Gaius Asinius Pollio and the first Public Library in Ancient Rome

“he was the first to make men’s talents public property…” Pliny

The Forum Romanum

Once in a while, as I do my research for the next book or blog post, or as I’m reading for pleasure, I sometimes come across a person of history who grabs my attention.

Of course, there are many historical personages who give me pause, but not all of their names stay at the back of my mind, whispering, willing me not to forget.

Gaius Asinius Pollio (76 B.C. – A.D. 5) is one of those people.

In my career outside of writing, I’ve worked a lot with public libraries. In fact, I’m a huge fan of public libraries as an institution, and believe they are more relevant than ever, despite the existence of the internet.

Where else can anyone go to learn, get free access to books, music, information, new technologies and more?

As an historian who still laments the burning of the great library of Alexandria, I have nostalgic spot for libraries, but as a writer and historian who believes in making history accessible to everyone, I think the library is a crucial part of any civilized society.

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria

So… When I came across the name of Gaius Asinius Pollio in relation to the founding of the first public library in ancient Rome, I had to learn more!

Pollio lived during one of the most fascinating and pivotal times in Rome’s history. He saw the end of the Roman Republic and the Hellenistic Age, and the birth of the Roman Empire. He rubbed shoulders with some of the titans of Roman history, including Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Pollio was a soldier, a politician, an orator, a poet and playwright, a literary critic, and…wait for it…an historian! In fact, his work, though it does not survive, was supposedly influential on both Plutarch and Appian.

He was also consul in the year 40 B.C.

You could say that Gaius Asinius Pollio was something of an ancient Renaissance man.

The Roman Senate (A scene from the film, The Fall of the Roman Empire)

As part of Julius Caesar’s staff, he was there when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., and he occupied Sicily in 48 B.C. once the civil war was well underway. Also in 48 B.C. Pollio was apparently present as Caesar’s legate at the battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle in which Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey the Great.

After that, he held a command in Spain from 44-43 B.C. where he was engaged in fighting with Pompey’s son, Sextus. Things didn’t go so well in Spain for Pollio, but he managed to survive and threw in his lot with Marcus Antonius after the murder of Julius Caesar.

In 40 B.C. he was consul, along with Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, another Roman general and senator.

muses of Sicily, essay we now

a somewhat loftier task! Not all men love

coppice or lowly tamarisk: sing we woods,

woods worthy of a Consul let them be.

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung

has come and gone, and the majestic roll

of circling centuries begins anew:

justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

with a new breed of men sent down from heaven.

Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom

the iron shall cease, the golden race arise,

befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own

Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,

this glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,

and the months enter on their mighty march.

Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain

of our old wickedness, once done away,

shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.

He shall receive the life of gods, and see

heroes with gods commingling, and himself

be seen of them, and with his father’s worth

reign o’er a world at peace.

(The poet, Virgil, on Pollio – 4th Eclogue)

In his role as consul, Pollio was responsible for actively promoting the Treaty of Brundisium between Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. This was the Second Triumvirate.

The Second Triumvirate – Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus

In 39 B.C. Pollio became governor of Macedonia. While there, he fought a campaign in Illyria against the Parthini and for his victories, he received a Triumph at Rome, not to mention a small fortune in booty.

At this point he retired from the battlefield. Not a bad way to go out on top, after a Triumph that is.

After the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., that fateful battle in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian and the Hellenistic age came to an end, Pollio hunkered down to write and pursue his literary interests.

He had remained neutral during the Battle of Actium, not wishing to go against Antony who had shown him some kindness in the past – Pollio had been his legate in 41 B.C. when settling veterans in northern Italy.

The broils that from Metellus date,

The secret springs, the dark intrigues,

The freaks of Fortune, and the great

Confederate in disastrous leagues,

And arms with uncleansed slaughter red,

A work of danger and distrust,

You treat, as one on fire should tread

Scarce hid by treacherous ashen crust.

Let Tragedy’s stern muse be mute

Awhile; and when your order’d page

Has told Rome’s tale, that buskin’d foot

Again shall mount the Attic stage,

Pollio, the pale defendant’s shield,

In deep debate the senate’s stay,

The hero of Dalmatic field

By Triumph crown’d with deathless bay.

