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Discovering the lives of enslaved Romans




The Wolf Den trilogy is focused on the lives of women, enslaved and freed people, who are often overlooked in favour of the grander stories of Emperors and senators. This post shares some of the fascinating books I read while researching my second novel in the trilogy, The House with the Golden Door.


Firstly, there are the writings of the Roman's themselves. Seneca's Letters from a Stoic - which details the treatment of enslaved people in an unusually empathetic way - plus throwaway lines from any number of poets. Martial for instance mentions the 'squalid snark' of slaves - the sarcasm weaponised by those society keeps at the bottom of the heap. Then there is the portrayal of freedmen in Petronius's Satyricon, the courtesans in Ovid's poetry or the enterprising prostitutes and slaves in the plays of Terence.



But as may be obvious, these texts are written about enslaved and freed people by elite male writers. Trying to discover enslaved people speaking in their own voices is harder. Pompeii is exceptional for giving us rare examples of this in the graffiti people left behind - and I drew on Cooley and Cooley's Pompeii and Herculaneum: a sourcebook for this as well as the incredible online resource, The Ancient Graffiti Project.


Another invaluable book is Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp. I would recommend this to anyone wanting an engaging and insightful introduction to the topic. Knapp also quotes liberally from The Interpretation of Dreams by Artemidorus. This strange text is a treasure trove of details from ancient daily life, from old men playing backgammon on the street to common place remarks. It also records many of the preoccupations of enslaved people, through the answers they sought to find in their dreams.



Other more specialist books that I found helpful included Henrik Mouritsen's The Freedman in the Roman World, Sandra Joshel's Slavery in the Roman World, Anise Strong's Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World and Faraone and McClure's Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. From detailed discussions of the grave inscriptions made by enslaved people to the contracts and duties freedmen and women owed their patrons, these books are a wealth of information.


The archeological site of Pompeii itself also contains many poignant fragments of enslaved people's lives. A recent discovery of an enslaved family's living quarters is an extraordinary example of this. And for further recommended reading about Pompeii itself, you can always check out my earlier blog post.



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