9/4/09 - slavery in rome

In today's excerpt - it is estimated that over 25 percent of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved. Though viewed by Roman citizens as one of the perquisites of empire, the tragedy of slavery undermined the values of their society and stifled technological innovation:

"[It was hard not to be] overwhelmed by the discovery of just how many slaves ... there were in Italy. Human beings were not the least significant portion of the wealth to have been plundered by the Republic during its wars of conquest. The single market established by Roman supremacy had enabled captives to be moved around the Mediterranean as easily as any other form of merchandise, and the result had been a vast boom in the slave trade, a transplanting of populations without precedent in history. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, had been uprooted from their homelands and brought to the center of the empire, there to toil for their new masters. Even the poorest citizen might own a slave. In rich households the labor glut obliged slave owners to think up ever more exotic jobs for their purchases to specialize in, whether dusting portrait busts, writing invitations, or attending to purple clothes. By their very nature, of course, such tasks were recherche.

"The work of most slaves was infinitely more crushing. This was particularly the case in the countryside, where conditions were at their worst. Gangs were bought wholesale, branded, and shackled, then set to labor from dawn until dusk. At night they would be locked up in a huge, crowded barracks. Not a shred of privacy or dignity was permitted them. They were fed the barest minimum required to keep them alive. Exhaustion was remedied by the whip, while insubordination would be handled by private contractors who specialized in torture—and sometimes execution—of uppity slaves. The crippled and prematurely aged could be expected to be cast aside, like diseased cattle or shattered wine jars. It hardly mattered to their masters whether they survived or starved. After all, as Roman agriculturists liked to remind their readers, their was no point in wasting their money on useless tools."


Tom Holland


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic


First Anchor Books Edition, March 2005


Copyright 2003 by Tom Holland


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