E’en now with trumpet’s threatening blare

You thrill our ears; the clarion brays;

The lightnings of the armour scare

The steed, and daunt the rider’s gaze.

(Horace, on Pollio’s Triumph; Ode 2.1 to Pollio)

A Roman Triumph

Gaius Asinius Pollio then wrote his Historiae, an account of the Civil Wars from 60-42 B.C., ending with the battle of Philippi, in seventeen books. Sadly none of this work survives, but it’s preserved in its use by both Plutarch an Arrian.

Previously, Pollio had been a literary critic of Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, and Livy to name a few. But he was also highly praising of those whose writings he admired and saw merit in. He became quite an important person on the Roman literary scene in his retirement.

He held public recitals for writers and poets, and was himself the first Roman writer to read his own work in public. At one of his gatherings, his young friend, an up-and-coming poet by the name of Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as we know him, did a reading of a piece he had been working on called The Aeneid.

The poet, Virgil

Well, it just so happened that some of Emperor Augustus’ family, or even the man himself, were at the reading and were very impressed with Virgil’s tale of the foundation of Rome and the role the Julii played in it. Thus, did Pollio help Virgil gain his most important patron!

With all of this, it should come as no surprise that Pollio would be responsible for the first public library in ancient Rome.

But, in a way, it is surprising, for until that time, any libraries that existed in Rome were purely private, the domain of the rich, those seeking to impress their peers or hoard knowledge.

In the past, Roman generals had been responsible for the destruction and looting of some of the finest libraries in antiquity. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla sacked the city of Athens in 86 B.C. he had burned the Academy of Athens and its library. When Lucius Aemilius Paulus defeated King Perseus in the Third Macedonian War, he took all of the kings books from the library and made them the first private library at Rome. And in the first century B.C., General Lucullus created a private library from the looted book collections of Mithridates and other Pontic Kings. Apparently, Lucullus did lend books from his private collection, the place ironically becoming a centre for literary Greeks in Rome!

Artist impression of an ancient library

But to that point, there had been no ‘public library’.

Julius Caesar, who is often accused of having burned the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in the ancient world, did see the value of a public library for Rome and, no doubt after his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, he got the idea to create one at the heart of the Empire.

However, Caesar was killed before the project could come to fruition.

Enter Gaius Asinius Pollio.

With the funds and booty Pollio had accumulated during his governorship of Macedonia and the Illyrian campaign, he decided to establish the first public library in Rome.

The public library was founded during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, to whom Pollio seems to have remained aloof, no doubt due to his previous ties to Mark Antony.

Papyrus fragment with text of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (Rylands Papyri Collection)

Pollio’s library seems to have had separate wings for both Greek and Latin texts, and is supposed to have been housed in the Atrium Libertatis, or the ‘Hall of Liberty’, the exact site of which is unknown.

Another interesting thing about the library was that it was supposedly the first to also be decorated with statues of heroes and literary greats. Pollio loved Hellenistic art, and so his library was also an art gallery, a sort of multi-use facility for the ancient world.

One of the most famous sculptures that was supposed to have decorated Pollio’s public library was the group known as the Farnese Bull.

The Farnese Bull

Eventually, it became fashionable for rulers to establish public libraries.

Emperor Augustus founded two more libraries after Pollio’s – one on the Campus Martius, and the other on the Palatine Hill, beside the Temple of Apollo.

Emperor Trajan built the Bibliotheca Ulpia, and Hadrian, philhellene that he was, made right the wrong Sulla had done to the city of Athens and built a new library there. You can still see the remains of Hadrian’s Library in the Plaka neighbourhood of Athens’ modern tourist district.

Hadrian’s Library Athens

Gaius Asinius Pollio may not have been the most well-liked person of his age, but he seems to have commanded respect from his peers and those in power – how else might he have survived so tumultuous a time in Rome’s history?

Despite being quite the soldier and politician, literary critic and author, it seems that he is most often remembered, today at least, as the man who established the first public library in the city of Rome, and that in and of itself, is a good thing.

Thank you for reading.

Marrucinus Asinius, your left hand

you use not beautifully: in joke and in wine

you lift the napkins of the more careless people.

You think this is witty? It escapes you, inept one:

the thing is as dirty and as un-charming as can be.

