I've tried to find some information about it, but failed. Let's say there is an educated slave living in a relatively rich household of Rome. What would prevent him from fleeing, going to some smaller town of some province to live there as a free man? It's not like they had lists of all free citizens, neither did they have proper identification documents, such as a modern-day passport, which would identify them. And not every single slave wore a collar (which still can be broken).

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    Welcome and +1. Dec 6, 2014 at 12:25
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    IIRC, interestingly there were proposals to dress slaves differently; but those were shot down out of fears that the slaves would realise how numerous they were.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 6, 2014 at 15:57
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    If I recall correctly there were fairly dramatic punishments for attempting this. Most people are law abiding; there are plenty of crimes that we are smart enough to get away with, but we choose to obey the law even when it is inconvenient. Finally, one couldn't just "move into a town"; purchasing property was only available to a wealthy class who all knew one another's relatives. If the slave had a profession and tried to practice the profession in the new town, the incumbents would object.
    – MCW
    Dec 7, 2014 at 21:27
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    I just wonder about one more thing. Consider that someone new moves to a town/village, noone knows if he's a slave or free man... Would it matter anyway? If you capture some stranger who has no acquanintanances, you could sell him as a slave?
    – user1734
    Dec 8, 2014 at 8:36
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    How would you move to a new village/town? You'd need to arrive with enough money to purchase property, or with an introduction to someone who lives there. Until you have a social introduction to the town, you are a stranger, and nobody will deal with a stranger. (there is a reason that pre-modern societies treat hospitality as a virtue; it wasn't common or normal). Everyone in Rome was part of a social network - family, gens, tribe, neighborhood, etc. The concept of "individual" didn't exist as we know it today.
    – MCW
    Dec 8, 2014 at 17:35

2 Answers 2


Well, I suppose it's a matter of means plus motivation. If you're educated - read/speak Greek and Latin etc - then you'd be valuable, and only the psychopathic master would mistreat a valuable peice of property. And you'd need money to get away - some slaves were relatively wealthy, but stealing from your master would be dangerous, the penalties could be horrendous. Then, if you got to this new town, how would you live? If you were educated, even if a slave, you'd consider manual work beneath you - and, of course, slavery has the effect of reducing the value of free labour, why pay someone when you can own them? He (it would be far more difficult for a woman) could become a schoolmaster, but that was no sinecure in the Roman world, living in a cramped tenement, always looking over your shoulder in case you were discovered. You're right, very few slaves actually wore collars, although badges have been found with inscriptions like "1belong to M Julius Horrendus, if you find me, send me back." - which seems a bit daft, as presumably, if they were just badges, they could be removed! And - I'm no expert, but suspect there was a cultural aspect here - if you were a slave, then it was because the gods had made you one.

Interestingly, the Senate grappled with this problem, there was a move - sorry, can't give a date - to decree that all slaves had to wear distinctive dress. It was abandoned out of fear that, if the slaves realised how numerous they were, they'd rise in rebellion.

So, for the educated slave, without a psychopath for a master, engaged in teaching the children or dealing with his master's business affairs, it was probably better to wait and hope he would be able to buy or be given his freedom, rather than risk being caught, flogged or worse, and sent to the salt mines!

As I said before, there could be genuine affection between masters and slaves - much the way 19th century servants in the UK felt about "Miss Alice" or "Master George". During the US civil War, a slave boy was sent to join the Confederate Army with the young master. His master was killed, the slave buried him, wrote a letter to his parents - then high-tailed it to the Unionists to fight for freedom!

If you haven't, you might like to read Plautus' play, "The Prisoners", which gives a very interesting insight into slave/master relationships.

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    The lives of some slaves were terrible, but they were precisely the ones who probably couldn't escape or if they did would have to resort to brigandage to survive. As I read somewhere - sorry, can't the remember where - most slaves didn't object to slavery per se, just that they were slaves!
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 6, 2014 at 15:40
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    Hmm... doubt that. I'm prepared to be corrected, but the patricians were a fairly small group of inter-married clans, you'ld soon be found out! And there was a clear distinction between citizens, who were entitled to wear the toga, and the rest, who weren't. Interestingly, a freedman automatically became a Roman citizen and a member of his master's "family" - when Tiro, M Tulius Cicero's slave, was freed, he became M Tulius Tiro - a Roman citizen.
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 6, 2014 at 15:49
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    @TheHonRose: I suspect the badges were for slaves who couldn't speak Latin, so they could show it to someone if they got lost.
    – user2110
    Dec 7, 2014 at 6:56
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    @Oldcat I see no reference to such instance in the Wikipedia article. And, first, one didn't have to be captured in battle to become a slave - piracy was rife until near the end of the Republic. Secondly, if you trade your freedom for a stated number of years for the advantage of citizenship, then that is not chattel slavery as generally understood, more a form of indentured servitude. The point of chattel slavery is that it is involuntary on the part of the slave. And there were no doubt educated slaves in the Hellenistic world who would fetch a better price in Rome!
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 8, 2015 at 4:05
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    "Slaves numbering in the tens of thousands were condemned to work in the mines or quarries, where conditions were notoriously brutal.[57] Damnati in metallum ("those condemned to the mine") were convicts who lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves as a legal penalty. Their status under the law was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free." en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Rome
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 25, 2016 at 17:58

Although, as you say, a rich slave might be able to engineer an escape, most slaves were not rich and not educated.

