8. Versatile Lifestyles
The living conditions and expectations of slaves in ancient Rome were versatile, strongly linked to their occupations. Slaves involved in exhausting activities such as agriculture and mining did not enjoy promising prospects. Mining, in particular, had a reputation of being a brutal activity.
Pliny [Natural History 33.70] reports the arduous conditions of this activity: “Mountains are hollowed out by the digging of long tunnels by the light of torches. The miners work in shifts as long as the torches last and do not see daylight for months at a time. [ . . . ] Sudden cracks appear and crush the miners so that it now seems less perilous to dive for pearls and purple mollusks in the depths of the sea. We have made dry land so much more dangerous!”
Household slaves, on the other hand, could expect a more or less humane treatment, and in some cases, they had opportunities to keep and manage some money and other forms of property for themselves. This property, known as “peculium,” would legally be owned by the slave’s master, but in practical terms, the slave would be allowed to use the money for his or her own purposes.
Eventually, if the slave had enough property, he could try buying his own freedom and becoming a “freedman,” a social class in between the slaves and the freemen. As a freedman, the slave would still be legally part of his or her master’s household.