The Horrible Life of an Average Roman Empire Slave
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What was life like for Roman slaves? Let’s look at this historic era of ancient Rome and see how they treated their people.
Slaves in ancient Rome weren’t all laborers working hard under the hot sun as some wicked slave driver stood behind them with a whip in his hand. Many of the slaves were domestic servants, some were skilled artisans, others were even said to be highly educated physicians. The ones who did generally have a very hard life were those that were doing their time as property of a Roman as a punishment. Life for these people was brutal and often very short. For that reason there were sometimes slave revolts, with the one you all probably know about being led by the slave Spartacus. This former gladiator and military leader took part in what are now called The Servile Wars. But what about the average joe slaves?
So, as Roman slaves lived such diverse lives, let’s start with the great Spartacus.
The Greek writer Plutarch tells us that Spartacus was “a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator.” If he was indeed Thracian, that would mean he came from what we now called Bulgaria, or possibly Greece or Turkey. While sources differ, it’s said that Spartacus was first captured by Roman legions and then trained in gladiatorial school. If you’ve seen our show on what sometimes went down in the Roman Coliseum, you’ll know that gladiators didn’t exactly have an easy life. What do we know about the schools? Well, these prisoners of war were kept often two to a cell. They were in fact in prison, but each day they would train outside of their cells in an arena. Gladiators had different kinds of skills and training methods, and Thracian gladiators practiced in the art of swordsmanship. National Geographic tells us that the slaves were not allowed out of the fortress unless being taken to the coliseum or another arena. But while the cells were not exactly a great place to live, it’s said there were heated floors for winter, baths, an infirmary, and the slaves lived in confines that were equipped with plumbing. Historians say these gladiators were highly valued slaves, and so they were kept in good condition so they could fight well. These slaves, we are told, would not usually die or even be treated too badly in their prison. They occupied a 32-square-foot (3-square-meter) cell, which as we said, was probably shared with one more person.
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