What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves?

Archaeology in Aphrodisias, Turkey, reveals the story of Zoilos the slave

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


Excavations at the site of Aphrodisias, Turkey (pictured) are providing new insights in the lives of Roman slaves, including a man named Zoilos, who earned his freedom and became one of the city’s benefactors. © Arco Images GmbH/Alamy.

In the southwest of Asia Minor, at the site of Aphrodisias, Turkey,* archaeology is providing new insight into the lives of Roman slaves, including a man named Zoilos who earned his freedom. Excavators identified Zoilos through a number of his inscriptions found throughout the city; for a time archaeologists even assumed he was part of a local aristocratic family. But their perspective changed with the discovery of an inscription identifying him as “Gaius Julius Zoilos, freedman of the divine Julius’s son Caesar.”

Zoilos was probably a native of Aphrodisias, Turkey, kidnapped or captured in war and sold as a slave to Julius Caesar. When Caesar died, Zoilos was passed to Octavian, who eventually freed him. Zoilos must have been intelligent and resourceful, somehow amassing a great deal of wealth that he later used to benefit his hometown. When Zoilos died sometime in the 20s B.C.E., the people of Aphrodisias, Turkey, established a large monument in his honor.

But Zoilos and his story are unusual. For every Zoilos there were thousands of Roman slaves who never escaped their station. In most cases, we neither know nor remember the names of these Roman slaves. In the Roman Empire, one was either slave or free. Unlike more recent experiences, however, slavery was not based on race or ethnicity. Anyone could become a slave.

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How a slave was treated depended on the owner. Some, like Zoilos from Aphrodisias, Turkey, seem to have fared reasonably well. Many Roman slaves, however, worked on farms, in mines and in other types of industry where life expectancy was typically short. Roman slaves were shackled, flogged, branded and maimed, and sexual abuse was not uncommon.

But as the case of Zoilos from Aphrodisias, Turkey, makes clear, slavery was not necessarily a permanent situation. Emancipation was possible, and Roman slaves owned by Roman citizens could, under certain requirements, become citizens. Becoming a freedman meant the possibility of acquiring various advantages. Some remained attached to their masters’ houses and received social, economic and political boosts not normally available to poor free persons. Even freed Roman slaves like Zoilos, however, were considered social climbers by the aristocracy, and therefore not equal to their new status.

Life was horrible for most Roman slaves, and their names are long forgotten. But Zoilos is one who made it past his difficult circumstances. We are fortunate to know his story and learn about one of those who survived slavery for a better life.


BAS Library Members: Learn more about Roman slaves like Zoilos from Aphrodisias, Turkey, in John Byron, Archaeological Views: A Tale of Two Slaves,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2013.

Not a library member yet? Sign up today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 7, 2013.



* See Angelos Chaniotis, “Godfearers in the City of Love,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2010.


Posted in Biblical Archaeology Sites, Daily Life and Practice.

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11 Responses

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  1. Rob says

    Definition of a slave today: One who makes payments on an auto, house or boat; one who gets married and has children; one who gets into a long standing struggle with the IRS. Sorry, but it seems to be true!

  2. Scott says

    Rob is right. we pay for land for 30 or 40 years and not enough that we could grow our own food and sustain ourselves without buying from others, a form of debt and indenture. Land was in inherited right in in the Bible and ancient Israel. Even after our houses are paid for, we sill pay taxes on them which truly is really just rent. we are never allowed to own.

    Roman men were slaves from birth. their “obligation” was to serve in the army and if they lived long enough to retire, they got some land where they served. so all citizens were slaves. but foreign slaves did have the chance for upward mobility if they had skill and loyalty. These are the ones who ran day to day life and commerce in Rome while citizens served in the army abroad. Since soldiers had no wives, military “brothels” were the rage. Foreign women captured and women who violated laws ended up doing time in brothels. My prediction is that our women will soon end up serving in this capacity in our military. War has always been accommodated by brothels, both state sponsored as well as local private brothels.

    Only senators and Patricians were immune from slavery, for the most part. Some things never change 😉

  3. Steve says

    Well. Lot’s of people want to come to the USA to be “slaves.” :-)

  4. marie says

    this is the worst

  5. vartan says

    I would suggest that the geographic location be referred to as Asia Minor as Turkey has no relationship whatsoever to the nature and the history of those finds. Moreover throughout the centuries they tended to suppress the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations who created those wonders.

  6. samuel says

    the slaves were called as “instrumentum vocale” . A “colonus” to mean a whole family of slaves. But when the economy of the Roman Empire shifted to the hinterlands, the slaves were given a piece of land as part of their benefit to remain in their master. They were protected by the laws of the empire. Later on these slaves became significant in building feudalism. They became the burgeouise..

  7. diane says

    I had a bible that was lost in a flood a few years back it was the king james concordance bible. Does anyone know where I can find another copy? I would like a soft leather one if I can find it and how much would it cost? thanks for all your help.


  8. Sarah says

    Those who believe that slaves today are those entering into contracts to buy things of property or land or enter into marriage do not have a clue how people in slavery live. Our government uses different terms to describe different types of slavery ,but what it all boils down to is working for others , including sexually; without being able to stop,or change their circumstances. I is estimated their are some 45 million slaves in the world today , more than at any other time in history . The majority being woman and children used in the sex trade, and unskilled labor. It is outlawed in all countries but is not enforced, not even in the U.S.. To say that purchasing land or cars ,boats, marriage children are slavery shows a complete lack of understanding . To say one is not “free” if they pay taxes is also shows no understanding ,taxes are for the protection , and other services of govt.. all free people still pay those unless their country is like Kuwait and has oil revenue. You if your are free can decide to do these or not do them and accept the fines or imprisonment ,a slave has no choice. No choice at all of where ,how, or what they do, it is decided by someone else.

  9. KEN says

    Thanks, Sarah, for your insight. It seems that in today’s society, anything that requires work or effort is often seen as slavery. How shallow is that?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. links to the land | preachersmith linked to this post on July 24, 2013

    […] Slavery: What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves? […]

  2. Home Page linked to this post on May 25, 2014

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