How did ancient cultures keep their slaves from just walking away? Record-keeping in these societies was quite poor. Even if paperwork did exist stating that someone was a slave, the next town over won't have a copy. Photography is a few thousand years away, so you don't need to worry about wanted posters either.

What is stopping someone from just assuming a new name, stealing some supplies, and walking away?

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    Have you ever been to a small town where everybody knows your name and what you're infamous for? May 7, 2019 at 15:51
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    You might look at this question.
    – justCal
    May 7, 2019 at 16:02
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    From the WP page on Roman Slavery - "Moses Finley remarked, "fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources". Rome forbade the harbouring of fugitive slaves, and professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Advertisements were posted with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards. If caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus."
    – T.E.D.
    May 7, 2019 at 16:36
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    Leave and do what? In 2 weeks you die of starvation, if you are not caught before.
    – Alex
    May 7, 2019 at 16:49
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    How will you eat when you leave? You own nothing, neither land nor tools, nor weapons. Your clothes mark you as a slave. You could turn to thievery, or you could sell yourself into slavery for the price of a meal. A question with insufficient research.
    – MCW
    May 7, 2019 at 17:14

2 Answers 2


Very few slaves were able to successfully escape

Imagine you are a slave in Rome wanting to escape. What requirements would you have to fulfill ?

  • If you happen to be a woman, simply forget about it. Traveling alone on foot was uncommon for females, and lonely traveling women appearing suddenly in some town or village was bound to raise suspicions of local slave catchers and other riffraff that may claim bounty for fugitive slave.

  • If you are physically weak (too old for example), also forget about it. Chances are you won't be able to walk hundreds of miles, both on and off road.

  • You better be either proficient with weapons&traps, or steal lot of money from your master. Ex-soldiers or hunters could probably support themselves in the wild by stealing, robbing, or hunting(trapping). But all others would probably need to buy food and other supplies.

  • Mediterranean look would also help. In ancient Rome most of slaves were White, but this still does not mean they looked like Romans. By all accounts Romans were mostly of Mediterranean type, therefore some Nordic or Baltic type slave would stand out in the crowd.

  • Knowing local language, dialect and customs would also help. Recently captured slaves would probably not know enough Latin to pass as free Romans. Slaves born in Rome on the other hand probably won't have aforementioned military or hunting skills.

As you can see, very few slaves actually had a chance for successful escape. One example of successful escape would be Cicero's slave Dionysius. According to Cicero, this slave was well-educated, he even supervised Cicero's personal library. We could assume that Dionysius knew fluent Latin and could impersonate free educated Roman, or otherwise bluff people he came in contact with. He probably had access to some money, because he paid for his transport across Adriatic. But slaves like Dionysius were small minority, most of other slaves were just uneducated workforce that would end up flogged or worse crucified when captured, to scare other slaves.

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    Not just language, but dialect. This was an era where accents would have been very localized, to the point where knowledgeable locals could probably tell what neighborhood of Rome you grew up in by listening to a couple of sentences. There would be no chance of going to a nearby city you weren't raised in and passing yourself off as a local.
    – T.E.D.
    May 7, 2019 at 18:41
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    Ancient Rome or the Roman empire wasn't the only ancient society with slaves. There were tens, hundreds, and thousands of other states and cultures with large numbers of slaves. Slaves may have had better or worse chances of escape in some of those other ancient societies.
    – MAGolding
    May 7, 2019 at 20:59
  • In ancient Rome it was not uncommon for slaves to be freed at some point, I believe Sejanus was once a slave May 7, 2019 at 22:04
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    @MAGolding True, but Rome is best known of all of these, with by far largest collection of historical sources and artifacts. Therefore, Roman system of slavery is easiest to use as an example, especially since it lasted so long, therefore it was efficient in a sense .
    – rs.29
    May 8, 2019 at 7:31

Because a free citizen would not show up in a new city with no contacts, nobody to vouch for him. A respectable citizen would not contemplate to move very far unless he knew what to expect, and unless he was known at least by name to merchants and magistrates in the new hometown.

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    You're saying there were no poor migrants?
    – Ryan_L
    May 7, 2019 at 18:25
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    @Ryan_L Many societies that use slavery are effectively totalitarian regimes where travel is very difficult without the consent of the state May 7, 2019 at 21:59
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    @Ryan_L, read about the Roman client system. No poor, independent migrants unless order broke down in a province.
    – o.m.
    May 8, 2019 at 3:38
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    @Ryan_L There were no poor migrants. Refugees existing during wars but these were usually dispersed locally and returned to their homes afterwards. Foreign refugees might be given marginal land but more likely you'd be turned away. An individual refugee is just as likely to be turned into a slave as anything else. That is why punishments like ostracising, excommunication, exile were so effective. If you were cut off from your community back then you were basically screwed. People sold themselves into slavery because it was an easier option than being poor with no work.
    – Daniel
    May 8, 2019 at 22:48

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