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Slave Control and ID System in Rome

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I do understand that the concept of slavery in Rome is quite different from what some people imagine. As opposed to being beaten with whips on the fields, many slaves must have had quite comfortable lives in the house of the master and been very friendly with the members of the household -even growing up with the children of their owner in some cases.

 

However, it is also obvious that they usually desired to buy their freedom and become independent, as we know from many sources. What I always wondered is how masters prevented slaves from running away and establishing a new identity in a different part of the empire. Would it not have been exceptionally easy for a slave sent to the market to buy some olive oil to slip into the crowd in Rome and make his way out of the city, to never return?

 

If some such individual were to go to a different town and pretend to have moved from another province, but robbed on the way, and hence with no papers, how in the world could they check who he really was? How did people in general identify themselves? As far as I know, the nobles had rings and seals for this purpose, bit how about the Plebians and Slaves?

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I do understand that the concept of slavery in Rome is quite different from what some people imagine. As opposed to being beaten with whips on the fields, many slaves must have had quite comfortable lives in the house of the master and been very friendly with the members of the household -even growing up with the children of their owner in some cases.

 

However, it is also obvious that they usually desired to buy their freedom and become independent, as we know from many sources. What I always wondered is how masters prevented slaves from running away and establishing a new identity in a different part of the empire. Would it not have been exceptionally easy for a slave sent to the market to buy some olive oil to slip into the crowd in Rome and make his way out of the city, to never return?

 

If some such individual were to go to a different town and pretend to have moved from another province, but robbed on the way, and hence with no papers, how in the world could they check who he really was? How did people in general identify themselves? As far as I know, the nobles had rings and seals for this purpose, bit how about the Plebians and Slaves?

 

It is probably more straight forward to explain how an individual proved citizenship than to explain why slaves did not abscond at will. Citizenship was recorded in such a way that slave records were also fairly thorough. Every five years, citizens would register for the census, where their status was recorded according to their wealth, slaves, wife and children. The penalty for not registering was so severe that we can be pretty certain that they were comprehensive and accurate.

 

Proof of citizenship was either by reference to the census records or by production of a - normally wooden - diptych that to all intents and purposes acted like a birth certificate. The nobility would have a gold, silver or bronze diptych and possession of such a document when not the rightful owner was punishable by death as it was assumed that the owner had been killed. Incidently, the Roman nobility was composed of both Patrician and Plebian families. The poorer citizens without wealth were known as proletarii or the capiti censi - head count. Citizens would also keep records of slaves' names, origins and abilities in family documents.

 

As you have pointed out, there were slaves and slaves; those owned to toil away on the vast Latifundia or in the mines of Spain were in a very different situation to those tied to the houses of Rome and other towns and cities. However, your question was with regard to the domestic slaves and it is difficult show systems that would prevent a slave from running if that was what he wanted to do. The diptych was not, it is thought, carried by a citizen when traveling and therefore it may have been possible for a non-citizen to declare "Civis Romanum Sum!" and get away with it. Perhaps, however, the prospect of freedom with its uncertainties and lack of material security, was sufficiently disconcerting to deter most from this action.

 

I would suggest that the idea that those in bondage would automatically desire freedom is relatively modern. The ancient people were more pragmatic; after all whole towns, cities or tribes would swap one master for another in a similar way that a football player will move to a successful club. Slavery was an accepted component of all ancient societies and those in decent circumstances would not, I think, be straining at the leash. Ultimately, manumission was common and all a citizen had to do was to register the slave on the census and he automatically became a citizen.

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I would also add that some volunteered into slavery (for exemple peoples of greek culture hoping to become a house slave in charge of the education of the children of a household or to become secretary of a rich gentlemen, ...). After all roman slaves were (at least household slaves) paid a salary. Also we have to remember that their might have been clothing differences or haircuts that would make a man look as a slave in normal time (we know of the felt cap of the freedmen, but for the slaves...)

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The treatment of house slaves varied enormously depending on the character of the owner. Many were simply there, to be used as a convenience, and woe betide them if they didn't serve as expected, but I accept that others were allowed to have partners, run businesses for their owners, and even live quite comfortably.

 

As for assuming new identities, that's suprisingly difficult outside of our anonymous modern times, mostly because your neighbours will soon know all about you, and if your behaviour is at odds with your assumed station, someone will notice. A new face in a settlement is bound to attract attention.

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I think I read that it was the wife of the patrician family that usually did the grocery shopping. And also, slaves who couldn't speak Latin had more difficulty to escape.

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I am amazed how beautifully appropriate and informative the answers here are.

Always reading that the population of Rome reached 1 million, it is easy to assume an anonymous society, but that was perhaps not the case -even in Rome itself. You can have a million people, but in the absence of phones or computers and telegrams, you must interact face to face a whole lot.

 

As an aside, is that 1 million figure for the city of Rome reliable? If so, for how long was the city actually that crowded? FOr many centuries of for a brief period only?

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Roman society was very well intercontected.

Free citizens were involved in reciprical, though unequal, relationships. Almost daily contacts were required between patron and his clients. As was said above everyone knew

your name and social rank.

 

In North America, the only slaves who won their freedom unequivocally

were those who escaped to Canada, where the US Fugitve Slave Act

had no power. In Roman imperial times what other political entity

existed in the Mediterreaean that would have taken in runawa slaves?

 

Did Roman slaves escape to barbarian lands? I've never heard of that, although I have come across mention of slaves running off with the Goths who plundered Rome in AD 410.

Edited by Ludovicus

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