Tools of the Trade

Slavery was the energy industry of the ancients—no part of the empire was untouched by its effects.

By Peter Stothard

Mosaic depicting two female slaves attending their mistress. Museum of Carthage.

Around two thousand years ago, a Latin poet described a farmer named Simylus making a pesto for his breakfast with fresh garlic, coriander, olive oil, cheese, and the help of a slave. The poem, known as “Moretum” after the name of the recipe, is one of hundreds of ancient descriptions of hard work, this one a modest task undertaken by a poor man and the woman Scybale, whom he owns and who happens to be from Africa.

What can we say about Scybale? She is, we are told, the only slave on the tiny plot. She has thick lips, frizzled hair, slack breasts, and spacious feet, descriptions which, while hardly admiring or imaginative, were necessary in the first century ad for the poet to set his scene. African slaves were then a rarity in the Italian countryside. The presence of a black woman was probably the poet’s most original contribution to his vivid version of the “rustic idyll,” the kind of artful image that had long appealed to urban readers as long as they did not have to live that way themselves.

The unknown author of the poem, once thought to be 
Virgil, does not tell us where Scybale came from. Old Simylus has the sort of farm, barely more than a vegetable garden, that was often given to retired soldiers. His one black servant might perhaps have been a secondary spoil of war. Any other choice of color for the Moretum masher, a paler German, Syrian, Gaul, or Greek, would have been less exotic. Any greater number of slaves for Simylus would risk the artfully constructed pathos. If, however, there had been no slave at all, the depiction would have lacked the easy realism that bucolic art demands; it would have been a log-cabin plate without logs, a country-cottage teacup without the rosebush by the door.

Jointing a whale, nineteenth-century Japanese engraving. © Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library International.

Jointing a whale, nineteenth-century Japanese engraving. © Archives Charmet, The Bridgeman Art Library International. 

For thousands of miles around the Roman Mediterranean, foreign slaves were as much a part of the landscape as the fields and farms on which they worked, their presence as undisputed as sea, clouds, and mountains. Anyone might be a slave or might be free. Many in their lifetimes would be both. It was a matter of mutable fortune, part of the conditions of life for rich and poor, black, brown, and white, for Germans, Africans, and Gauls, a status so ubiquitous and little challenged that it leaves a huge challenge now to anyone who wants to comprehend it. Poetry and pottery, theater and history books can all play their variously deceptive parts in our imaginations. None gives a picture that is complete.

It is wrong to say, as some do, that no ancient ever considered a life without slavery. A few well-traveled traders would have heard fantastical stories of slave-free lands—in places too far away even for Romans to check. Awkward issues might occasionally be raised in after-dinner talk among the elites, by followers of the Syrian-Greek philosopher Posidonius, for example, who reminded his readers (very few in number) that the Romans had once themselves been as uncivilized as those at the edges of their world. Slavery, however, was the energy industry of the ancients. No known economy had functioned in any other way. Few people questioned its existence or doubted its necessity as a primary means of production. Even those slaves in Italy who revolted from Roman control, most famously in the Spartacus War of 73–71 BC, did so only for their own freedom, not for the freedom of others or the then unknown natural right to be free.

The peculiarity of Roman slavery lay only in the speed at which it developed. In the 250 years before Scybale helped Simylus make the pesto, millions of slaves had entered Italy as the spoils of Roman military victories in Asia, Greece, and Gaul. Parallel growth in the Italian economy required all those slaves and more. On the ever advancing edges of the empire, local traders worked with Roman generals and international shipowners to assemble an unprecedented mass market in manpower.

Like every successful mass market, its goods were divided by utility, quality, price, durability, and risk; the initial sorting into categories took place offshore in the Greek islands (Apollo’s Delos was the biggest center), where doctors were differentiated from miners, accountants from agricultural laborers, “speaking tools” from instructors in public speaking, those who had always been slaves from those who had once been free and might, without costly security, attempt to regain their freedom. These traders, many of them former slaves themselves, were also skilled in separating their descriptions from the truth. As in a vegetable or meat market, the rule of caveat emptor prevailed.

It is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to regard them merely as so much muscle or physical power.

—Pope Leo XIII, 1891

How much did a slave cost? How much was a slave worth? Good scholars disagree—sometimes on grounds of evidence, little of it reliable, often for reasons of political or sociological concerns of their own. Assume, for example, that a free worker requires his subsistence plus whatever extra he can command from the labor market, and that a slave, by contrast, requires only the minimal subsistence. From the difference between the two figures can be calculated the market value of a slave. When the price of slaves rises, in conditions never described as gluts, it may be argued that the standard of living experienced by free workers rises too. Did Roman politicians, seeking votes from those free workers, rely on these improved living standards to win power? Or would it be fairer to say that the rich abused slavery to keep low the price of free labor and exploit the working poor? Our choice between these options, like that of the buyer in the slave market, will depend on our own wants and prejudices.

