Roving reporter Ryan and Oxford historian Lydia took Nat Geo’s trusty time machine back to the first century CE to get the word on the via about life in the Roman Empire.
Here we speak to Fortunata, a slave on one of Sicily’s many villae rusticae.
Quid agis, Fortunata? Tell us about your tasks here on the villa rustica.
Here on the farm we grow wheat most of the year, though right now in the fall we grow olives destined to become olive oil. All of the work here is performed by slaves. I’m just one of many.
Currently, we’re in the harvest season for green olives, which make the most sought-after olive oil in Rome. To harvest them, the men climb up the trees and shake the branches free of the olives, which also causes the leaves and twigs to fall. We then catch everything in netting laid out on the ground and sort out the olives into boxes, leaving the rest. After that, they’re taken to the press, where a whole different set of slaves turns them into oil.
After the olive harvest, we’ll begin with the wheat again. Other farms in the area grow things like wine grapes and grain, and some have cows and sheep for cheese. Here we also have animals, donkeys, and mules to work the olive press.
Make no mistake, our work is bone-crushing. We work long days in the hot sun, only breaking for food and rest when the foreman, the vilicus, allows. At night, we all stay in the barracks, which are guarded by yet another foreman. It is extremely cramped and I can’t say that the sleeping conditions are comfortable.
Do you have time for anything beyond working the farm?
This depends on whether we’ve managed to please the vilicus. He’s not such a harsh man that he never rewards us for a job well done. Last year when the harvest was over, he threw us a feast, by our standards anyway. I even ate a plum! Normally we have only bread and puls, a grainy porridge.
But the vilicus can also be quite cruel. Last week, I saw him give a man ten lashes because he carried away his box of olives and had missed one laying on the ground. Sometimes they also put us in chains and make us spend the night in the ergastulum. We can do little about it, as we have no right to speak out against him and to do so would only mean certain punishment for us.
Our only regular activity outside of our work is to help with the ritual sacrifices that ensure a successful crop. In the harvest season, we give daily offerings to Ceres, goddess of the harvest. After the harvest is over, we give sacrifices to Vacuna, as once we have properly thanked her for the harvest we can finally enter a period of relative leisure until the next growing season.
Have you always been a slave on this farm?
Certainly not! As with most of the slaves here, I was not born a slave, but was captured by my master—an officer in the Roman army. I come from a small village in Germania, near the Rhine River. My father and brothers all participated in an uprising against the Roman rulers in a bloody battle in the nearby Teutoberg Forest.
Their initial ambush of the Roman legions nearby was fairly successful, and for a couple of years it looked like we might regain control of the area. But later the Romans, under the orders of the new emperor, Tiberius, retaliated brutally, killing many and taking many slaves. I ended up here, on the villa rustica of one of the officers that fought in the battle, and I’ve never left.
Do you think you’ll spend the rest of your life here?
It’s likely, but I hold out hope that one day my master might set me free. It has happened before. Two years ago, his wife had a very complicated birth, one that threatened her life. The midwife, a slave, was able to save her life and the child’s, now my master’s favorite son. When my master returned to the villa and his wife told him what had happened, he freed the midwife immediately out of gratitude.
If I were to earn my freedom and citizenship, though, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. I’d still be poor and rely on more powerful men to get by. But at least then my children would be born free, and could even go to Rome and hope for a better life than that which I have led.
2,000 years from now, what should people remember about slaves in the Roman Empire?
At least on the farm, we live a harsh life with little reward. I sometimes hear my master reference in passing the wonderfully intelligent slaves he meets when he visits the city: the scribes, physicians, tutors, and such. Even if they’re property of their master like I am, at least they have knowledge they can call their own.
Here, I have nothing except memories of when I lived a free and simple life in Germania.
Servant of the State
A servus publicus was a slave that was property of the Roman Empire rather an individual owner. These slaves performed basic tasks in public places like temples and Senate buildings. Some of the more educated slaves even performed administrative duties like accounting and bookkeeping. A servus publicus could even earn compensation for his or her work, and some even built enough of a reputation to be granted freedom, a decision that fell to the emperor himself in the Imperial era.
Fortune Has Equal Rights Over Slaves and Free Men Alike
While not all Roman masters were cruel to their slaves, they could be if they wanted to. Slaves were legally considered property at the complete disposal of their owners. The philosopher Seneca, advisor to Emperor Nero in the mid-first century CE, was a notable voice advocating for the humane treatment of slaves. He wrote, “‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ‘Slaves!’ No, comrades. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are unpretentious friends. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike.”
to attack suddenly and by surprise.
building for housing soldiers.
extreme, harsh, or cruel.
member of a country, state, or town who shares responsibilities for the area and benefits from being a member.
crowded or having very little space.
having to do with causing pain and suffering in others.
ruler of an empire.
person who is owned by another person or group of people.
land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.
person who oversees a project, especially construction.
period in the year when crops and other plants grow rapidly.
the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.
ancient Roman military unit, consisting of between 3,000 and 6,000 infantry and cavalry troops.
time away from school or work.
medical professional trained to assist in childbirth.
slippery, greasy liquid that is usually flammable and does not mix with water. Oils can be processed from plants, animal fats, minerals, and man-made substances.
to take part in an activity.
thick, pasty soup made from boiled cereals or beans.
penalty inflicted for a crime or offense.
to avenge or take action against another in order to make up for an injury or affliction.
series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.
destruction or surrender of something as way of honoring or showing thanks.
person who works as an official writer, copyist, or record-keeper.
revolt or rebellion.
impressive residence or estate.