Iconography and Identity: Slavery in Roman Chester

It is common knowledge that the Roman Empire was a slave owning society and that slavery was common practise in Britain both before and during the occupation. According to Strabo, who was writing around 20 AD, Britain exported many slaves (Strabo 4.5) Chester has several tombstones that belong to slaves, two of them are likely to have even had the same master. In this post I aim to re-examine some of the tombstones that depict slaves and probe whether tombstones are the best way of learning about Roman slavery or whether they simply a piece of the puzzle.

Slaves and Masters

What makes the system of Roman slavery different to others in the ancient world, is that slaves can gain their freedom, gaining the status of a libertus/liberta, and then their descendent can access Roman citizenship, if their masters are citizens. The relationship between a master and his freedman is very important especially if the one of the parties has no heir. This is due to the Roman’s concept of the family; the Latin word for family is familia, and this term includes the network of freedman and slaves that are under the power of the pater familias (head of the household).

The tombstones that are discussed here date to the early phase of the fortress, 70-120 AD, which suggests that the masters mentioned in the inscriptions are legionaries and therefore citizens (Birley 1979).

Sextus Simil[...]
Figure 1 The Main Relief on the Tomb of Sextus Simil[…]. The slave is in front of the horse, with his head down, whilst Sextus sits over him in an incredibly oppressive position. (RIB 538)
To begin, we return to an old friend, Sextus Simil[…]. On his tomb he is seen with a captive, a prisoner of war who is likely to have been sold on into slavery. Although this is likely to be a representation of the cavalryman’s ideal rather than of reality, it gives an insight into how slaves were viewed in the ancient world – small, in the background, cowed – challenging the view that ancient slavery was more tolerable than more modern counterparts, since we see the promise of citizenship and jovial portrayals of slavery in literature such as the Satyricon believe that slavery is a burden worth bearing in order to gain the citizenship and civilisation that comes with it.

Figure 2 Tombstone of Atililianus, Antiatilianus and Protus, “To the spirits of the departed, Atilianus and Antiatilianus, aged 10, Protus aged 12: their master, Pompeius Optatus, had this set up.” (RIB 560)

If being captured in war is one way to become enslaved, what other ways are there? If we examine the slaves of Pompeius Opatus, we can infer the that they are vernae, children of a slave mother. Under Roman law any child of a slave woman is the property of the woman’s owner; this meant that slaves were self-populating, rescinding the need to constantly conquer territory to maintain the numbers of slaves (Allason-Jones 1989). The evidence for this in the tombstones is the high proportion of brothers: Atililianus and Antiatilianus (RIB 560) who were likely twins, due to their names and the fact they were the same age, ten years old. Another pair of brothers are Hermagoras and Felicissimus; on their tombstone is a fragmentary reference to “Pom[…]” (RIB 561), likely the same Pompeius who owned the children in RIB 560 Atililianus, Antiatilianus and Protus. Beyond having the same name, the formulaic layout of the inscriptions matches each other, and the dates are very similar.

Figure 3: Tombstone of Hermagoras and Felicissimus “Hermagoras and Felicissimus, brothers, … .” (RIB 561)


There are two further points about these two tombstones I wish to comment on, what the slaves would have been used for and, leading on from that, why would one man need so many slaves? Among the historians I have read, they have made various assumptions about the role that Pompeius had either a trader (Mason 2001) or a military man (Birley 1979). I think it important to repeat that these are assumptions since there is no corresponding evidence that tells us what his role was, it is easier to infer that since Chester was a fortress he was a soldier or that because the fortress had a port he was a trader. Because of this, slavery is put in the back seat as we give them a story due to their ‘archaeological invisibility’, when in fact it is this reliance on texts that makes them invisible, since little effort is made to examine other evidence that provides both a narrative and identity for slaves. (Webster 2005)


I think what has been made clear by examining some of the tombstones of slaves at Chester is how difficult it is to pin down the identity of the slave. An excellent article on the topic is “Archaeologies of slavery and servitude: bringing ‘New World’ perspectives to Roman Britain” by Jane Webster, which brings to light how techniques regarding the archaeology of slavery in the Americas can be used to great benefit in Roman Britain. A point she raises is one of the reason’s Roman slaves are so hard to pin down is because the ethnicities of slaves are varied to begin with, whilst those in the Americas are West African and patterns of this can be found archaeologically when looking beyond the “imposed material culture of their owners” (Webster 2005, 163).

Its for this reason that I would say that tombstones are not the best way of learning about the identity of slaves from Roman Britain, but that I would say they do provide important information regarding their spread throughout the province and the relationship they had with their masters. Further research must look for evidence beyond what we have from the literature and look for patterns and evidence that look not just at the presence of slaves, but at the experience, since our current view is clouded by ideas of Trimalchio’s success and the views of masters rather than the slaves themselves.


Petronius, Satyricon. trans. Sullivan, J.P. (1965) London: Penguin.

Strabo, Geography. trans. Roller, D.W. (2014) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Allason-Jones, L. 1989. Women in Roman Britain. London: British Museum Publications Ltd.

Birley, A. 1979. The people of Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford Ltd

Hope, V.M., 1997. Words and pictures: the interpretation of Romano-British tombstones. Britannia28, pp.245-258.

Mason, D.J.P 2001. Roman Chester: City of Eagles. Stroud: Tempus.

Saller, R.P. and Shaw, B.D., 1984. Tombstones and Roman family relations in the Principate: civilians, soldiers and slaves. The Journal of Roman Studies, 74, pp.124-156.

Webster, J., 2005. Archaeologies of slavery and servitude: bringing ‘New World’perspectives to Roman Britain. Journal of Roman archaeology, 18, pp.161-179.


Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 18/09/2018) –

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 18/09/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/538

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 18/09/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/560

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 18/09/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/561


Figure 1 The Main Relief on the Tomb of Sextus Simil[…] (authors own photograph)

Figure 2 Tombstone of Atililianus, Antiatilianus and Protus. Image from Cheshire West Online Collections http://www.cheshirewestmuseums.org.uk/index.asp?page=item&mwsquery={Identity%20number}={CHEGM:%201999.6.64} (accessed 18/09/18)

Figure 3 Tombstone of Hermagoras and Felicissimus. Image from Cheshire West Online Collections http://www.cheshirewestmuseums.org.uk/index.asp?page=item&mwsquery={Identity%20number}={CHEGM:%201999.6.78} (accessed 18/09/18)

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