By some estimates, up to a third of the Roman Empire’s vast population was enslaved, especially in Italy itself. The Roman economy depended on them: slaves were the labor force for the massive industries of farming and mining. More domestic roles included butchering, cooking, cleaning, and clothes-making. Educated slaves were even more valuable, working as accountants, doctors, or tutors. A slave’s room, board, and overall quality of life weren’t as good as free members of the familia, but were likely comparable to that of less affluent Romans.
Slaves had fewer rights than citizens, but over time they received increasing legal protection with the ability to file complaints of abuse or mistreatment against their masters. Slave revolts were common, but were swiftly put down by the Roman military. Additionally, professional slave hunters tracked runaway slaves and returned them for a reward. If caught, runaway slaves could be legally beaten, executed, or branded with the Greek letter phi (“φ”) for fugitivus.
Most slaves were acquired in war when Roman armies brought captives back from campaigns. Enemy soldiers were far more valuable to enslave than imprison or execute. Other people were enslaved as children when their parents sold them to pay debts. Conversely, freeing a slave was called manimissio, meaning “send from the hand,” and was typically a public event. Slaves could be freed after performing a particularly good act or lengthy service, while others purchased their freedom from their masters. Any child of a freed slave (libertus) would be a full citizen, while children of slaves were born into slavery, even if their parents later attained freedom.
Slavery is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. Israel was allowed to purchase foreign slaves or enslave captives of war, and Israelites could sell themselves or their children into slavery to pay debts. Abraham had slaves in his household, as did his descendants, and even four of Jacob’s twelve sons were born to his wives’ female servants (Dan and Naphtali to Bilhah; Gad and Asher to Zilpah). Furthermore, Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was sold to slave traders by his brothers. Moses’ Law stated that slaves shouldn’t be mistreated, especially Hebrew slaves, and if a slave was injured by his master, he was to be freed. Furthermore, Hebrew slaves were to be released after six years of service. Later in the Bible, Paul the Apostle didn’t denounce slavery, but encouraged slaves to seek their freedom. He also instructed masters to treat their slaves well, and said that slaves should obey their masters.