You don’t believe me? Believe your brother Pollio,

who wants to change your thefts

even for a talent—for he is a boy

stuffed of charm and wit.

(Catullus Poem #12; addressing Marrucinus Asinius, Gaius Asinius Pollio’s brother, who was known for tasteless practical jokes)

Fresco thought to be from Gaius Asinius Pollio’s Public Library

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Ancient Everyday – The Calendar in Ancient Rome

Salve!

Welcome to the second part in this mini, Ancient Everyday blog series about Time in the Roman world.

Last week we took a brief look at how the Romans tracked and organized the years. If you missed it, you can read it by CLICKING HERE.

This week, we’re going to take a look at what is perhaps one of their greatest legacies – the Calendar.

Now, the Romans did indeed do a lot for us – you can check out this wonderful series hosted by Adam Hart-Davis to learn what the Romans did for us – and it goes without saying that we take a lot of it for granted today.

The calendar ranks right up there, and even though we take time for granted, it is actually something that we are constantly aware of. Quite the conundrum, if you ask me!

Roman mosaic representation of the months from North Africa

The word ‘calendar’, as well as the names of the months we still use today are of Roman origin.

However, the calendar went through some reform before it got to the version we are now familiar with.

The original Roman calendar, known as the ‘Calendar of Romulus’, was an agricultural, 10-month year. There were ten irregular months with a total of 304 days from March to December.

The names of these months originated then, and the gap of missing months accounts for the period of time in which no agricultural work was carried out. This was also a lunar cycle, so there was a degree of ‘seasonal drift’ compared to the solar cycle.

Working the fields

It is believed that the change to a 12-month calendar occurred in the sixth century B.C.

In the year 153 B.C., January was made the first month of the year, named after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings.

But until Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, the Roman year was 355 days long, divided into 12 months. Four of these had 31 days (March, May, July, and October), seven months had 29 days, and February had 28 days.

Here are the names of the months on the Roman calendar:

Ianuarius (the month of ‘Janus’)

Februarius (the month of ‘Februa’, purgings or purifications)

Martius (the month of ‘Mars’)

Aprilis (uncertain meaning)

Maius (uncertain meaning)

Iunius (the month of ‘Juno’)

Quinctilis (the ‘fifth’ month – renamed ‘Iulius’ in 44 B.C. after Julius Caesar)

Sextilis (the ‘sixth’ month – renamed ‘Augustus’ in 8 B.C. after Emperor Augustus)

September (the ‘seventh’ month)

October (the ‘eighth’ month)

November (the ‘ninth’ month)

December (the ‘tenth’ month)

Notice how some of these names are a legacy of the 10-month agricultural Roman calendar year?

A reproduction of the Fasti Antiates Maiores (c. 60 B.C.) – Wikimedia Commons

There is apparently some evidence for ‘intercalation’, that is, the addition of days to adjust the year. This included the addition of 22-23 days every other year in February.

The act of intercalation was the domain of the pontiffs of Rome, but it was not accurate, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year that was in use.

Caesar extended the year 46 B.C. to 445 days to remove the discrepancy.

So, from January 1st, 45 B.C. he made the year 365 days long with the months at their current numbers. Quite the legacy, no? He also introduced the leap year.

Thus, was the Julian Calendar born.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Today, the most widely used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is basically the same as the Julian Calendar except for some small changes.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from the calendar year to adjust the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year. He also ordered that 3 days be omitted in leap years every 400 years.

So there you have it! A very brief look at the evolution of the calendar from ancient Rome to the one we use today.

Next week, in Part III of this series, we’ll be looking at the days and weeks in the Roman world.

Thank you for reading!

A Roman Calendar – this one showing the months of Iulius and Augustus

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Florentia: The Roman origins of Florence

We’re changing pace for this next blog post, leaving the world of Roman Britain behind for the moment.

Over the holiday season, I managed to watch a bit of television – something that I don’t really do that often.

Like most people nowadays, I headed over to Netflix to see if anything caught my eye, and sure enough, there was a title that promised some great historical drama: MEDICI.

The show was only eight episodes, and certainly called to my love of history, Tuscany, and Italy in general. So, I sat down to watch.

I was not disappointed.

If you want a peak at Florence and the era that really gave rise to the Italian Renaissance, this is something you should watch.

Tuscan landscape

I love Florence, and have been there a couple of times.

