Do we have historical evidence which shows whether significant number of people felt guilty about owning (without necessarily abusing) slaves in the ancient Roman era, e.g. 1-2 century AD?

  • Great question! May 27, 2013 at 8:13
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    @Elrond true, but I think in every ages there were people who questioned the actual morality's right. I would gladly see examples in literature or historical records where romans treated slaves as human beings. I am sure most members of patritius felt it is natural to have slaves. But what about others? Were there exceptions? May 27, 2013 at 8:46
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    Also related: When and how did people begin to consider slavery immoral?. (Maybe add to the question itself?)
    – Elrond
    May 27, 2013 at 9:07
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    The psychohistory of slave possession is unanswerable. "A lot of people" isn't a causal structure. May 28, 2013 at 11:43
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    -1 - Projecting modern sensibilities onto an ancient society with no substantiation whatsoever, and plenty of substantiation to the contrary.
    – user2590
    Aug 13, 2013 at 5:58

5 Answers 5


According to The Dawn of European Civilization by G. Hartwell Jones (1903), slaves in Rome were "looked upon as fit for nothing but the cross, the stake, or the arena" [for gladiatorial combat]. In Rome, the "principle that the slave was destitute of legal rights" applied. Improvements in their status were slow to come.

The position of the home-born slave, verna [...] generally the offspring of slaves, leaves on the mind an impression far from disagreeable. Like his Greek counterpart, as in the case of Eumseus, the verna was often brought up with his master's children. In later days, as the pages of the Latin poets testify, the vernulce (a diminutive and familiar form) were often objects of favour, if not of affection. They became acquainted with all the household management, and often took liberties with their masters.

Oil painting of crucified slaves in Ancient Rome 1878 oil painting by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov, "The damned box. Place of execution in ancient Rome. The crucified slaves" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently slaves fared sometimes better -- being allowed to acquire property to save up for the purpose of purchasing their freedom -- and sometimes worse:

Slaves were obliged to submit to the branding iron, a significant custom which betrays the sentiments entertained concerning slavery, and is eloquent of the condition of these unfortunate beings. Their masters saw no intrinsic value in humanity. Like cattle they were "animate property."


[I]t is clear from the abundant evidence afforded by the pages of Martial and Juvenal that the degradation and demoralization of the slave class was one of the darkest features of the early Empire, the most corrupt age in the annals of Rome.

Yet the Emperor Hadrian had a law passed "forbidding the masters to kill their slaves, and enacting that they should be tried by the laws provided against capital offences". This followed on the heels of humanitarian advances, chiefly due to the efforts of the Stoics.

Seneca is said to have followed the primitive practice of taking meals with his slaves.

But while giving due credit to Stoicism, Hartwell Jones thinks that the breakdown of slavery (as opposed to its melioriation) is owed to Christianity:

To the lasting honour of Stoicism it did what it could to remedy the evil, but the evil remained. The truth is, this school only appealed to an aristocracy of intellect, and even to the Stoics the enterprise of Christian teachers, who taught and enforced a universal brotherhood, would have appeared too vast and visionary. At best they only heralded the coming of a brighter day. But the Christian Church, by the introduction of new ideals of humanity and sympathy, shed its consolations, extended its protection over serf and slave, and gradually effected a complete revolution of public opinion.

Hartwell Jones does not discuss what, if any, guilt the Romans may have felt over the institution of slavery. It is likely, however, that the intermittent moves to ease their plight and grant them personal rights, as well as the annual feast called Saturnalia in which the roles of master and slave were reversed, indicate at minimum an awareness of the moral issues connected to slavery.

That view may be colored by Jones' background as a theologian and minister, however. Earlier, in Zur Geschichte der antiken Sklaverei published in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft (1894), Ludo Moritz Hartmann notes that St. Augustine, while maintaining that the Lord did not desire for man to rule over man, nonetheless explained that slavery emerges as a consequence of sin and that it is the unfathomable decision of the Almighty that some nations should lose wars and their people be cast into servitude. Patiently wearing the chains of slavery in this life increased one's chances to be elevated in the afterlife. And indeed, bishops, abbots, and even the Pope owned slaves. Horace, son of a freedman. Image credit: by D.N.R. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Horace, son of a freedman. Statue in Vicenza, Italy. Image credit: by D.N.R. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann thinks that the fresh supply of slaves in Rome dried up because of the consolidation in the borders of the Empire, i.e., fewer wars and raids that ended with abductions into captivity. However, he does not comment on why the Romans did not then return to the ancient custom of "debt slavery".

Freed slaves would often remain beholden to their former owner as "clients", a relationship based on mutual obligations but surely not to the disadvantage of the patron.

