Slavery was an accepted part of the economy in the ancient world. Defeated peoples might expect to have been enslaved by their conquerors, and the desperation of poverty could lead to children being sold to slave traders to provide money for the family. In desperately sad situations, entering or being sold into slavery may have been the only chance to avoid starvation. One thing that marks ancient slavery out from the practice in more recent centuries is that it was not restricted to specific races, meaning that slaves in the ancient Roman world came from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Roman slaves were not marked out by a particular costume or physical mark and this makes determining the extent of slavery difficult. The philosopher Seneca (4BC-AD65) commented (On Mercy, 1.24) that the senate once discussed introducing an item of slave dress so that they might be distinguished from free citizens, but it was recognised that this would be dangerous as it would lead to the slaves realizing that they were actually in the majority.
Slavery is an abhorrent practice in any age, and we should make no attempt to excuse it, but the experience of a slave was not universally consistent. The Greek slave living in a wealthy household on the bay of Naples, teaching rhetoric to the family’s children and allowed to earn some money in his spare time clearly had a very different experience of slavery to a Gaul forced to spend a hard and shortened life quarrying stone in a southern Spanish mine. Trying to reconcile these two extremes across the extent of the empire is difficult, though we should not forget that the latter greatly outnumbered the former. A unique aspect of Roman slavery is that manumission was a realistic ambition for some slaves, such as the Greek in the example above. A slave might expect to be freed by his master for faithful service, in his will, or after saving enough money to purchase his freedom. Once released, the former slave, known as a ‘freedman’ or ‘freedwoman’, would be expected to further the interests of his former owners, and many continued to work in family businesses. Often taking the name of their previous master, the freedman did not have the complete rights of a freeborn citizen, but could rise in the community and gain wealth and status in their own right. Significantly, their children would become full Roman citizens. It has been estimated that, at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, half of the population of Herculaneum were freed slaves or their descendants. In no other society, then or since, have former slaves been permitted to become such an integral part of the society that enslaved them.
Slavery in Roman Britain is a subject that evokes much interest, but although direct archaeological evidence for it is slight, sadly this does not mean that the practice somehow escaped our shores. Indeed, in the pre-Roman Iron Age, the taking of captives as slaves seems to have been a common result of inter-tribal conflict and the Greek geographer Strabo (Geography, 4.5) lists slaves as one of Britain’s major exports. One emotive category of evidence is iron shackles or manacles (for example these from Hampshire). We should, however, be slightly cautious in categorising every iron shackle find as being evidence of slavery, as various forms of temporary incarceration / punishment or the hobbling of animals are plausible alternative interpretations for these objects. The unusual fixed iron leg rings excavated on a young male skeleton at Driffield Terrace in York demonstrate that there are practices that we do not fully understand (read Hilary Cool’s discussion of that particular discovery here).
Literary evidence for slavery exists in the form of a writing tablet from London, dating to c.AD75-125, recording the sale of a female slave from northern Gaul (ironically named ‘Fortunata’), and lead curse tablets found at religious sites such as Bath and Uley (Gloucestershire) plead with various deities to punish the people who have wronged the author, ‘si servus si liber’ – ‘whether slave or free’. Clearly, the economy of both rural and urban sites in Roman Britain was powered, at least in part, by slave labour.
One fascinating example of a British slave is the tombstone of a woman called Regina, found at South Shields (see a funky little interactive website about it here). She was a freedwoman and the wife of a Syrian man called Barates. Whether or not she was originally his slave is unknown, but she was a Briton of the Catuvellauni tribe of south eastern England, demonstrating that a person could even be a slave within their own country and their own culture.
One of the best pieces of evidence of a slave in Roman Lincoln is a fragmentary inscription excavated at the site of the forum in the 1970s. It formed part of a dedication, recording that a ‘freedman of the emperor(s)’ had rebuilt the Colonia’s temple to the Imperial Cult. A slave owned by the emperor could have had many varied duties across the empire, such as involvement in provincial government or the running of centrally controlled industries such as mineral extraction or coin minting. This freedman, whose name is sadly lost and would doubtless have given us the name of the emperor under whom he gained his freedom, had obviously become wealthy enough to repair a major temple in a large Roman town. Perhaps more importantly, it shows us that he wanted to spend his money in such a way, emulating the custom of public munificence that marked the social aspirations of the middle and upper classes of the time. In other words, rather than showing resentment for his slavery, this freedman was going to great lengths to demonstrate that he was now a successful part of the culture that enslaved him.
Other evidence of slavery can be found in a series of copper alloy figures, known only from Britain and Germany, and of which three are known from Lincolnshire. These naked figures, likely representing males, are bound around the neck, hands and ankles. Their pose – the angle of the legs and the perforations through the centre – suggest that they were originally attached to larger objects. Their function remains unknown, but it seems clear that they represent the misery represented by human slavery. Their silent forms serve to remind us that despite the literary and archaeological evidence we have for ancient slavery in Roman Britain and Lincolnshire, the most important viewpoint of all is the one we are least likely to obtain – that of the slaves themselves.