At its peak during the Roman Empire it is estimate that slaves outnumbered citizens 5 to 3.
The sheer degradation suffered by the men, women and children who were treated as other goods and wares sold and bought by Romans cannot be even imagined by modern civilised people. Romans were a pitiless people and slavery was big business, in fact the majority of the economy was based on the slave trade. The Romans who attended a slave auction would inspect the slaves as we would inspect a used car at a modern auction. And just like a used car, purchased from a car auction, you could get rid of it when it became too old to be of any further use. Slaves like cars, came with guarantees. If the slave had defects not shown in his or her guarantee, the dealer had to take the slave back in six months or make good the buyer's loss.
Dealers at the Slave Auction
The slave auction in Rome was located near the forum. It was a market situated in the area called the Graecostadium behind the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum. The Slave Traders who plied their trade in the slave auction were called Venalitii. The rich men who invested in slaves had a high social standing but the actual Roman slave traders, the Venalitti, were viewed with some distrust, even likened to pimps. As their integrity and honesty was often questioned the traders at the auctions had to guarantee that the slaves they were selling were sound and that any faults were pointed out. Slaves were therefore commonly exposed for sale naked. The traders were under the supervision of the Aediles who ensured that their wares were sold publicly and fairly. Slaves of great beauty and rarity were not exhibited to public gaze in the common slave market, but were shown to purchasers in private (arcana tabulata catastae). If the slave had defects not shown in his guarantee, the dealer had to take him back in six months or make good the buyer's loss.
Preparing for the Slave Auction
The Slave traders would prepare their 'goods' for the slave auction in Rome. The potential price for every slave would be assessed prior to the start of the auction. Often the slaves would come from different nationalities so there would be a language problem. Imported Slaves from Roman provinces were put on display with one foot whitened with chalk as Roman law demanded that dealers disclosed the ethnic origin (natio) of the slaves they were selling. Discipline was tightly enforced. Slaves were held in wooden pens or iron cages. The lash of the whip was threatened, and applied, to keep the slaves in order. Roman law demanded that slave dealers disclosed the ethnic origin (natio) of the slaves they were selling and to make clear if there were any defects. The bodies of the slaves were fully inspected and their teeth were examined. Plaques or placards (tituli) were prepared to hang from the necks of the slaves for sale detailing their nationality, origin, abilities, their good and their bad points. The traders decided in which order the slaves would be shown at auction. The Aediles would decide where and when the auction would take place.
What happened at a Roman Slave Auction?
The slave auction would display groups of slaves to be sold. The auction was conducted the same way as other goods and wares. The traders would emphasize the features and benefits and any unique selling points at the auction. Every one might see and handle them, even if they did not wish to purchase them.
Slaves were displayed to their best advantage on platforms or revolving stands
Some were strippednaked so the buyers could see exactly what they were purchasing
Potential buyers could demand that slaves who were clothed were stripped in order that a closer inspection of the 'good's could be made
Thosebrought from abroad were put on display with one foot whitened with chalk
Each slave had a placard (tituli) around his neck describing his details
If a dealer was unable to offer any guarantees about the slave's abilities or attitude then the slave was made to wear a special cap called a pillei on his head
The body of the slave was discussed and inspected at the request of the buyer
A buyer could examine which part of the body he wanted
The auction would commence and the slave was sold to the highest bidder
The prices paid a slave auction varied considerably according to the age, skills and qualities of the slave who was being auctioned. Slaves with valued skills or education were priced about 12 times more than slaves without skills. Female slaves, unless possessed of personal attractions, were generally cheaper than male. Romans liked novelty, so deformed slaves, such as dwarfs, or the mentally handicapped brought good prices.
Slave Auction - Prisoners of War
The most common type of 'goods for sale' at a slave auction were men who had been captured as prisoners of war. In 168BC Aemilius Paulus, the victor of the Battle of Pydna in Greece is said to have taken the profit from selling 150,000 Greeks to Rome. The turnover at the slave auction in Rome must have been massive at this time. This type of slave was purchased at the slave auction to work on farms, in industries or as laborers working on public works e.g. building bridges, sewers etc. The fittest might be chosen at auction to be sent to the Gladiator schools.