Price calculations, for those who cared to make them, were complex, so much so that, in another unusual feature of Roman slavery, the Romans came to rely on their possessions, particularly their Greeks, to conduct the accountancy on which the slaves’ own prices and values were based. While later slave owners discouraged literacy and numeracy among their human inventory, Romans prized these business skills. Their society was one in which cash was never king. Although Roman coins are some of the best known remains from ancient times, one rarely finds a mass bank of them, not even in a trader’s shipwreck. When Romans purchased large houses or large shipments of slaves, they did not wheel barrows of silver from market to market. They bartered, borrowed, secured assets, and rated credit, undertaking financial activity which, depending on the length, extortion level, and other details of the loan, could be considered at variance from a real Roman’s dignity. A slave, however, might readily be required to take on the tasks.

As the Roman Republic became an empire, the sophistication of the labor negotiation developed even faster than slavery itself. The benefit of having a slave as one’s business manager was that he could be educated and further educated without risk; he could never set up in competition—and if he became difficult, or suddenly knew too much, he could be transferred, albeit at a regrettable financial loss, to the Spanish mines or to the lowest laboring job on a farm where his learning would be of no account and his life legally and reliably short. The threat, or even the mere possibility, of that happening was in most cases enough to keep control. Slave labor in toxic air and water, solely to find ores of enormous values that made slave lives wholly valueless, was not hard for the restless clerk to imagine. Nor too, the miserable work of slaves in the amphora factories, where mass production weakened any potter’s individual contribution. With increased slavery, as surviving examples show, came fewer signatures on pottery, simpler designs, and even clearer reasons to stay in an accountant’s job if one could.


The Romans had popular textbooks on how to manage slaves. The names of Cato the Censor, born in 234 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro, born about a century later, and Columella, from a Spanish family of the early first century ad, are not found even on many classicists’ shelves today. But they were respected sources of practical wisdom in their time. After 146 BC, the year in which Rome destroyed both Corinth and Carthage, virtually the only Carthaginian thing worth saving, in Roman eyes, was the twenty-eight-volume farming manual of the Punic author Mago. Advice from their old enemy, translated into Latin by senate decree, encouraged Romans who owned ever larger farms to educate their business managers in “best practice,” even if they themselves did not dignify the grubby calculations of how much food had to be offered to a slave, how much work could be required in return, whether women were a help or hindrance, whether the presence on the farm of a family life for slaves improved agricultural productivity. From these surviving works, it is easy for us (as well as for those nervous city slaves) to imagine the harshness of rural servitude, the uses of torture and execution, the recommended tasks even on holidays for farm tools who happened to be able to speak. 

Mademoiselle de Clermont as a Sultana, by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1733. Wallace Collection, London.

Mademoiselle de Clermont as a Sultana, by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1733. Wallace Collection, London. 

Roman literature, the Latin that is more often read today, gives our imaginations a different kind of guidance, mostly about different kinds of slaves, not the laborers in the mines and the fields but those who worked in the houses of rich and poor, and who became the focus of the Romans’ view of themselves and thus how we now see them. “Moretum” is only one of hundreds of vivid ancient sources. Although it is sometimes said that the slaves themselves left no voice, there were many ancient writers in Latin with direct experience of enslavement. The playwrights Lucius Livius Andronicus, who came from Greek Italy, and Terence, from North Africa, were former slaves; so was Phaedrus, the Roman Aesop, Publilius Syrus, whose wit entertained Julius Caesar, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who inspired Marcus Aurelius, and the father of Horace, the best-loved of the Roman poets. All had different experiences, as temporary victims of Italian warfare or as arrivals from the expanding empire. Terence wrote comedies that cunningly parody the educational pretensions of the free. Horace described how the sons of centurions looked down upon him at school because his father, probably very briefly, had lost his freedom. Lucius Livius Andronicus wrote tragedies and comedies and first introduced Romans to the famed scenes of slavery in The Odyssey, those portraying both the loyal and the disloyal in the house of Odysseus.

The ownership of Greek slaves extended and developed the dominance that Rome exerted over the Greek world. This was a dominance that was militarily secure but culturally frail. Roman comedies, based on Greek models, found much of their humor in the relationships between foolish master and clever slave, roles that have come down to us as Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves. Within the words of the Greek language lay not just the comic source for the writer in Latin but his new jokes too. A slave character is forced back to Greek when he cannot find the Latin word. A master slips into the same Greek to show off his superior learning. Greek was both low and high, the language of swearing in the kitchen and the language in which the young masters and mistresses learned philosophy. Greeks mispronounced their Latin consonants but were somehow superior, too, when they did so. Without slaves around him, a Roman might feel a lesser individual, as though his rank or even some deeper identity had gone. When a master called his slave Diomedes or Achilles or some other Greek heroic name, he made himself feel somehow grander.

One particular Greek name for a slave, Colaphos, when imported into Latin, came to stand for what sometimes seems to constitute the absolute and painful essence of being a slave, the simple availability to be hit. The comedies of Plautus, Terence’s native Italian predecessor, confront us fiercely with this single most defining characteristic, not a slave’s price, worth, race, or skill but his ever readiness for a random blow or a systematic beating. The Latin language was adapted to the circumstance. A slave could be a statua verberea, a statue made of blows. Latin had an active verb, vapulo, for what in English we see as a passive idea: “I get a flogging.” Beatings, fears of beatings, jokes about beatings are essentials of comedy, but it was among ancient slaves and slave owners that the laughter began.