When a slave was manumitted, the former owner became his patron. The freedman (libertinus) had social obligations to his patron, which might involve campaigning on his behalf if he ran for election, doing requested jobs or errands, or continuing a sexual relationship that began in servitude. In return, the patron was expected to ensure a certain degree of material security for his client. Allowing one's clients to become destitute or entangled in unjust legal proceedings would reflect poorly on the patron and diminish his prestige. Wikipedia

Clientism was but one of the sociological phenomena in the gradual movement away from slavery. There was no clean break after which all slavery ended. Another phenomenon was the "colonate", a form of dependant farming that preserved some elements of slavery while incorporating aspects of autonomy for the dependents.

In a 2011 term paper, Julia Muhlnickel quotes from a late-Empire decree:

Granted that they seem, in status, to be free men, nevertheless they are thought to be slaves of the ground for which they have been born and they have not the capacity to depart whither they wish.

On the other hand, she writes:

Technically free, a colonus was allowed to marry, have a family, and live without fear of his landlord.

Summarizing current scholarship on the question of slavery and whether it was supplanted by the colonate, Muhlnickel writes that the earlier view of a straightforward replacement has been largely abandoned.

Most importantly, slavery cannot be said to have ended in Europe until the High Middle Ages. Serfdom, the successor to the colonate, did not end until the 19th century in Europe. And in parts of the world, slavery is still being practiced. In his novels and travelogues, writer V.S. Naipaul portrays slaves and their owners, finding that slaves born into that status are not necessarily unhappy with it.

One thing I have been unable to find during my (far from exhaustive!) research is a John Brown-like figure in Ancient Rome, a vocal abolitionist with a significant following. Although Rome saw slaves rise up in the famous Spartacus Revolt, there never was anything approaching the raid on Harpers Ferry. I suggest, therefore, that asking whether a lot of people in Ancient Rome felt guilty about owning slaves may be a red herring, a notion called forth by our inculturation which abhors the institution of slavery as criminal and inhumane. This notion would have appeared alien to the Romans and indeed, does appear alien to some people in parts of the world even today.

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    not so much moral issues, but rather the economic and social value of keeping the lower castes in society happy, thus preventing (or at least reducing the risk of) them revolting to gain status. By and large slaves in the Roman empire (certainly in the core) were far better off than many low caste/poor free people in the middle ages for example, had more rights and were less at the mercy of random wiles of their owners/landlords.
    – jwenting
    May 28, 2013 at 5:48
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    I'm really torn in two about this answer: on the one hand, it's got great points, mentioning the change in slaves' status over time and the Saturnalia (sort of a societal safety valve, perhaps). On the other hand, it relies too much on a late Victorian writer who doesn't seem to have been a professional historian but a cleric. So he's both outdated and biased - giving the Church way too much credit on slavery. May 28, 2013 at 9:21
  • So, if you could address my point, it'd be up for an upvote :) May 28, 2013 at 9:22
  • @Felix I agree that H. J. seems to give Christianity too much credit. There are influential works in early Christianity accepting slavery as punishment for sin, while reminding slaveholders to be humane. From my cursory reading, it appears that outright slavery became gradually supplanted by "clientelism" and serfdom, both of which relinquished total control over life and death of people in favor of a more "lenient" or "liberal" approach which granted individuals more control over their lives. Possibly this alternative won out due to encouraging greater productivity. May 28, 2013 at 9:54
  • I'm glad that we;re in agreement over this! So I suggest perhaps removing the final quote and substituting you own text from the comment for it. May 28, 2013 at 9:57

I think the short and simple answer is "No". Seneca in one of his letters recommends treating slaves kindly, as "friends, humble friends but friends" - but says nothing about not having any. Earlier, Cicero was writing to Tiro (I'm fairly certain before the latter's manumission) with great concern for his, Tiro's, health, calls him "best and kindest of men", etc - yet at the same time asks his friend Atticus to send him some library-slaves, as we would ask to borrow a neighbour's lawn mower.

And I think Christianity has claimed/been given too much credit for softening/ending slavery. St Paul's famous exhortation of "Slaves, obey your masters..." suggests no ethical dilemma. He did not say - "Masters, free your slaves."

The Roman adage "Quod servi, quod hostes" - meaning that you had as many enemies as you had slaves, suggests a philosophical acceptance of a fact of life, like traffic accidents. You needed slaves to do the grunt work; they might kill you, but - well, what could you do? A necessary evil, maybe, but not a source of guilt.

  • Just a comment, but from what little I've read of slavery in Ancient Rome, people seemed to have hade a convenient "double vision". You might have a trusted secretary, doctor, even lover, but kind feelings I'd not necessarily extend to the slaves who tended your field or your bathhouse. Greeks did feel uncomfortable about enslaving other Greeks, but both Romans and Greeks tended to think of "barbarians" as "natural" slaves, fit for nothing else.
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 3, 2015 at 23:10

For a slave-owner, if he felt sympathy for his slaves, it was natural to improve their conditions and not to abuse them.

