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An exhibition tells the story of slaves in Ancient Rome

by Andrea Carli

They wrote many chapters, often with their own blood, of Ancient Roman history. Meanwhile it should be said that the lives of these people themselves remained unknown.

Based on what we know today, Rome had the greatest number of slaves ever, constituting at least 10% of the total population of the Empire and probably more. In large cities slaves accounted for some 30% of residents, thanks to their presence in all the key sectors of the economy and state administration. These women and men are the key players of the exhibition “Spartacus. Slaves and masters in Rome,” through Sept.17 at the Ara Pacis Museum.

The history of Rome, the one we studied at school, was a history of a society and an economy based on slavery. This exhibition reminds us that without slaves it is unlikely that agriculture would have developed on such a large scale or intensive basis, or that goods were distributed on a grand scale. Even the entertainment industry, as it called today, saw slaves in the foreground.

The epic story of Spartacus is emblematic: born in Thrace (today’s Bulgaria) as a freed man, he had fought in the ranks of the Roman army. Unjustly convicted of a crime, he became a slave and was sold in Rome as a gladiator.

Having becoming a gladiator, Spartacus led the famous rebellion that began in the gladiator's school in Capua. He gathered a multitude of slaves around him, drawing in many poor and desperate people too, turning them in to a real army with which he was able to hold the great Roman army at bay for three years.

He terrorized Rome and its establishment despite the 10 legions, under the command of Marcus Licinius Craxus, brought in to fight him. Finally, however, he was defeated and although he died on the battlefield, his body was never found. 6000 of those who had fought alongside him in the rebellion were crucified along the stretch of the Via Appia that runs between Rome and Capua.

In Ancient Rome slaves lived in total fear of the dominus (owner or master) from cradle to grave. But there was a way out of slavery, a door to freedom that Roman law left for them. The exit was known as the “manumissio,” the act that introduced a deserving slave into the community of Roman citizens (cives romani). “Manumissio” allowed the former slave to exercise all citizen’s rights, including voting but excluding -- for the first generation of freed men only -- the right to hold the highest of public offices.

Some 250 archaeological finds have been brought in to the Ara Pacis from five museums under the Capitoline Supervisory Body's umbrella as well as many other Italian and major foreign museums. A selection of 10 photographs have also been included, along with audio and video installations that together bring the sounds, voices and settings of the historic environments to life creating a truly engrossing story.

The end of the exhibition is marked by contributions from the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialist United Nations agency, aimed at drawing attention to issues of work and social policies, the fight to eliminate forced labour and other forms of slavery linked to the world of work. This is where the past meets the present time. Unfortunately.

(“Spartacus. Slaves and masters in Rome”, through Sept.17 at Ara Pacis Museum in Rome)