Roving reporter Ryan and Oxford historian Lydia took Nat Geo’s trusty time machine back to the first century C.E. to get the word on the via about life in the Roman Empire.
Here we speak to Fortunata, a slave on one of Sicily’s many villae rusticae.
Quid agis, Fortunata? Tell us about your tasks here on the villa rustica.
Here on the farm we grow wheat most of the year, though right now in the fall we grow olives destined to become olive oil. All of the work here is performed by slaves. I’m just one of many.
Currently, we’re in the harvest season for green olives, which make the most sought-after olive oil in Rome. To harvest them, the men climb up the trees and shake the branches free of the olives, which also causes the leaves and twigs to fall. We then catch everything in netting laid out on the ground and sort out the olives into boxes, leaving the rest. After that, they’re taken to the press, where a whole different set of slaves turns them into oil.
After the olive harvest, we’ll begin with the wheat again. Other farms in the area grow things like wine grapes and grain, and some have cows and sheep for cheese. Here we also have animals, donkeys, and mules to work the olive press.
Make no mistake, our work is bone-crushing. We work long days in the hot sun, only breaking for food and rest when the foreman, the vilicus, allows. At night, we all stay in the barracks, which are guarded by yet another foreman. It is extremely cramped and I can’t say that the sleeping conditions are comfortable.
Do you have time for anything beyond working the farm?
This depends on whether we’ve managed to please the vilicus. He’s not such a harsh man that he never rewards us for a job well done. Last year when the harvest was over, he threw us a feast, by our standards anyway. I even ate a plum! Normally we have only bread and puls, a grainy porridge.
But the vilicus can also be quite cruel. Last week, I saw him give a man ten lashes because he carried away his box of olives and had missed one laying on the ground. Sometimes they also put us in chains and make us spend the night in the ergastulum. We can do little about it, as we have no right to speak out against him and to do so would only mean certain punishment for us.
Our only regular activity outside of our work is to help with the ritual sacrifices that ensure a successful crop. In the harvest season, we give daily offerings to Ceres, goddess of the harvest. After the harvest is over, we give sacrifices to Vacuna, as once we have properly thanked her for the harvest we can finally enter a period of relative leisure until the next growing season.
Have you always been a slave on this farm?
Certainly not! As with most of the slaves here, I was not born a slave, but was captured by my master—an officer in the Roman army. I come from a small village in Germania, near the Rhine River. My father and brothers all participated in an uprising against the Roman rulers in a bloody battle in the nearby Teutoberg Forest.
Their initial ambush of the Roman legions nearby was fairly successful, and for a couple of years it looked like we might regain control of the area. But later the Romans, under the orders of the new emperor, Tiberius, retaliated brutally, killing many and taking many slaves. I ended up here, on the villa rustica of one of the officers that fought in the battle, and I’ve never left.
Do you think you’ll spend the rest of your life here?
It’s likely, but I hold out hope that one day my master might set me free. It has happened before. Two years ago, his wife had a very complicated birth, one that threatened her life. The midwife, a slave, was able to save her life and the child’s, now my master’s favorite son. When my master returned to the villa and his wife told him what had happened, he freed the midwife immediately out of gratitude.
If I were to earn my freedom and citizenship, though, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. I’d still be poor and rely on more powerful men to get by. But at least then my children would be born free, and could even go to Rome and hope for a better life than that which I have led.
2,000 years from now, what should people remember about slaves in the Roman Empire?
At least on the farm, we live a harsh life with little reward. I sometimes hear my master reference in passing the wonderfully intelligent slaves he meets when he visits the city: the scribes, physicians, tutors, and such. Even if they’re property of their master like I am, at least they have knowledge they can call their own.
Here, I have nothing except memories of when I lived a free and simple life in Germania.