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Slaves and Serfs

Syrian slave's head cast in bronze
2nd century A.D.


Who ran these glassmaking centers and glassblowing workshops? We get the impression that, early on, both of them may have been spin-off ventures for craftsmen­most likely metalsmiths­already well placed in the back streets of cities and the outskirts of large rural estates or cities, and with the furnace technology available to fuse or melt the new material. Their workforce was the Syrian and Judaean slaves who have been lifted wholesale as plunder, in the aftermath of each Roman military campaign in the East.

Not all of the slaves who had been brought to Italy by force in earlier times, however, were the rough soldiers or farming peasantry of illiterate neighboring regions who then worked the land or ended life as gladiatorial fodder in an amphitheater. Besides the skilled craftsmen of the Augustan pottery-making and glassmaking industries that I have already discussed, there also would have been innovative textile weavers, experienced builders, cultured men who could teach Greek to Rome's children, and actors and poets who carried with them a knowledge of Classical verse and drama. As freedmen, each of these eventually could aspire to middle-class Roman life and hope for their offspring to prosper. The increasingly common economic, and thus political success of ex-slaves and/or their heirs did not sit well with many Republican-minded Romans. But it was a tide of change they simply could not hold back.