It’s one of the most beautiful, culturally-rich cities I’ve seen, and I would go back there in a heartbeat.

If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this city is for roaming and enjoying. From the Duomo and Baptistery, to the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, to the hallowed halls of the Uffizi Gallery where countless masterpieces hang, there is so much to see and do (and eat!) in this beacon of art and culture on the banks of the Arno.

Piazza della Signoria (by Giuseppe Zocchi)

When anyone thinks of Florence, they think of late medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, of the greats of history such as Dante, Da Vinci, Machiavelli, the Medici and many more.

When one thinks of Florence, the Roman Empire is not usually the first thing that comes to mind.

The truth is that Florence was originally established as a Roman camp. It was called ‘Florentia’, and beneath the façade of Renaissance grandeur that we see today, this city has Roman roots.

Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the Roman origins of Florentia.

Julius Caesar

Before the Romans overtook this land, the Etruscans ruled here, and they had established a centre at Fiesole, up the hill a short distance from the Arno River.

The Roman settlement of Florentia was established, most agree, by Julius Caesar around 59 B.C. as a military camp intended to guard the ford where the Via Cassia, the main road through Etruria, crossed the river.

It was just prior to this that Catiline led a rebellion against the Republic, and it seems that perhaps he, and many of his supporters holed up in nearby Fiesole.

Around 60 B.C., Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, one of Rome’s consuls at the time, marched out to meet Catiline’s forces.

Roman ruins at Fiesole

Now, here is where the story gets a bit blurry.

There appears to be some confusion around the origins of the name, ‘Florentia’.

Some believe that the word stems from ‘fluente’ which may refer to the flowing of the Arno river itself.

However, there is another, more romantic tale regarding the foundation of Florentia.

There is a story that accompanying Metellus against Catiline’s forces in Fiesole was a praetor or other high-ranking person named ‘Fiorinus’ who led several actions against Catiline and his conspirators.

This Fiorinus apparently fought very bravely, but was killed in an attack on the Roman camp along the Arno.

Why was this man, Fiorinus, important?

Well, some believe that Julius Caesar, who joined the battle against Catiline at Fiesole shortly thereafter, named Florentia after Fiorinus.

Here, Machiavelli writes about the two different theories about the origins of the name:

There are various opinions concerning the derivation of the word Florentia. Some suppose it to come from Florinus [Fiorinus], one of the principal persons of the colony; others think it was originally not Florentia, but Fluentia, and suppose the word derived from fluente, or flowing of the Arno… I think that, however derived, the name was always Florentia, and that whatever the origin might be, it occurred under the Roman empire, and began to be noticed by writers in the times of the first emperors.

(Niccolo Machiavelli, History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy)

The Discovery of the Body of Catiline (1871) Alcide S … allery of Modern Art, Florence) Wikimedia Commons

As with many ancient tales, it’s difficult to ascertain the truth.

The important thing, and that which is more generally agreed upon, is that Florentia was established as a camp by Julius Caesar, who later made it a colonia for veterans of his legions.

When we walk around Florence today, it is clearly a medieval and Renaissance city. However, if you know where to look, you can see the remains of Colonia Florentia.

Main roads of Roman Florentia

In the image above, you can see the main Roman roads on today’s Florentine streets.

The main north-south street of Florentia, the cardo maximus, followed the line of the Via Roma today. On the east-west axis, the former decumanus maximus ran the length of the current Via degli Speziali, and the Via degli Strozzi.

Like all thriving Roman settlements, the beating heart of the city was the forum, and Florentia’s was located in what is now the Piazza della Republica.

Piazza della Repubblica – the Forum of Florentia (Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from being the commercial centre of Florentia, the forum was also the administrative and religious centre of the colonia. There was no antique carousel, as there is today, but there was a temple to Mars, as well as a temple to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

The curia itself, which was also located in the forum, was where the town council, made up of decurions, met to discuss the business of the colonia. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the governing body of Florence, known as the Signoria instead of the Curia, met in the Palazzo Vecchio, located in the current Piazza della Signoria.

Artist impression of the Forum of Florentia

Archaeologists, over time, have discovered other Roman structures beneath the streets of this city, ghostly shades of Florentia’s past.

