Britons were slaves, too

Nov 28, 2006
Peter Jones

What did the Romans ever do for us?

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55BC and again in 54BC, Rome held its breath: what would this mysterious, distant land yield?

Not much, was the answer: Cicero (whose brother Quintus was with Caesar) wrote in a letter that there was no prospect of any serious booty from the place except slaves and, he added, pretty uncultured ones at that. So began our ancestors' enslavement. The geographer Strabo includes slaves and hunting-dogs among Britain's major exports.

The full invasion of Britain took place under Claudius (right) in AD43. Slave-traders came over with the army, and a provincial slave-market sprang up. There may have been as many as 100,000 slaves. Two documents found in London provide the evidence: one containing the instruction 'turn that girl into cash'; and the other recording the purchase by one Vegetus of a woman from Gaul called  Fortunata, 'or whatever name she is known by'. Interestingly, Vegetus was also a slave, assistant to another slave in the imperial entourage, Montanus. Once one was part of the abhorrent trade, a taste for it set in.

Sexual exploitation of slaves was, of course, commonplace (one tombstone commemorates three slave children from one household). The tablets from Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall indicate the existence of male and female slaves in the garrison, some literate. But household slaves, and certainly imperial slaves, led less grim lives than rural slaves - lumped together with farm-animals and tools in terms of status - and slaves working in the mines and quarries (one tablet mentions iron fetters). Enslavement was a common punishment for rebellion.

The point is that garrisoning Britain was an expensive business. The only way for Rome to recoup its losses was to exploit the British people as ruthlessly as possible, and enslavement was a very important and lucrative way of doing it.

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