Freeing the slaves was also very widespread because it became a powerful means of political manipulation: a rich slave-owner would free a mass of slaves before an election so that they could vote for him. This led to a state prohibition of mass slave freeings, imposing some quotas on slave-owners (I think this started with Augustus).

The legal protection of the slaves was improving over time, including prohibition of inhumane treatment and requirement to free slaves who were unable to work.

So, the slave owner would have no reason to feel any guilt: if he did feel anything similar, he could free the slave(s) and if he was prohibited from doing so by the state, he could feel not guilty at all. He also was free to improve slaves' conditions beyond what was normal and even beyond freemen if he wished.

  • Overall, good points. But the conjectured connection betwee manumission quotas and elections in the second paragraph is wrong - under Augustus the elections became a sham with the result known beforehand, so there was no practical point in restricting the voter list. And Augustus was a very practical man. (Btw, under the Republic freedmen were enrolled only into one of the 4 (or 8?) swollen "urban tribes" where their actual (Banzhaf-like) voting power was minuscule relative to that of men in the affluent and undermanned "rural tribes" (35 tribes for a grand total)). May 28, 2013 at 9:08
  • @Felix Goldberg If we look at the law Lex Aelia Sentia under Augustus en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lex_Aelia_Sentia was that a freed slave if he was under 30 would not receive full voting rights until he married and beared 1 child or a court (consillium) granted him citizenship upon freeing. So at least this law less prohibited freeings but more restricted the voting rights of the freed. The other laws imposed the quotas on how many slaves a rich slaveowner could free, but allowed more freedom to a small slaveowner.
    – Anixx
    May 28, 2013 at 13:05
  • First of all, kudos for digging up the exact references! But I still don't see how this is about voting rights; remember that being a full Roman citizen had lots of other privileges, which were during the Empire by far more important than the sham vote (i.e. tax exemptions, access to Roman justice and the right of appeal to the emperor, immunity from expulsions, etc.) May 28, 2013 at 14:33
  • @Felix Goldberg as I know the citizens were taxed much harder - it was a reason to make all people citizens under Severs.
    – Anixx
    May 28, 2013 at 14:55
  • Nope: citizens were exempt from direct taxes (till 284 CE) but paid indirect taxes. Non-citizens paid both kinds of taxes. See details here: classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/tools/… So, the upshot is that to become a citizen conferred a considerable economic advantage. May 28, 2013 at 15:11

Manumission was quite common in Ancient Rome.

And while the freedman became a client of his ancient Master, that doesn´t change much in relation to Roman society, because clientism was common across ALL of Rome and all social classes. Even a patrician could become a client of another patrician. Meaning that men living in Rome were clients of someone, so had the slave never been a slave, but also been living in Rome, he would probably be a client of someone too.

And dishonoring your patron was considered a HUGE loss of honor.

A famous example of a freedman slave was Sulla's slave Chrysogonus, who had been freed and took charge of the proscriptions and became incredibly rich through illegal means (like putting innocent men on the proscription lists so he could get their property).

Later, Chrysogonus was considered guilty in one of the most famous advocacy cases in history, in the trial Cicero won, risking his life by challenging the proscriptions.


I don't recall examples of people actually feeling guilt about owning slaves, but it was not very uncommon for the better sort of slaveowner to include manumission of most or all of his slaves in his will. This does count a bit, I think...

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    I wouldn't consider that to be caused by some guilty conscience, but by no longer needing their service. Slaves were considered by and large human beings and treated as such (of course there were exceptions), which was legally required as well as good economics (it's much cheaper to keep a slave healthy and happy who's good at his job and cost you a lot to train and/or buy than to have to replace him every few weeks or months because he's worn out, same reason owners of cars or expensive machinery today provide good maintenance).
    – jwenting
    May 27, 2013 at 9:43
  • @jwenting - Depends on the slave. Mining operations were notoriously high-turnover due to death. On the other side, educated Greeks might 'sign up' to a Roman family as a tutor for the children with every expectation that he will be freed and made a Roman citizen after the children grow up. So for them, it was more a long term contract than what we consider slavery.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 3, 2014 at 22:50
  • @Oldcat mines and galleys were mostly penal slaves, prisoners of war, convicted criminals. The other category weren't slaves, they were more like indentured servants (which is borderline slavery, but as you say they had limited term contracts, not dissimilar to a foreigner signing up in the US army for a 5 year term with the end reward being citizenship).
    – jwenting
    Jul 5, 2014 at 2:14
  • @jwenting Galleys weren't manned by slaves, pace Ben-Hur - if you're going into battle, do you want to rely on a gang of slaves who would probably prefer you dead anyway? Slaves were sometimes recruited in emergencies, but with the promise of freedom if they served (and survived!).
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 31, 2015 at 1:03
  • @TheHonRose military galleys were generally manned by soldiers, civilian trade galleys by slaves.
    – jwenting
    Nov 1, 2015 at 11:26

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