There were Roman baths located outside the south wall of the original fort along the current Via delle Terme. After all, what Roman settlement did not have a bath?

Model of Roman Florence (from the southeast)

The same goes for a theatre.

As if echoing the artistic future of this great city, Florentia had an 8-10 thousand seat theatre in the southwest precinct of the colonia. The Palazzo Vecchio is partially built over top of this.

Reconstruction of Florentia’s Theatre

If you walk behind the Palazzo Vecchio today, and cross Vie dei Leoni, you will find yourself outside the line of the original Roman walls.

Along Borgo dei Greci lies Piazza san Firenze where, during the Roman period, there stood a temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose cult had become quite popular across the Roman Empire.

Continue on Borgo dei Greci to the curve of Via Bentacordi and you will find yourself on the site of the amphitheatre of Florentia, just near the current Piazza Santa Croce.

The amphitheatre was, of course, where the troops would have drilled and paraded, and the populace would have enjoyed gladiatorial combats and other entertainments popular in the Roman world.

Reconstruction of Florentia’s Amphitheatre

Sadly, most of Roman Florentia is hidden from our eyes, but there are a few other places where the Roman past is hinted at.

For example, just before the Bargello, outside what was the ancient east wall, there is a brass half-circle in the street that marks the foundation of a Roman watch tower. Archaeologists have also found the remains of cloth dying vats which indicate that Florence’s pre-eminence as a textile-producing centre may have originated much earlier than in the Middle Ages.

Remains of a frigidarium in Florance

There are other remains dotted around the city too – the remains of baths, private villas and homes – but most are inaccessible, or require permission from property or business owners to view.

Beneath Florence’s most prominent monument, Santa Maria del Fiore, or the ‘Duomo’ as it is known, was the site of an ancient Roman temple and other buildings (both Roman and early Christian). These can be viewed in the crypt of the Duomo, which was opened to the public, I believe, in 2014. Sadly, that was after I had visited!

Part of a Roman Villa near San Andrea, Florence

And finally, across from the entrance to the Duomo, is the famous Baptistery of San Giovanni, which was built in the 11th century. This magnificent, octagonal building is one of the oldest standing buildings in Florence today, and it is believed that much of the marble facing used to decorate the walls of the Baptistery was taken from the ancient buildings of Roman Florentia.

Artist impression of Roman Florentia

I often daydream about the places I’ve travelled to, and Florence is certainly at the top of that list – the history, the art, the architecture, the food, and the surrounding Tuscan countryside are the stuff of dreams.

If you ever get the chance to visit Florence, or to go back, by all means, soak up the Medieval and Renaissance worlds to your heart’s content. Those are the reasons to go in the first place!

However, while you’re strolling the streets, enjoying your gelato from Festival del Gelato or any other gelateria there, take a few moments to think about where this magnificent city of art and culture came from.

Florence from Fiesole

The Etruscans had built on the hill, away from the river, but it was the Romans who set up camp here. And whether it was erected by Julius Caesar or not, or named after a fallen hero of Rome, the Florence of today owes its past to the Florentia of the ancient world.

The remains of Florentia may not be easily visible now, but they are there, in the shadows cast by ancient Rome.

Arrivederci e grazie!

Ciao from Firenze!
Ok, so that photo is a few years old 😉

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Slavery in ancient Rome – A guest post by A. David Singh

 Salvete readers and Romanophiles!

This week on Writing the Past, I’d like to welcome fellow author, A. David Singh, who has written a fantastic piece for us about slavery in ancient Rome.

You probably know that slavery was widespread in the Roman world, but what you might not know are the ins and outs of slaves’ lives.

Check out David’s post below for a brilliant introduction to this topic…

Slaves serving at a banquet – mosaic floor. Found in Dougga, Tunisia, 3rd century A.D. (Dennis Jarvis_Flickr)

In the first century A.D., over a million people lived in Rome — and a third of them were slaves.

Ancient Romans considered their households to be a microcosm of the state of Rome, and slaves were an integral part of their households. Slavery was such a key foundation of their society that if an ancient Roman were to time-travel to the present day, he would be surprised to see a society function just fine without slaves.

In addition to cooking, cleaning, and carrying loads within their master’s household or country estate, slaves served another important function — that of elevating the social status of their masters. This is much the same prestige that a champion race-horse confers upon its owner.

