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October 11, 2009 8:32 PM   Subscribe

What kind of racial harmony was there within the Roman Empire?

I don't know much about the Roman Empire, but I am curious to know where the slaves came from and whether or not people of different racial backgrounds enjoyed equal rights or not.

Thanks for any thought out or informed answers.
posted by fantasticninety to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Blacks in Antiquity by Frank Snowden, an African-American classical scholar. In brief, although it's not exactly clear, it appears that black Africans enjoyed exactly as much equality as any other foreigners in the Roman empire -- which is to say, as much as they could buy. Romans disdained all foreigners, Africans no worse than others. Slaves were of all races, and locally supplied by bandits and traders. It's humbling to realize how much of American racial attitudes were invented about three or four hundred years ago.

Romans had a more fraught racial relationship, I think, with Gauls, Celts and Germanian peoples. Check out The Dying Gaul, and other statues on the theme. (The Gauls look so familiar in these statues; I don't know why.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:47 PM on October 11, 2009 [9 favorites]

To explain further: in classical antiquity slaves might be any persons who were unfortunate enough to be captured by slavers, stolen and sold. Some were of course born into slavery from enslaved mothers, but abandoned infants left to die of exposure might be reared by anyone as slaves. There was little need for an organized slave trade from other nations when all of that was permissible.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:53 PM on October 11, 2009

Check this out:


Both of these articles seem to have no references, but I skimmed over them and they sound about right.

Might I recommend the famous books by Robert Graves: 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the God'? While they take a lot of liberties filling in the gaps in history and spinning a good yarn, they are both fantastic, very readable, and extremely vivid depictions of Rome under the Caesars. Highly recommended, and a great way to learn a little ancient history!
posted by schmichael at 9:08 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I understand, the Roman practice of slavery continued in post-Roman Europe until until aristocrats made de-facto slaves of the formerly free.

A good book on the post-Roman world is The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham.

His chapter called "The Caging of the Peasantry" is a good overview.
posted by Pants! at 9:38 PM on October 11, 2009

The Empire lasted about 500 years (figuring the period from Octavian to the fall of Rome), and things can change quite a lot during a period like that. So there isn't any single categorical statement about the Empire which can properly answer your question.

Where did slaves come from? Pretty much everywhere that the Romans had conquered recently. So, for instance, around the time of Claudius a large percentage of the slaves were Greek. Greek slaves were highly prized because the Greeks were seen by the Romans as being cultured and sophisticated.

Also, at various times empire citizenship was really quite broad. There were many, many Roman citizens over the course of that 500 years who were not descended from anyone who had lived in Italy, and who had never been within 100 miles of Rome.

There were even people like that in the early years. Saul of Tarsus was a Roman citizen, before he became a heretic and, eventually, a martyr. He was a Hebrew.

I sense a confusion of "African" with "Negro". Negroes at that time were almost exclusively sub-Saharan, and there wasn't a whole lot of communication between Mediterranean Africa and sub-Saharan Africa because the Saharan desert was a major barrier. And even along the coasts the distances were immense.

It made no economic sense for the Romans to try to reach sub-Saharan Africa in order to hunt for slaves, because slaves were so readily available in Gaul, and Germany, and Britain, and Turkey, and up around the Black Sea, and in Judea, and in Mesopotamia, and Spain, and Egypt, and those places were far easier to reach because the Med was a Roman lake. So while there were probably a lot of slaves whose skins were darker than a typical Roman's they would have been dark-skinned Caucasians for the most part. And there were quite a few slaves who would have been more light-skinned than the average Roman as well, from northern Europe.

A different point: it really depends on what you mean by "The Roman Empire". The Eastern Empire lasted another thousand years after the fall of Rome. (Figuring its end as the sacking of Constantinople in 1453.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:15 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, if slaves came from various parts of Europe and elsewhere, what distinguishing marks did they have so that people knew who belonged to what class? Did they have to wear sashes on the street?

I suspect that my initial question will just lead to more questions on my part...

Thanks so much for those links and for those answers. Most appreciated.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:44 PM on October 11, 2009

The vast majority of slaves weren't permitted to walk around at will.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:02 AM on October 12, 2009

It's humbling to realize how much of American racial attitudes were invented about three or four hundred years ago.

More recent than that - white slavery was still common in North Africa into the 17th century. You can read up on how the British, in particular, ultimately ended the practise of snatching foreigners (from the African perspective) for slavery via force in White Gold, if you're interested.

