It is a mistake to ignore the fundamental role of the slaves in Roman society even if they lacked a degree of free will or voting rights. Like any other “commodity good”, the price of slaves was related to their abundance as well as their personal attributes and skills.
Times of conquest brought access to cheap slaves which in turn meant extremely cheap labour. This in turn had huge and direct effects on productivity, on the Roman economy and the welfare of the people, whatever their social class. It also had a direct effect on the jobs available to the poorer Roman (plabeian) Citizens who couldn’t compete against the low cost of a slave and therefore had to resort to social security (cheap bread).
The richest of the rich of Romans, such as Crassus for example, might have had as many as several thousand slaves working on his many real estate ventures. A large Patrician farm would probably employ a few hundred. There were anything up to a hundred slaves in Patrician city estates. A normal household would have between one and ten slaves in service.
With time the importance of the well-being of slaves came to be appreciated (I’m not sure on what grounds, possibly moral but more probably economic and social). As a consequence of this an increasing number of laws were published with the welfare of slaves in mind. For example allowing slaves to report mistreatment to the authorities or ensuring that families of slaves should not be broken up and those that had been broken up had to be reassembled. In cases of mistreatment the slave’s owner could be severely penalised.
Emperor Claudius for example passed a law obliging owners to care for the slaves in case of sickness and failure to do so would result in the slave’s freedom. Formerly it had been cheaper to simply leave them to die and buy another. Putting sick or elderly slaves to death was considered equivalent to murder of a Roman citizen. Domitian prohibited the castration of slaves and Hadrian abolished death penalties.
Freedom of Slaves in Ancient Rome
Although there were clearly many cases of mistreatment the attitude towards slaves “softened” with time. By-and-large slaves who worked in large farm estates under the yoke of a beastly farm manager had the worst of it. Slaves working in the city had far better prospects.
The general attitude to slaves was one of stick-and-carrot:
The Stick: In order to prevent them from running away slaves had a chain around their neck called “bulla” into which the name and address of their master was recorded as well as the reward for delivering them back. They could be punished in a variety of ways although with time this was increasingly regulated by law and a slave could report and have his master punished for mistreatment.
The Carrot: slaves could perform all sorts of jobs and in many cases could be extremely well educated people. One could therefore find slaves working as high society cooks, in the shops, banks and teaching in schools just as easily as they might be found tilling the land of some rich Patrician. Given that slaves could generally be trusted not to have great personal interests in court meddling, they were especially numerous as bureaucrats and at court during the Empire.
Slaves could also be enterprising, put money aside and purchase property in view of their future freedom which would normally happen at around the age of 30 even though by-and-large the majority would remain tied to their owners as clients and even carry their name.
Slaves could also aspire to becoming free “liberti” (a “libertus”) although freedom didn’t actually mean the same level of rights and privileges which other Roman citizens, especially the Patricians, might enjoy. However, during the empire at least, the sons of liberti (called “libertini”) could aspire to reaching the class of Equites (knights) whilst the sons of libertini could actually aspire to becoming Senators. An example of this was Augustus’ own slave-medic.
It is not surprising that a possibly disproportionate number of tomb inscriptions relate to the social climbers who went proud of their achievement in society.
A noteworthy example o the fortunes which a libertus migh aspire to can be had by reading Petronius’ Satyricon (the famous trimalchio was a libertus come rich) or by considering that the famous roman poet Horace, who’s father was a libertus who left his farm in southern Italy to ensure his son (Horace) might have the best education and career – which he did.
Freedom of Slaves
The acquisition of freedom could take place in one of two principal ways:
“liber testamento”: when the master granted freedom in his last dying will.
“liber manumissione”: when the master took the slave to the Praetor who in turn would follow a small ceremony with a rod called “Vindicta” and said:
“Dico eum liberum esse more Quiritum”.
A lictor (a sort of magistrate’s assistant) would take the rod and use it to strike the servant in several places of the body. The freed slave would then be given a free man’s hat in sign of his freedom. This was called Pileo donari as the hat was called a “Pileus”. Finally the slave’s name would be entered into the public register of free citizens.
A third means of obtaining freedom was similar to that of manumissio but involved having the slave’s name entered into the Censor’s roll. This was called “liber censu”.