How did one become a slave?

Being born into slavery was the commonest way. Children born to a women slave automatically became slaves to her master.

Another way was by capturing enemies. As Rome waged wars far beyond its borders — in Europe, Asia and northern Africa — a steady supply of prisoners of war poured in, who, in lieu of their lives being spared, were sold to the slave-traders. During his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar is rumored to have captured over a million prisoners of war in Gaul and sold them into slavery.

Criminals too could be enslaved, but their masters had to be careful about their violent streak. Unwanted babies who were thrown into rubbish dumps outside the city, though technically free, could be picked up by slave dealers or surrogate parents who would sell them into slavery. A similar fate awaited children kidnapped by pirates and other shady elements of society.

Finally, free Roman citizens, if deep in debt, could be forced into slavery. Some of them voluntarily chose to become slaves to repay their debt. However, Roman citizens submitting to slavery was considered illegal.

Where were slaves sold in Rome?

The slave market was commonly held behind the temple of Castor and Pollux, and also near the Pantheon. Men, women and children were displayed on raised platforms, just like fruit stands in a bazaar. They wore dejected looks, being resigned to their fates.

The slave trader adorned them with signboards around their necks with information like place of birth and other personal characteristics. It was a common spectacle to see signs like: Gaul, cook, specializes in making spicy fish and the use of Garum or Greek, ideal for teaching philosophy and reciting verses during parties.

Those who came to buy slaves found it in their interest to ensure that the slaves had no physical or mental defects. So, a thorough examination of their bodies was a common occurrence, and putting them on raised platforms helped to do just that.

A young male, 15 to 40 years old, cost 1,000 sesterces, while a female was priced at 800 sesterces. Much younger slaves or those older than 40 years went cheaper. Of course, prices would have been higher for slaves with special skills like reading and accounting.

The slave market had different days allocated for selling different types of slaves. There was a day for selling strong, muscular slaves meant for heavy labor. Another day for those specializing in trades like bakers, dancers and cooks. Boys and girls meant to work in houses and for banquets had their own day of sale, as did those with physical deformities.

What happened afterwards?

Once they started their lives of servitude, not all slaves had the same luck. The best deal that a slave could hope for was becoming a house slave to a kind master — even better, if the master was an important man in Rome. Moreover, there was also the possibility of being freed one day.

Then there was a class of slaves who worked in shops, under the command of an ex-slave. In addition to lugging heavy loads, they had to contend with the emotional baggage of their boss’ recently concluded life as a slave.

Those less fortunate were sold into miserable hovels of brothels, used pitilessly till they broke down or became useless. But a worse fate awaited those slaves who worked in country estates and mines. They lived in pathetic conditions with little food, frequent beatings, and were even locked in filthy prisons at night. It’s no wonder that they had very short life expectancies.

Wealthy Romans were not the only people to own slaves. The state of Rome had its own collection. These slaves were of another class — public slaves. They worked in public baths, food warehouses, or constructed roads and bridges, or worked in public administration offices. They helped in running the economy of Rome. Life was probably kinder to them than to their counterparts who worked in the mines and country estates.

The conditions for slaves were extreme during the Roman Republic. But it is believed that they eased later on. During the Empire, slaves could earn money, get married (informally) and have children. Killing of slaves was banned.

The Slave Market – oil painting by Gustave Boulanger, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

What were master-slave relationships like?

In rigid households, slaves were considered nothing more than objects that could talk and walk. They could be sold, rented, or replaced, just the way we do nowadays to our inanimate possessions. The master always decided the level of relationship permitted to their slaves. They could be friendly, or exploit their slaves, or in extreme circumstances even kill them.

On the other hand, if a slave killed his master, then all the other slaves in the household were slaughtered under the charge that they failed to protect their master from the rogue slave.

However, many masters considered slaves as human beings, worthy of moral behavior, and hence treated them with a degree of respect.

Each master had to balance how he treated slaves with the need to keep them working. Brutal treatments were rare because they would wear out the slaves.

Home-born slaves were most likely to remain loyal to their masters, considering him like their own father (which, in many cases he really was). However, barbarians captured from distant lands took some time to be broken into their new, reduced station in life.

