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.

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

  1. This is a good starting point. US Slavery was different from all previous forms of slavery and the cruelest, not just for the years of enslavement but the after effects of Jim Crow. African, especially West African slavery was very different. As Timper said, slaves could move up in the world and even marry into the family. Some slaves had more rights than citizens. (Look up Diop, Pre-Colonial Africa)

    • You are inaccurate in your statement. Us slavery though horrible was still more enlightened then other forms.
      Roman, Egyptian, spartan, English slaves were treated beyond horrible.
      Hell if you go back into english, chinese, japanese history, they even treated their commoners worse than many slaves from US history.
      Contrary to popular belief, US slaves were not killed for fun or out of malice in wide scale. To kill a slave was to kill profits. US slave owners could pay a shit ton for a strong slave and would protect their investments.
      With the wide scale invasions in history like ancient roman or Greece, slaves were easy to come by.
      Vikings also dealt in slaves and their slaves were treated worse than dirt.
      Slavery as years moves forward became more humane if you could use that term without getting sick from Placing it to slavery.
      Romans were some of the first that had special doctors that took care of a certain type of slaves.
      US slavers also had special doctors for theirs again because of the huge investment they placed in their field workers. They could not afford to have a single slave die.

      • Marc you have a subjective view of slavery in the US. Your outlook on the topic is grossly misinformed. The transportation of African slaves alone is one of the cruelest events in human history. Have you seen the lay out of cargo ships like The British ship Brooks? Literally laying African bodies on top of one another. The persons next to you dead during the voyage. No other people group has been enslaved in such a manner EVER! Cite your sources!

        • All of us cool it! Mankind is over 100,000 years old. 30,000 years ago we were still tribal and leaders always were making moves of power to protect and to conquer for food and shelter. We have been hurting each other by trial and error for a long as time. and you are quibbling over UNKNOWN facts. No one is better than anyone else. PDERIOD. Maybe educated or after or taller, etc…We are what we are and by discussing the past you bring up old sins of other times. That none of us, N O N E, are responsible for. Unless you are a Rockefeller or a Guggenheim Astor, Vanderbilt, or other centuries old Dynasty (UK) that did hurt people fro profits. I will not be donating reparations from my SSI check at 68. I will not waste my time arguing silliness of equality. Bezos is richer than me. Jamie Foxx gets more ladies, has more money too. More people think Micael Jackson was a great singer than me also. Do I feel screwed? No, I am lucky to be alive and have a place in America since the 50’s. I joined the Navy, because I was dirt poor, and was making $2 hr and had no way to get ahead. What are you thankful for? Sins of the father’s is not on you, especially if it was a 1000 years ago unless you want to inherit hate and anger.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    • Actually anyone in roman society could earn their freedom no matter the background. Though the status you got was freeman not roman citizen.
      You were still beneath citizen status but above indentured servant and had rights.
      The. You could try an earn the next level.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

      • James,
        Smarm and sarcasm aside, the criticisms have valid points. Slaves in Rome were, in fact, considered as property. This particular article happens to be incomplete and has some claims that are not backed up by evidence. It was definitely NOT race-based in ancient Rome but, as the critics have pointed out, the lot in life for a slave in Rome would depend largely on what they did. Household slaves for Patricians lived a relatively good life, but they were property. Just as in North America, treatment of slaves varied by master, it appears from historical records, that this was also the case in ancient Rome. The author appears to differentiate the American south’s reliance on slave labor from the reliance of the Roman economy on slavery. That is not backed up by fact. Manumission was a feature in both situations although they were very different.

    • 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.

    • Actually the roman legion did have a large slave population. They would follow the legion and there were skirmishers made up of conquered countries that fought in front of the legions.
      These people were not just oath bound to roman but many were also slaves.

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