Alternatives to rebellion
Roman relief of a scene showing a slave rebuked by his master
Many slaves probably internalised their social inferiority, and accommodated themselves to servitude without thinking in terms of resistance. Others responded more violently, and sometimes tragically.
Those who fought against Rome knew that they could be sent to the slave-market if taken as a prisoner-of-war. They are often said to have killed themselves rather than face the prospect of enslavement - a clear indictment of the horrors involved in the sudden transition from freedom to slavery. Images of the vanquished committing suicide are still visible on the Column of Trajan in Rome.
At other times, slaves who were unable to tolerate their conditions assaulted their owners. In the mid-first century AD an anonymous slave murdered his master, a high official in the imperial administration, either because the master had reneged on a promise to set the slave free or because the two were rivals in a sexual intrigue.
The aftermath was disastrous. Roman law required a man's slaves to come to his aid if he were attacked, under penalty of death. The law was enforced against those slaves who had not come to the victim's aid in this case, and all the slaves in the household - allegedly 400 of them - were executed, even though most of them could not possibly have known anything about the murder.
There were other ways to alleviate the burdens of slavery. One was to try to escape, either to return to an original homeland or simply to find safe refuge somewhere. Romans labelled runaway slaves 'fugitives', and as the greatest modern historian of ancient slavery, Moses Finley, has remarked, 'fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources'. This suggests that the incidence of running away was always high.
To deal with the problem, the Romans hired professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and posted advertisements in public places giving precise descriptions of fugitives and offering rewards for their capture. Around the necks of slaves who were recovered they also attached iron collars, giving instructions on what to do with the slaves who wore them if they happened to escape again. Examples can still be seen in museums.
There is no way of knowing how many Roman slaves successfully escaped slavery by running away. But it was possible. And it helped that skin colour was no impediment.
The great orator Cicero can be heard grumbling in his correspondence about a slave named Dionysius, who was well-educated enough to have supervised Cicero's personal library and who must have been relatively well-treated. He ran away anyway. Cicero used all his considerable influence to find the man, but to no avail: Dionysius slipped away across the Adriatic and is last heard of well out of Cicero's reach - somewhere in the Balkans.
Day-to day resistance
Running away was less dangerous than rebellion, but it was still a hazardous enterprise. Slave-catchers apart, Roman law forbade the harbouring of fugitives, so slaves on the run were always in danger and if caught could be savagely punished. To many therefore it must have made sense not to risk life and limb by running away, but to carry out acts of wilful obstruction or sabotage that harmed slave-owners' interests at minimal risk to themselves.
Slaves, for example, might steal food or other supplies from the household. Those in positions of responsibility might falsify record books, and embezzle money from their owners, or arrange for their own manumission (setting free). Ordinary farm labourers might deliberately go slow on the job, or injure the animals they worked with to avoid work - or they might pretend to be ill, destroy equipment, or damage buildings. If your job was to make wine and you had to produce a certain quota, why not add in some sea-water to help things along? Almost any slave could play truant or simply waste time.
All these petty forms of day-to-day resistance appealed to Roman slaves. They allowed slaves to frustrate and annoy their owners, and offered the satisfaction of knowing that their owners' powers were not absolute - that even the most humble of human beings could take action to empower themselves.
Owners complained that their slaves were lazy and troublesome - instead of working they were always pilfering food or clothing or valuables (even the silverware), setting fire to property (villas included), or wandering around the city's art galleries and public entertainments.
But it was in the decisions they made to cause vexation that slaves most forcefully expressed their humanity, and their opposition to the institution that oppressed them. Their sporadic acts of defiance created a permanent undercurrent of low-level resistance to slavery that was deeply embedded in Roman society.
The slaves were motivated not by a sense of class solidarity - Rome's slave population was far too heterogeneous for that - but by the desire to find ways in which, as individuals, they could find relief from their subject status, if only temporarily.
The relationship between slaves and masters at Rome was a contest fought in the arena of the mind. Masters could draw on all the weapons of law, status and established authority - there was never in Roman history any movement to abolish slavery - whereas slaves had little more to fight with than their wits.
But as Plutarch's story symbolically shows, the lines of battle had to be constantly redrawn, as slaves matched their will against the will of those who owned them. And it was not always the masters who won.