Most often, masters incentivized slaves to work hard and stay loyal. Firstly, they rewarded hard work with generous rations of food and clothing. At times, even allowing them to have children, and occasionally organized sacrifices and holidays for them. Such acts of generosity went a long way in ensuring their slaves’ loyalty.

Secondly, slaves had clearly defined job roles, suitable to the their mental and physical attributes, like cooks, door-keepers, or food-servers. This division of labor generated accountability, as the slaves knew that they could be punished only for jobs that they were responsible for, and not for duties outside their job descriptions.

But the most important incentive for slaves to work honestly and with diligence was the possibility of gaining their freedom and becoming Roman citizens.

Manumission

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans took a liberal view of slavery, regularly incorporating slaves into their own society. Thus slavery was viewed as a temporary state, after which, if the slave had shown the right attitude, they could be set free and become a Roman citizen.

This process of leaving the shackles of slavery and becoming free men and women was called ‘manumission’.

If a master was happy with a slave’s services and felt him worthy of being free, the slave could be set free by appearing before a magistrate. Once the magistrate had confirmed that the slave was a free man, the master would often slap the slave, as a final insult, before he started his new life.

Often, a master would bequeath his slaves’ freedom in his will. This is how most slaves got their freedom. In rare cases, slaves could also buy their freedom, if they could raise enough coin — or get another freedman to buy their freedom.

Manumission was generally practiced in urban regions, where it was possible for slaves to form meaningful relationships with their masters and be in their good books. Those working in country estates or mines did not have direct contact with their masters, and were usually worked to death.

Relief showing manumission of a slave. Marble, 1st century B.C. Musèe Royal de Mariemont (Ad Meskens_Wikimedia Commons)

Those slaves who gained freedom became citizens of Rome, enjoying all civil rights. But this freedom came at a cost: they were obligated to their former masters, who now became their patrons, and the slaves became their clients. As clients, the former slaves had to provide ongoing services, stipulated by their patrons before manumission.

In return for their services, the freedmen received patronage from their former masters in the form of helping them set up businesses, giving them financial assistance, and providing them with contacts, or opening doors in the Roman society.

However, freedmen, though Roman citizens, were ineligible to hold political offices. This rule did not apply to any children born to them after manumission. Such children were freeborn citizens and hence could hold political office.

Sadly, any children born before manumission were not so fortunate, because they remained as slaves in their former master’s household — but as was often the case, the parents bought their freedom once they were rich enough.

Even though freedmen moved out of their former masters’ house, they were still considered part of the household. Some patrons even allowed their former slaves — now clients — to share in their family’s tomb.

In essence, manumission was truly the lifeblood of Rome. It provided generations of new citizens hungry to make their way up in society. Since they could not hold political office, the only way to fulfill their ambitions was by acquiring wealth.

Later, it became a cultural norm that rich freedmen married into traditional, but impoverished, Roman families. This proved to be of mutual benefit — the old Roman families became richer, thanks to the nouveau riche, while the freedmen improved their social standing and circle of influence.

In today’s world, the concept of slavery is outrageous because of the prevalent traditions of civilized society. However, in ancient Rome, slavery was a well established institution. In fact, Rome would have collapsed had there not been any slaves because the Romans did not have complex machinery, like we do, to replace human muscle.

The notion of slavery in ancient Rome should, therefore, be viewed within the context of a different era, where society was entrenched in another set of values.

What practices in our current times, do you think, will be considered outrageous, even barbaric, by future generations? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

About the author:

David Singh is a neurosurgeon and author. He has written Caesar: Escapades in Rome & coauthored Ignite: Beat Burnout & Rekindle your Inner Fire. In his free time, David loves to cook, play with dogs, and explore the magical world of ancient Rome.

If you haven’t read Caesar: Escapades in Rome, pick up your FREE copy at:

http://www.adavidsingh.com/caesar-escapades-in-rome/

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I’d like to thank David for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. More often than not, writers focus on the great people of the Roman world, but just as the legions were the backbone of Rome’s military might, so were slaves that of Roman society.

Even though the thought of slavery is definitely unsavory, we can’t forget that it was a major part of the Roman world. Thanks to David for reminding us of that.

Everybody, be sure to sign-up to his mailing list and get the Free books he is offering. It’s always good to have more ‘Ancient Rome’!

As ever, thank you for reading…

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