What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves?

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

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.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity.

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.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

3 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • Rob says

    Someday people will look back at the present day and view the whole era as a period when most men were slaves to corporations, which aren’t even people. What a travesty for people to work their whole lives for organizations designed by accountants in which owners have their personal property safe from forfeiture in bankruptcy. How many can leave their jobs at any time? Is this not slavery?

  • Allison says

    Love reading my bible verses every morning

  • 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?

  • 1 2 3

    Some HTML is OK

    or, reply to this post via trackback.

Send this to a friend

Hello! You friend thought you might be interested in reading this post from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org:
What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves?!
Here is the link: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/what-was-life-like-for-roman-slaves/
Enter Your Log In Credentials...

Change Password