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How to Keep a Slave
in Ancient Rome, 170 BC
The institution of slavery provided a critical pillar that supported the existence of both the republican and empire phases of ancient Roman society. The size of this slave population is estimated in the millions, and comprised between twenty-five and thirty percent of the total Roman population. The majority of these men, women and children worked on the farm - tilling the soil and reaping the harvest. Others, however, labored as artisans, scribes or secretaries.
The Roman slave had no rights. They could not marry nor have a traditional family many did not even have a name. Slaves could not own property. Most had been captured during the various wars that Rome engaged in. The enemies of Rome were well aware that if captured, their inevitable destination was the slave-market. Many chose suicide as an escape.
Roman slaves did sometimes attempt to rebel against their masters and gain their freedom. The most famous incident was in 73-71 BC when the gladiator Sparticus defied his master and instigated a revolt in central Italy that eventually gathered thousands of fellow slaves to his ranks. This slave army enjoyed initial success by defeating several legions sent to destroy it. Sparticus and his followers even threatened Rome itself. However, Sparticus eventually lost his life in battle and several thousand of his followers were crucified.
A Manual for Keeping Slaves, 170 BC
Cato the Elder (234 BC–149 BC) was a Roman statesman, general and author. In approximately 170 BC he put to paper some advice on the care and handling of slaves. His words offer us some insight into the role of the slave in Ancient Rome:
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