To explain further: in classical antiquity slaves might be any persons who were unfortunate enough to be captured by slavers, stolen and sold.

Or who committed a crime for which the punishment was slavery, including forms of debtor's prison (in effect).

people of different racial backgrounds enjoyed equal rights or not.

Rights were a function of citizenship; one reason the Auxiliaries became popular was because they offered the opportunity for non-citizens to gain Roman citizenship (although depending on the time in history, that might be for their children, rather than for the Auxiliary himself).
posted by rodgerd at 12:16 AM on October 12, 2009

what distinguishing marks did they have so that people knew who belonged to what class?


Romans certainly disliked anyone who wasn't Roman -- and that included many peoples in what is modern Italy. On the other hand, this was not directly linked to citizenship rights^, which Rome doled out as a carrot (with enslavement a stick) as the Empire expanded.

Individuals such as the half-citizen, half-barbarian Stilicho^ could progress their careers almost to the Imperial crown, yet were always seen slightly sketchy. Stilicho was half-German (half-Vandal, to be precise), and the Germanic peoples were probably among the lowest that a Roman would look down his nose on. So it wasn't skin color, it was the desire and ability to integrate with Roman values and systems.

The Greeks are a funny counterexample. The Romans always felt odd about conquering them, as they had many cultural similarities and had had an Empire or two long before Rome even emerged from the wilderness. It was actually a point of honor or one-upmanship to have a Greek slave as a tutor to your own children. Greek was one of the key foreign languages that was taught to young nobles. But at the same time Romans just felt like the Greeks had failed despite their advantages, and so were also held in some contempt.

The same dynamic probably held true in lesser degree with other conquered peoples. It's a colonial attitude, you could say.

Finally, slavery in Rome was actually somewhat enlightened by comparison with modern holocausts. Slaves had certain rights and could even go to court in certain circumstances. They just weren't equal rights. The Romans measured their own nobility by how they treated their slaves, much like some Southerners.
posted by dhartung at 1:23 AM on October 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

: I don't know much about the Roman Empire, but I am curious to know where the slaves came from and whether or not people of different racial backgrounds enjoyed equal rights or not.

Thanks for any thought out or informed answers.

The first thing I would say is that it's absolutely, absolutely necessary in studying the ancient world to try to forget everything you might feel is familiar or similar to our lives that you think you know about it. The ancient world was vastly different from our own, deeply and indelibly foreign. They thought about just about every aspect of their lives in a way that was different from the way we think about it. A very good introduction, and one that I always rush to recommend, is Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges' fantastic opus The Ancient City; if you only read the opening chapters, it's still well worth checking out, if only to give you a great starting point in trying to imagine what life must have been like (which is more difficult than people think). Here's a link to the whole book, a 1.01 MB pdf.

For example: race, which was generally the same thing as family, religion, class, and ethnicity; all of these were one and the same to a people who were used to a world where people got all of these things from the same place. Slaves came from any nation that was conquered; it was standard for captured prisoners to end up becoming slaves. They were generally distinguished, like animals, by tattoos, and having a tattoo was a sign of being (or at least having been) a slave.

Chocolate Pickle: Also, at various times empire citizenship was really quite broad. There were many, many Roman citizens over the course of that 500 years who were not descended from anyone who had lived in Italy, and who had never been within 100 miles of Rome.

This is true, but that describes really the state of the empire at the end rather than the beginning or the middle, and was one of the biggest innovations the Roman Empire brought about. Really what anyone should start with is the fact that, at the start, "acquiring citizenship" was not only difficult – it was a phrase that literally had no meaning in most of the world as it was known. People couldn't change the country they were from, and it would have been unheard-of to a Greek or a Macedonian to talk of "expatriating" or of "becoming a citizen" of another nation. Not that this was taboo; it simply was counterintuitive, since citizenship was a thing gained by birth. Rome, being such a large political body which lasted for so long, suddenly created a whole series of situations where that old regime which hemmed so closely to the birthplace was now so inconvenient that new conventions took its place; it was only in this vacuum that citizenship became something that could be exchanged and acquired.

To give you more of a picture of how closely these people were still tied to the land, at least at the start: in ancient Greece and the early Roman empire it was quite literally illegal to sell land. That's right; you could not sell or buy property. What land there was happened to be ancestral land; why would anyone want to sell the land which (according to the ancient religion) was the home of their heroic ancestors, the gods which each household worshipped? And why would anyone want to buy the land where somebody else's grandfather still resided in spirit? This was another huge innovation of the Roman empire: suddenly, generals happened to be actually acquiring land far away, amongst various other goods and sundries; and this land they acquired couldn't just sit there, they had to use it or sell it or trade it.

