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Material Realities of Suffering II: Art as Evidence of Slavery in the Roman Empire

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

In this series, I study the edivence of slavery in the Roman Empire. The first part of this series focused on slave housing, whereas today, I will consider some examples of the role of art as evidence of slavery.

CW: topics discussed in this series include slavery and has mentions violence (physical, sexual and psychological).

Roman art
Photo by Dennis Jarvis distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Art as Evidence: Mirroring and Strengthening Societal Views

In Roman art, slaves are portrayed powerless, reinforcing the Roman Empire’s power structure (George, 2011, 397). Furthermore, art provides information on the tasks slaves were made to perform, and they can, as done by George, be split into three categories: captive, domestic and “outside the household” (George, 2011, 399). There are pictures of i.e. shepherds, kitchen/ table slaves, bath attendants and fishermen (Bardley, 1994, 88). Furthermore, art contains images of i.e. teachers, “delicati” (young server boys) and nurses (George, 2011, 405). Based on how slaves have been pictured in Roman art, they have assisted their masters in very intimate, even sexual contexts (George, 2011, 390). Furthermore, findings of different cult statues in service and main areas of a housing complex have been made, suggesting possible religious differences between slaves and their masters (George, 2011, 390-1). Additionnally, findings such as a Poempeiian golden armband with an inscription “the master to his very own slave-girl) (translated) is evidence of “the complex interplay of emotional attachment and coercion” that was present in the Roman slave society (George, 2011, 397).

Art offers some information as to the clothing worn by slaves; some artwork presents pictures of high-quality clothing of slaves of an elite master (George, 2011, 404), as in the case of the Projecta casket (see image below), whereas often slave clothing was simple, and fishermen are even portrayed wearing mere loincloths (Bardley, 1994, 88).

Projecta Cascet (an ancient Roman cascet)
Photo by sailko distributed under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license




Bradley, K. (1994), Slavery and Society at Rome, Cambridge.

Bryant, E. K. (2016), Paul and the Rise of the Slave:  Death and Resurrection of the Oppressed in the Epistle to the Romans, Leiden/ Boston.

George, M. (2011), ‘Slavery and Roman material culture’, in K. Bradley and P. Cartledge (ed.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery: The Ancient Mediterranean World, Cambridge, 385-413.

Scheidel, W. (2012), ‘Slavery’, in W. Scheidel (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy, Cambridge, 89-113.

‘The Projecta Cascet’, British Museum, https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=36296001&objectId=59394&partId=1. Accessed 7 April 2020.

Thompson, F. H. (2003), The Archaeology of Greek and Roman Slavery, London.

Trimble, J. (2016), ‘The Zoninus Collar and the archaeology of Roman slavery’, American Journal of Archaeology 120.3: 447-72.


An English major, Campus Correspondent, feminist and aspiring literary scholar.