Slavery in the Roman Empire vs. North American Colonies

In this research, I wanted to look at two different forms of slavery, one rooted in ‘ancient’ history and one which falls within the “early modern’ period, but with lasting effects which are still seen in today’s society. One of my other goals for this research was to compare the structural aspects of slavery and the ‘echoes’ from slavery in the Roman Empire to slavery in North American British Colonies. Some of the problems I faced was the not only the vast time period differences between the two, but also that other forms of slavery had also greatly impacted slavery in the North American British Colonies.

In the Roman Empire, slaves could obtain freedom much more quickly than slaves during 1600s-1800s in North America. Also, in the Roman Empire, slaves were at times educated, held status within their households and were valued by their owners. That is not to say that all slaves within the Roman Empire had access to these aspects, but they were present and common practice within Roman society. In comparison, slaves in North America were not afforded these features, they were a source of labor and, eventually in the Southern Colonies, they became essential for the economy. Furthermore, slaves during the Roman Empire were typically ‘white’ and viewed as a person/human being. While in the North American Colonies, slaves were typically black or Indian, no white person was enslaved, and slaves were typically not viewed as having the same rights as free individuals, nor were they believed to be fully human.

The slave trade which existed in the Roman Empire greatly differed from the form of slavery which the British were introduced to when obtaining slaves from Africa. What I found was that while originally having some similar structural components to slavery, like a free labor source and creating a social hierarchy, these two forms of slavery had different cultural, social and political aspects and values. In today’s society individuals like Whitney Battle-Baptiste examine not only the slave narratives, but also how archaeology can be used to reform ideas about slavery and how it impacts current communities today.

15 thoughts on “Slavery in the Roman Empire vs. North American Colonies

  1. I recommend Shelton. I was her student once upon a time. I think your reasoning is flawed and too narrow.

    I don’t agree with your original premise that white slaves of ancient Roman were treated any better than non-white slaves in the Colonial and Pre-Industrial America. Many were prisoners of war and previous inferences apply. Also you are excluding Indentured Servants in Colonial America. Landowners would often risk the lives of poor immigrants (who were essential traded, sold, or bartered) because they were unwilling to risk the lives of slaves, which were property and therefore valuable. By extension, you would have to include the de facto slave trade that was colonial Australia. Class and religion play a part here. Just my $0.02.

  2. It is not clear from the opening sentence whether the author recognizes the lasting effects in today’s society of slavery “rooted in ‘ancient’ history.”
    The Ancient Roman Empire is credited for its great contributions to civil engineering, being masters in the design and construction of roads, aqueducts and sewers. Yet all the works of Roman engineering that tourists “Ooo and ah” over, and historians admire, were built with slave labor.

  3. Timper, I would take this post down. It is misleading, although not entirely inaccurate. Romans slaves were also dehumanized and being white did not save them from marginalization. There are several discourses that can be found in primary sources where writers and orators tried to convince their peers of the humanity of slaves.

    I believe that yours is a common narrative that we have all bought into… Roman slaves were tutors, scribes, and scholars. This is true but the majority of Roman slaves performed back-breaking labor on farms, plantations, and in silver mines. They were sent to fight and die for amusement, fed to lampreys for amusement, killed in mass for the infraction of another.

    There is more research for you to do in this area.

  4. There are a few misconceptions in this article…First off while slaves in Rome could earn their freedom, generally it was only Roman citizens who could do this. The White slaves from England,France,Germany, and others North of Rome could not earn their freedom. They were usually prisoners of war and no one wanted to let Men who had been mistreated go back home and build up an army to attack them.The ones who were educated were also Roman citizens, they did not have classes for slaves, the ones who taught, practiced medicine and things like that were once again Roman citizens who already had this knowledge.

    • These assertions are simply ignorant nonsense. A Roman citizen is ipso facto not a slave. Slaves on manumission automatically became Roman citizens.

  5. Although I do not condone the harsh words in this comment section, the general sentiment from the comments seems accurate:
    I think you should add more findings to your research…

    For instance, you could check out…
    – J. A. Harrill, “Slavery,” Dictionary of NT Background, 1125.
    – A. D. Clarke, “SLAVE, SERVANT,” Dictionary of Jesus & Gospels, 870.
    – A. A. Rupprecht, “SLAVE, SLAVERY,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 880.

  6. bullshit, you should be ashamed of your lack of knowledge, romans moved there slaves far away from there homes, and worked them to death in mines and plantations or used them as spear fodder in there armies, only the lucky few where given freedom by there masters. shame on you for lying about history and not doing any research.

    • no they didn’t you moron. they moved them into rome and moved out poor free workers. you’re a fuckin idiot you stupid bitch. You think the roman legion had a large slave portion? you truly know nothing

      • Rome was vast. When you say Rome you do not mean the city do you? There are primary sources that relate the cruelty of Roman citizens toward their slaves. Killing 400 slaves for the murder committed by one (including infants). The selling of the children of slaves. The feeding of slaves to lampreys. Gaul, Thrace, and Brittania all yielded slaves to the Roman Republic. These were not territories in close proximity.

        The Roman legion only allowed Romans to be members but it is true that slaves were sent ahead of legions to tire the enemy and cause them to spend their arrows.

        How the Romans did it by Jo Ann Shelton is full of primary sources if you want to take a peek.

    • A convincing argument. The rampant grammar errors assure me you are a reputable source. I am sure you have studied for many years at the highest level of academia.

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