Color of skin was of little consequence—both in daily life and its imitations in art. Black slaves were traded from south of the Sahara, mostly through Egypt, but were never a major part of any Roman street scene. Anyone looking out over the Forum during the life of Julius Caesar or his heir, the first Emperor Augustus, would see representatives of every nation—Persians, Gauls, Syrians, Pamphylians, Lycians, Germans, and people from nowhere with a Latin name. These might be variously prized for their allegedly different skills—for medicine, rose growing, sexual services, likelihood of bearing twins, cookery, quick wit, or accomplishments with horses. They might be abused for their similarly specific vices—excessive cleverness in mainland Greeks, impetuosity in Gauls, a naturally slavish temperament in Syrians and Jews. Roman writers were fascinated by racial distinctions, some of which they attributed to hot and cold climates. Thus Africans were both clever and cowardly; the sun drew blood to their brains, but such was their low supply of blood that they were always in fear of losing it. However, the only core Roman belief was “East, West, Rome is best.” Everyone else, no matter who they were or where they were from was variously worse.

Did the ancient Romans ever feel the need to justify their confidence? Sometimes even the most successful conquerors must ask themselves how they had possibly achieved so much. Was it their natural character that gave them the right to hold so many human possessions from every other nation? Was it their devotion to the gods? Even Italy’s clearest disadvantages, its poor soil and lack of mineral wealth, could be portrayed as builders of national character, signs of divine providence, especially when slaves for the poorest Tuscan farms and richest silver mines in Spain were so readily available from elsewhere to negate these national failings kindly left by fate.


No slaves became more important for the Romans’ view of themselves than those who fought in the gladiatorial arenas. These included some of the most valuable human possessions of all, men trained at huge expense to play the most essential Roman roles of fighting, killing, and dying. When a farmer, a senator, or a shopkeeper watched a Thracian slice a Gaul or a swordsman strike and stab against men with nets and tridents, they were reliving their imagined pasts, imagining the education of their ancestors, revisiting forgotten spirit worlds and confronting their own sense of what a life or death was worth. This was blood sport, but it was also sophisticated theater. An individual gladiator might play many parts in a single season; a successful name, that of a gladiatorial star like Spartacus, might be attached to many players. A well drilled troupe of killer slaves could re­create a sea battle, packed on ships in flooded amphitheaters, or they might show more individual prowess in the face of the death that for Romans was not only a human necessity but a definer of human life. The manner of his death was the making of a man—and the slaves who filled the arenas showed all the many ways that the end might come.

A human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.

—Dorothy L. Sayers, 1947

The gladiator has become a familiar emblem for modern writers and filmmakers seeking to imagine the Romans. 
, the Thracian who in 73 BC led an escape from a training camp and a slave army that defeated half a dozen legions, is now one of the best-known figures in Roman history. For the Romans themselves, he was a horror to forget as fast as possible, as soon as every last survivor of his force had been crucified, as completely as anything could ever be forgotten. Spartacus had failed to foment a decisive rebellion of slaves—maybe he had not even wanted or tried to do so—but the prospect of the slaves in Roman houses rising against their owners was a fear, however slim, that never wholly disappeared. We can only catch glimpses in the poetry and prose of the ensuing centuries, but a slave revolt was the terror threat of the ancient mind.

Why had not more slaves risen against their masters—for Spartacus or in earlier slave rebellions? “Moretum” shows one type of stable relationship between possessor and possessed, a life that is cooperative, interdependent, grimly romanticized. Theater shows others, the comfortable, the mildly subversive, and the comic. A great family at Rome might have had hundreds of slaves: sexual partners, wine pourers, fish feeders, meat cooks, medical quacks, dumb maids who could not tell tales, deaf coachmen who could not hear their passengers’ political intrigues. All of them had status as part of a household, and food on their plates that the merely free might lack. All of them, even the gladiators, might have some hope of eventual freedom and citizenship within the very family in which they had been slaves. Many of them (and here we hear of dangerous disputes) had been made promises that at particular points in future they would certainly be free.

Domestic slaves often had a personal relationship with their owners that the farming or manufacturing slaves did not. This could take a turn for the better or the worse. A vicious, jealous, or capricious mistress might make a hairdresser envy the “rural Venus” on her farm. But a generous and appreciative sufferer from backache might prepare his slave masseur for a prosperous career as a citizen doctor. Harsh city laws on security required that if a master were killed by a slave, the whole household had to die. Some thought that a uniform for slaves might help; others argued, successfully, that any common appearance might alert slaves to just how numerous they were. For those slaves who achieved their freedom, Rome was generous with citizenship. Not long after the writing of “Moretum,” another poet could joke that slavery was such a good way of becoming a citizen that it was worth becoming a slave for a chance to join the world’s greatest club.

Related Reads