Say that I were a Roman slave around the time of the Empire, perhaps as someone who maintains his villa. I serve my master faithfully and then one day, without warning, he doesn't come home. The day turns into weeks and the weeks turn into months, yet nobody has seen or heard from him.

What would my legal obligations as a slave be in this situation? Would I be required to continue to maintain the villa as though he were still there? For how long? At what point would my legal obligations change because the master has been gone for too long?

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    Slaves were property, so they did what they were told until a free citizen legally recognized as having ownership over them ordered them to do otherwise. Emperor Claudius decreed abandoned slaves were to be considered free men, but in this case I think a roman court would not see it as an intentional abandonment. Its hard to find direct texts on because roman slave laws changed a lot throughout the years. Bottom line, slaves were seen as property not people. They would be inherited by family or sold as possessions if their master failed to return. They could even be repossessed by creditors.
    – TCAT117
    Feb 23, 2018 at 8:17
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    @TCAT117 If I recall correctly, Claudius decree was about slaves who were abandoned because they were ill and/or near death; if the slave got to survive then the owner could no reclaim the slave back.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 23, 2018 at 8:21
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    True, the Claudius decree was more due to ill and dying slaves being ditched on the streets and ensuing legal disputes was considered a public nuisance more than being due to any humanitarian concerns. Which just reenforces my point, slaves were just posessions. Its basically like a modern law being crafted saying you cant park your dying cars on the sidewalks
    – TCAT117
    Feb 23, 2018 at 9:24
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    @TCAT117 slaves were property, but they were also seen as people. Cato's infamous brutality was seen as inhumane even in antiquity; Plutarch retorting that he wouldn't treat an ox the way Cato advised, let alone "an old man". Such is not to say they were particularly concerned for slave welfare, but there was recognition that they were people.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 23, 2018 at 10:11
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    If you were the vilicus, the estate manager, I should imagine you would have a duty to a) look for your master; he might be bleeding in a ditch and if he died you might be thought complicit in his death (and crucified!) b) alert any local magistrates etc in the area for the same reasons; c) inform his nearest male relative/heir so he can take whatever legal steps required to either find your master or administer the estate. I suspect that doing nothing would not be a particularly safe option!
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 23, 2018 at 11:54

2 Answers 2


Yes, the slaves had almost no rights. (They only could not be killed). But that does not mean they were forbidden to do anything or to be active. That only means that they could be punished for their actions postfactum. Or not punished. Or even prized.

The Rome Empire/Republic was a living, and effective structure. And it definitely was not a rigid monolyth, trying to regulate everything. Don't forget, slaves often became so rich personally, that they could buy themselves out. So, they could have a great allowance for initiative.

And the system was very diverse. The slaves were subjects not to the Law of province and state only, but also to the rules of the owner and his family and to the traditions. Also, every latifundia had some organizational structure, and the slaves had their roles in it.

So, the answer depends on the rules and roles set for you. If you were a cleaner, the missing owner can interest you only in the sense what rooms to clean today and what tomorrow. But if you were a head of "guards", or some other safety structure, it would be your direct business to go and try to find and help your master. If you were the part of the economic government of the latifundia, and your actions need some official acknowledgment of the master, of course, it is up to you to know where he is in order to get it. And if he is missed, you should look for him or organize appropriate actions.
And of course, if you are an only slave of the owner, you simply must find the missed master - you would be expected to do that.
But you were not LEGALLY required to do it. It was not due to law, but due to your duties in the estate you belonged to. And due to your personal human qualities, too, of course. The Romans understood good and evil.

  • Would you be expected to keep cleaning the villa or searching for your master for the rest of your life? Feb 23, 2018 at 18:14
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    @Thunderforge Well, presumably the master would have heirs/family/friends who would eventually take over the administration of the estate - AFAIK legacy hunting was a favourite pastime of the Romans - so presumably you'd do whatever your missing master's brother /son et al told you to.
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 23, 2018 at 19:23

I was listening to a podcast (the other side of history) recently by so unfortunately I can't provide a quote from my source.

And it said if a slave owner was murdered, the slaves were killed. So if it looked suspicious that the master disappeared, I expect this rule would be enacted.

This is the best quote I could find:

The aftermath was disastrous. Roman law required a man's slaves to come to his aid if he were attacked, under penalty of death. The law was enforced against those slaves who had not come to the victim's aid in this case, and all the slaves in the household - allegedly 400 of them - were executed, even though most of them could not possibly have known anything about the murder.

  • why have all the sources of my information been removed?
    – WendyG
    Feb 23, 2018 at 17:24
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    They haven't been removed, they've been turned into links.
    – Null
    Feb 23, 2018 at 18:19
  • Ahhhh, ok thats good
    – WendyG
    Feb 23, 2018 at 19:10
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    I am afraid, the text is badly formulated i this place. If it is aftermath, then, according to the previous paragraph, it is not about any murder, but about murder by own slaves. Rebellion. And I think, that even Wikipedia is a better source en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Rome, having really many references.
    – Gangnus
    Feb 23, 2018 at 22:14
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    The Other Side is one of my favorite Great Courses. :)
    – Random
    Feb 24, 2018 at 1:37

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