Roman Slavery – Dissertation Sample

Source criticism on a piece of evidence relevant to Roman Slavery

For legal purposes Romans divided slaves into two categories, those who belonged to the city household (familia urbana) and those who belonged to the rural household (familia rustica). Within both of these general categories the number of roles available to, or filled by, slaves was virtually limitless. 

The particular piece of chosen evidence is a section from the Digest (33.7) that illustrates the range of positions available to slaves who typically worked on rural estates. This particular section discusses what was included in the legacy of a rural estate and its associated equipment. The equipment in question being not only the tools and machinery that would be typically used on the farm, but also the humans that would be employed using the various pieces of equipment. The human work force “provided for the producing, gathering and preserving of the fruits”. 

This human work force could comprise both the slaves who actually worked the land and those who were responsible for catering to their, and their owners, material needs. From time to time it became necessary to specify exactly which slaves were part of a given legacy, and it is from such legal documents that this section of the digest is produced.  Given that the source for this piece of evidence are legal documents, it can be regarded as extremely reliable; although its purpose is to list the jobs held be specific slaves on a specific estate and not be a comprehensive list of possible jobs on any given estate.

The list provided in the Digest is highly instructive on a number of counts: firstly the combination of agricultural and domestic jobs. It should be noted at this point that the list in question refers to the roles undertaken by rural slaves, however, the combination of roles suggests that this particular estate, and thus we can reasonably assume, many rural estates, were largely self sufficient. 

There are roles such as hunter, shepherd, muleteer and herdsman which would obviously fit within the context of a rural farmstead, but there are also roles such as potter, kitchen maid, trainee waiter and furniture supervisor which seem strangely out of place and can only point to the estate being self sufficient. The inclusion of jobs that we can reasonable assume would be held by women (all of which are in the domestic sphere) is also of interest and confirms categorically that throughout the central period of Roman history it was entirely normal for female slaves to be found on farms and rural estates.

 The list is of far more importance than this however, it is also an excellent introduction to the vast range and variety of Roman slave occupations and indeed to the curious way that slaves tended to be given very precise positions rather than simply being assigned roles based upon what needs to be done at a given time and place. For example, the positions of  ostiarius and the scopariusi may be thought of as being too small to have been occupied by two people, that perhaps both roles could have been filled by the same slave; but this is not the implication of the highly specialised job titles. 

This may also be an indication that the estate was particularly wealthy, a less wealthy land owner may indeed seek to combine small and limited roles in the interests of efficiency and frugality. The slave who occupied the role of bubulcus may have been “one who ploughed with oxen” or perhaps “one who fed the plough-oxen”, both of which assume a very specialised (albeit simple in the case of the latter) role with no implication that the role overlapped with any other function on the estate. This lack of role over or duality of occupation could again be taken as a sign of wealth and position, if a landowner could demonstrate to his friends, neighbours and visitors that for every minute role he employed a specialist, an expert if you will, then the implication of wealth was obvious and did not need stressing further.

Bradley  has used this section of the digest to argue for many of the ideas that I have set forth here, theories pertaining to rural slavery and the wide array of jobs open to slaves, but this is not necessarily the case. There is really very little to assume that the roles were in fact occupied by slaves at all. It is assumed that they were given the largely menial level of many of them and the assumption that the estate where they worked was a wealthy one and thus could afford slaves but this evidence is circumstantial and not directly supported. The roles could just as easily be occupied by plebeians or freedmen, people that were once slaves but had won or bought their freedom. The workers, therefore, could be legitimately employed rather than being owned, the only evidence arguing against this is the source of the list being thought to be a legal document, or series thereof, which would usually detail slaves, but could equally be simply a list of the assets of the estate, and employees could easily fall within that category.

One of the limitations of the list is that is does not tell us directly anything about the size of the estate, we can assume it was large and wealthy given the minor yet specified jobs held by some (presumably slaves), but we know nothing more specific than this assumption.  Buy dissertations at


  • K. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge 1994)
  • K. Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge 1978)
  • N. Lewis & M. Reinhold, Roman Civilisation: Selected Readings, 2 vols (Chichester 1990)