Slaves could generally be immediately recognized by their dress. Although there were no laws mandating dress for a slave, they tended to wear clothing which set them apart. For example, no slave could wear the toga, so if a man is wearing a toga, you know right off the bat it is a citizen. Also, the tunics worn by freemen tended to be a lot nicer and more expensive than the plain tunics worn by slaves. Likewise for their footwear, which was expensive. Slaves often went barefoot. In general, if you saw a guy with no shoes wearing a plain tunic, it was high probability he was a slave. Freeman also wore hats, called a pileus, which slaves generally were not supposed to do (see below for more about this). Also, there was an ethnic component, since slaves were foreigners, not Latins.

Slaves also had a different, much cruder, speech than the upper classes, which is often parodied in Roman plays. The educated in Rome studied diction and speech extensively in school and spoke in a way completely different than the slaves. If you read Plautus' plays, for example, you can learn how he parodies the speech of slaves. Also, note that in plays the free always wear togas and the slaves always wear tunics so the audience knows which is which.

If a slave was freed, he shaved his head to be completely bald, and then wore a plain (uncolored) pileus, which was a felt cap. Some citizens wore this cap, but always colored or decorated. A man with a bald head and plain pileus was a manumitted slave.

As for runaways, fugitivi, this was always a small problem, but it was hard. In those days travel was expensive so people tended to stay in one place and strangers stood out. Where would you get the money? Usually you needed to have permission to become a citizen of a town, so if you just ran to some random town and applied for citizenship, the authorities would want to know who you were. People abroad on highways were regularly stopped and either had to have a passport or a really good story. Remember the highways were the property of the state in those days and were controlled by the military. Random people were not allowed to just waltz along highways the way they do now. There were severe penalties for people who hid or took in fugitivi as their own, so though it did occur, it was an illegal and risky move. You stood a good chance of getting ratted out by your neighbor or an enemy if you tried hiding a fugitive.

Finally, there were the dreaded fugitivarii, the slave hunters. These guys were professional fugitive locators and they were very good at their job. They had spies everywhere. Not only could they track a particular slave down, but they would grab you if you just looked like a fugitivus. Then they would torture you to reveal your owner. If you gave a fake name, they would just torture you again until you fessed up your real owner. Then they would take you to him and demand a fee from him for returning you.

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    But a free man would not need a passport, would he? Dec 6, 2014 at 18:53
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    @Tyler Durden What are your sources? Non-citizens wouldn't have any passport in first place. And I seriously doubt that plebs would have any on themselves at every time. Sure they may have civitatem, but it may be useless. Mostly because such document wouldn't prove anything. You can steal or forge one. The only method to actually prove yourself as a citizen, to make an inquiry, which would take a lot of time. Furthermore if a man claims to be from Rome, I'm not sure such an inquire would bring anything, if the person claims to be a person who really exists.
    – Sappy
    Dec 6, 2014 at 19:10
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    @Sappy Ancient passports were not like modern ones. They were usually one-time tokens, tablets or documents that authorized a single passage at a specific time or date. For example, if a slave was carrying, say letters, from Rome to Pompeii, before he left Rome he would get a diploma authorizing him to travel on the highway there, and the story would be same for most people, including soldiers who would carry their orders. You could always try to talk or bribe your way past the checkpoints, but remember that the soldiers were authorized by decree to kill anyone found illegally on the highway. Dec 6, 2014 at 22:11
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    Pace Tyler Dundee, found this in an (admittedly old) book:- "A Greek in Rome in the middle of the second century AD was struck by the lack of outward distinction between slaves and free me. For instance, their clothes were the same; ... But Juvenal was obviously right to remark that a rich man's slave was better of than a destitute citizen. " And again:- "... in view of Rome's traditional policy of freeing many slaves, the knights, too, we're very often descended from freedmen. So were numerous members of the Senate." (The World of Rome by Michael Grant London 1960)
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 7, 2014 at 13:39
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    As an interesting datapoint about master-slave relations, Jefferson has his slave, Sally Hemings, in France. She could just walk away, because slavery was not recognized in France. She did not, and returned to slavery in USA, because Jefferson promised her to free all her children. So relations with other slaves might be also part of the picture. Dec 8, 2014 at 18:39

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