persons and property?: The Roman law on slavery and its reception in Western Europe and its overseas territories. Osaka University Law Review, No. 63, pp. 171-188.

Images References

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves, Tunisia, Second century C.E. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

A slave market in Delos. Credits: Paperfolks.

Enslaved people cut sugarcane on the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1823. Credits: The British Library.

Author Photo

Marica Felici

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