Now, laying out all this, you might begin to see the outlines of what really changed in Rome, and it was fantastic and huge: for the first time, there was a cosmopolitan society in the west. This had been happening in fits and starts for five centuries before it finally came to pass; there were foreshadowings in the sudden supremacy of two states that culminated in the Peloponnesian War around 500 BC, and it almost lasted when Philip of Macedon finally united the ancient world under him. Plato, I think, had already been anticipating this and attempting to forge a really unitary and universal faith; but since the world had to wait for Rome, the universal faith that fit into that hole created by a suddenly cosmopolitan society had to be Christianity.

In other words, Christianity fit into the Roman empire so well because people suddenly realized, seeing all these different people from different lands and being faced the with dramatic sensation that their own household gods and family altars were but a tiny minority amongst the vast panoply of faiths, that there must be some unification, some way in which all human beings could take part in the life of the spirit. The Christ certainly understood this; that's why he said things like "I come to bring the sword" and "I will separate daughters from mothers and sons from fathers." People now don't realize how seriously scandalous that was to a Roman; a Roman's old religion stated quite clearly that the bond between father and son is religion itself.

Anyhow, there were already echoes and rumblings of something more, well, equal, something less specific to a particular family-group and small home worship, all over the empire long before Christianity took hold, even among the upper classes.

What I'd wanted to mention was Epictetus. Epictetus and his thoughts, collected and written down by one of his pupils, were a revered philosophy among wealthy and educated Romans for many centuries, and he was in many ways the essential member of that famous school known as Stoicism. But the interesting thing is that Epictetus himself was in fact a slave, and his name even means simply "acquired." An essential part of the school he helped found held that you were given certain things by the powers that be (like the place or station of your birth) and you as a human had the power to do with it as you would, that being a fulfilled human being consists largely in doing what you have the power to do to make your life better, and then being contented with whatever else you are granted. (That's a dumbed-down version, but hey.)

So there you have it: slaves were rather a different kind of people than citizens in Rome; but even a slave (at least a Greek slave) sometimes had the opportunity to change things in a big way by passing on the right thoughts.
posted by koeselitz at 4:29 AM on October 12, 2009 [51 favorites]

See African Contributions to Rome and The Black Romans — BBC Article
posted by adamvasco at 5:14 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy watching HBO's Rome, which generally appeared to take a lot of attention to detail and concerned itself with various strata of Roman society (including slaves).

I've enjoyed reading the replies, if only, it tells me I've been reading the right stuff!
posted by Atreides at 6:04 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Roman and medeival concepts of race were not based on color as much as we now would think: around the Mediterranean everybody was a shade of olive skin. A blonde Gaul would seem far more alien than an Egyptian or Berber slave. Also, slavery as a class in Roman society was different than the chattel slavery practiced in modern times (as in plantation slavery.) It was more of a class distinction with limitations on rights - although a slave could, with luck and work, move into a better social position, something race - based slavery makes difficult.

A lot of slaves would have been dispossesed people from outlying colonized groups like the Thracians, Dacians, Iberians, Berbers, and Celts.

Early medeival chattel slavery in the mediterranean was based on the demand for cane sugar which could only be produced on Cyprus and Sicily. Most of the slaves used there were from the Caucusus and Balkans. With the discovery of the Americas, Africans become the focus of the slave trading industry.
posted by zaelic at 6:32 AM on October 12, 2009

Slaves had certain rights and could even go to court in certain circumstances.

Er, so could Negro slaves in the antebellum American South.
posted by orthogonality at 6:51 AM on October 12, 2009

You might enjoy dipping into a compact but wonderful book by George Fredrickson (sadly, recently deceased). It's called Racism: A Short History, and Fredrickson does a great job of explaining how differentiations in social status, equality, and rights began to intersect with and were inflected by distinctions of race, religion, and origin.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:05 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

So, if slaves came from various parts of Europe and elsewhere, what distinguishing marks did they have so that people knew who belonged to what class? Did they have to wear sashes on the street?

