Who were the slaves at Pompeii?

Who were the slaves at Pompeii?
By Caroline Stone
Author, researcher for Civilizations in Contact
In the 1st century AD, it is estimated that slaves made up about 30 percent of the population of Italy,
with their distribution weighted toward the cities. Other areas of the Roman Empire — and, of course,
other periods — had different slave demographics. Herculaneum and Pompeii, being prosperous, would
probably have had more than the average number. Pompeii was also an important transit point for
merchandise arriving by sea and would therefore have had access to foreign merchandise of all kinds.
It is known that slaves were bought and sold in the city, although the location of the slave market is
uncertain. Sometimes individual slaves were simply auctioned off with miscellaneous household goods.
Who were the slaves? And where did they come from? Leaving aside the children of slave mothers,
abandoned children (a common practice) who were normally enslaved if not left to die, criminals, and,
although it was theoretically illegal, debt-slaves — who in Pompeii would have been a slave or offered
for sale? Slave dealers were required to provide information as to the ethnic origin of their stock,
and we know from Varro’s writings, especially On Agriculture in the previous century, that certain
nationalities were preferred to others and perceived as being better at particular jobs, but unfortunately
very little direct information has survived.
Traditionally, the bulk of slaves were war-captives, provided by Rome’s constant expansion. In the
1st century AD, however, the Empire entered a phase of consolidation, greatly reducing the supply of
slaves. In the years immediately preceding the destruction of Pompeii, Rome’s main military activity
had been in Britain and Palestine, apart from the Empire’s own civil war.
The Romans began significant conquest of Britain in 43 AD There was much resistance, and in about
60-61 AD, according to Tacitus, “… the whole island rose in arms under the command of Boudica, a
woman of royal descent — for Britanni make no distinction of sex in the appointment of leaders …”
Boudica, ruler of the Iceni, a tribe based in what is now roughly Norfolk, attacked and burned the
Roman cities of Colchester, St Alban’s and London, killing a substantial part of the Roman population.
Boudica was eventually defeated and, according to some accounts, committed suicide — certainly
she did not walk in a Roman triumph — but it is probable that a large number of her co-nationals
ended in the slave markets. This is especially true since her physical type — very tall, strong, with
long red-gold hair, according to the later historian Cassius Dio — was highly prized. Varro, Caesar’s
contemporary, writing in 55 BC about the advantages and disadvantages of conquering Britain
remarked, however, of potential British slaves: “I think that you will not expect any of them to be
learned in literature or music.”
Uprising continued in Britain — notably by the Ordovices in what is now North Wales in 78 AD It was
brutally suppressed by Agricola, Tacitus’ father-in-law, and allegedly the tribe was wiped out, although
more probably women and children were reduced to slavery. It would have been quite likely, then, to
have found British slaves at Pompeii.
Of even greater significance were the Jewish Wars of 66-73 AD, as Palestine struggled to free itself
from Roman colonisation. After the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD,
according to eyewitness Josephus, 97,000 Jewish captives were enslaved and sold. The figure may be
exaggerated, but certainly there would have been Jewish or Palestinian slaves still circulating in the
aftermath of the conflict, or already living in Pompeii.
Greek slaves had always been highly prized because of Roman admiration for Greek culture and
because of their superior level of education. This meant that having a Greek secretary or tutor for one’s
children was a status symbol — indication that one appreciated the finer things of life. By the time of
the destruction of Pompeii, they were less easily available than they had been earlier. Roman expansion
had already taken in most of the Hellenic world roughly 200 years before, when vast numbers had been
imported. However, there were still some.
Epictetus (his name simply means “acquired”), the influential Stoic philosopher, was from Anatolia
and was either born a slave or enslaved. He was bought by Nero’s secretary in Rome and, by the time
of the destruction of Pompeii, had been freed and was teaching philosophy. Because Herculaneum and
Pompeii were prosperous and sophisticated, educated Greeks may well have been offered for sale there.
The Periplus of the Erithraean Sea, probably written in the mid-1st century AD, describes navigation and
trading opportunities from the Roman ports in the Eastern Mediterranean as far as India — and even with
some mention of what lay beyond. Trade goods mentioned in the Periplus would have been shipped on to
Rome, and the book is an immensely important source for what exotic goods were available. Slaves are
mentioned several times, although it is not clear whether they originated in Africa or India. A few of the
latter may have reached Rome, where they would have been considered a great rarity.
There were black slaves in the Roman Empire — usually called “Ethiopian” even if they did not
come from the Horn of Africa — but little is known about them, and they seem to have been present
in small numbers. This rarity is probably because, unlike other slave-owning societies, the Romans
did not generally engage in the slave trade as an independent activity, but only as a spin-off of war.
Since they did not fight in Sub-Saharan Africa, black slaves would have been traded on to them
almost incidentally, perhaps with other African products, such as animals for the arena. Apparently, no
evidence of black slaves at Pompeii has survived, either in the documents or the art works, so they must
have been very rare, and it can be assumed that they were not normally available for sale.
Caroline Stone graduated from Cambridge, spent three years at the Jimbun Kagashu Kenkyusho Research Institute at Kyoto
University and then worked at The British School at Rome, researching in the Vatican Archives. After some years writing and
translating free-lance, she taught European History at university in Seville and continued to write, particularly on textiles.