Actually, for the most part, it was really difficult to tell apart the average poor Roman and the average slave on the street. A wealthier citizen was easily distinguishable by his clothing (viz., the toga: always a mark of Roman citizenship), but poorer citizens, who could not afford the expense of a toga, would wear a tunic, as would slaves. Ethnicity or poor language skills might distinguish the foreign slave, but there were so many freedmen/descendants of freedmen in Rome, as well as merchants, etc., from abroad, that 'foreignness' was no guarantee of non-citizen status.

The follow-up question to that is generally (from my students, anyway), "Then why didn't slaves just run away?" The answer to that is several-fold. One, the point of running away for most would be to return home, and Italy, due to geography, is almost impossible for the runaway slave to get out of. Slaves, remember, are generally *not* from Italy; they're from places the Romans have been conquering (northern Africa, Asia minor, Greece, the Black Sea, Germany, Gaul, Britain, Spain, etc.), and to get to those places, you either have to take a ship (expensive! And very unlikely that a ship is going to take on someone who could be a runaway slave as a passenger: better to just turn them in) or go across the Alps (far away from Rome, so the difficulties of a cross-country journey, and then the perils of crossing, itself). That was the big problem Spartacus ran into after he'd successfully revolted, pillaging the countryside and so on: his followers needed ships to get home, and the Romans had more money to bribe the pirates (who had the ships) than he did. Two, the fact that you can't just 'move to another town and get a job' like people would today. The Roman system of patronage means that if someone is in need of a worker, they're going to do one of two things: purchase a slave, or give that job to a client of theirs. Most Italian towns were operating as 'face-to-face' societies, not at all with the mobility we take for granted today. Three, the penalties if you caught were severe: the prescribed punishment was the branding with a hot iron of the letters FUG (for fugitivus) on the forehead and return to the legal master; one could not expect the subsequent treatment to be pleasant at all.

For a slave who revolted violently instead of running away, there was the exemplum of Spartacus and his followers; although they were wildly successful for a period of time, nonetheless in the end they could not hold out against the Roman state and the survivors of the battle were all crucified, a grim warning that stretched miles out beyond the gates of Rome. If an individual slave offered violence to his masters, the entire household of slaves was put to death (even when the people cried out against it, as in the case of L. Pedanius Secundus, who was murdered by one of his slaves in the time of Nero and all 400 of them were put to death). Not too many were willing to run those risks when the rewards for making it through the slave system could be so great.

One of the largest differences between Roman and American slavery is the 'carrot' of manumission. In antebellum America, freedom for slaves was rare; in ancient Rome, it was not at all uncommon. The circumstances under which a slave could be freed were prescribed by law, but in general, a master could -- and did -- free a slave at will. In addition, slaves could purchase their own freedom, enough money having been saved up. Slaves did have opportunities (speaking of skilled slaves, generally) to accumulate money (peculium, in Latin) from holiday distributions or 'tips' throughout the year. A freed slave (libertus) was legally a Roman citizen, with all of the legal rights that entailed (with two exceptions: a freedman could not run for public office, and he could not serve, for the most part, in the army). Onto his children neither of those exceptions would devolve. There were some political/public/religious positions open only to freedmen (certain priesthoods of Augustus, e.g.). Some freedmen became fantastically wealthy, easily rising into the second-highest social class (the equites): examples abound from history and literature (Trimalchio, in Petronius' Satyricon is the best-known), and from archaeology (the House of the Vettii in Pompeii almost certainly belonged to freedmen, and it's, well, gi-normous). Terence, one of the two best-known Roman playwrights, was a freedman (originally from Africa, to judge by his cognomen). Horace, a Roman lyric poet, was the son of a freedman.

Some have noted that slaves could appear in a Roman court: personally, I think of that as mostly a disadvantage, as slaves were legally barred from testifying unless under torture (no matter how voluntary that testimony might be).
posted by lysimache at 8:20 AM on October 12, 2009 [16 favorites]

I would add just a couple of quick notes to the great answers that you've been getting above: First, the Republic and Empire, which both had slaves, lasted a really long time. So, there's a great diversity in opinion throughout. Second, regarding your question about ethnic harmony, there are a great number of satires by Juvenal that deal with the Greeks, and his complaints are pretty interesting given current context: Greeks are greasy, hard-working immigrants who take Roman jobs. Juvenal's a great source for all sorts of weird ethnic ideas, in sort of a bitter ranting grandpa way.
posted by klangklangston at 10:13 AM on October 12, 2009

Response by poster: A big thank you to all who took the time to write out some enlightening answers. There's a lot of material here.

Thanks again.
posted by fantasticninety at 3:14 PM on October 12, 2009

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