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Skull of a child around the age of seven from a Roman cemetery studied by Killgrove and Montgomery.

Nameless Immigrants and Slaves in Rome, Who Were They? Where Did They Come from?


Slaves and other lower-class residents made up a big part of the population of the city of Rome around the 1st century AD. But who were these people? Where were they from? What were their lives like?

Two researchers are trying answer these questions by doing chemical analysis of teeth of lower-status residents of Rome, including children, women, slaves, and free immigrants.

The skeletal remains of thousands of ancient Romans survive, but it wasn’t until this new study by Kristina Killgrove and Janet Montgomery that archaeologists began to analyze chemical content of molars to answer some questions about migrations of some of Rome’s lower-profile inhabitants.

Dr.  Killgrove, an anthropologist at the University of West Florida, and Dr. Montgomery, an archaeologist with Durham University in England, analyzed the strontium content of 105 molars of skeletons from two cemeteries in Rome and the carbon and oxygen of a subset of 55.

Their intent was to shed light on the lives of Romans who were not high-profile citizens, nobility or royalty. They looked at isotopes in the teeth of remains of people in two cemeteries in the city, Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco.

Map showing the location of the archaeological sites studied by Killgrove and Mongomery.

Map showing the location of the archaeological sites studied by Killgrove and Mongomery. (Kristina Killgrove, Janet Montgomery)

It is well known that many people moved to Rome, but who these lower-status people were and what their lives were like are largely lost to history.

As stated in their article in the journal PLOS One, Killgrove and Montgomery wanted answer three main questions:

“Namely, this study begins to answer the questions: (a) Who migrated to Rome? (b) From where? and (c) What was their experience at their destination? When Rome as the center of an empire is approached anthropologically using all available data sources, migrants become actors and slaves become diasporic individuals, and the effects of population interaction on both locals and foreigners can be questioned in a novel way. … Modeling migration to Imperial Rome is necessary for a deeper understanding of demographics, family structure, and gender roles, and is particularly relevant for the vast majority of the Roman population that was left out of historical records.”

Voluntary immigrants likely comprised about 5 percent of the Empire’s population in the 1st century AD, but slaves made up about 40 percent, they wrote. They continued on to write that many of the slaves were born locally, children of slave mothers, but some of them came from other areas of Italy or farther afield in the Empire.

Painting of a Roman slave market, by Jean-Leon Gerome, circa 1884.

Painting of a Roman slave market, by Jean-Leon Gerome, circa 1884. (Public Domain)

Much is known about Roman citizens from historical documents, grave goods, architecture and other archaeological clues. But little is known about Roman slaves and other lower-class people. They wrote:

“The historical record is notoriously biased towards elite men with money, power, and literacy and may not represent accurately the lives of the average voluntary immigrant or slave. At Rome, slaves tended to be integrated into the household, so we cannot expect to find clear archaeological evidence of slavery in the same way as, for example, in the Southern U.S., with separate quarters or special pottery assemblages. The epigraphic [ancient writings] record is perhaps the most useful at identifying individual migrants, but only when a person is specifically commemorated as a foreigner.”

By examining the isotopes, they were able tell in a general way where the person’s homeland was. Chemical content of food and water vary by geology, and the amounts of the isotopes in bones gives a general indication of where individuals lived and what they ate. The isotopes can also show what diseases they had.

 “Both the strontium and the oxygen isotope ratios from Rome are diverse, and it is not unreasonable to assume that these may reflect the diversity of the population as well,” the authors wrote in their article for PLOS ONE. They also said that more studies of isotopes and DNA are necessary to understand the origins and homelands of the people buried at Roman cemeteries.

One of the conclusions they drew was that the people’s diets changed between the time they were children and when they died. Non-locals’ diets changed more dramatically, probably because the foods available to them in Rome differed compared to the foods of their homelands. “Whether this change was voluntary (to fit in with Roman foodways) or involuntary (because of food availability) is not clear,” they wrote.

The skulls of two male immigrants found in Rome.

The skulls of two male immigrants found in Rome. (Kristina Killgrove)

Among the 105 skeletons, they found just four who they could say were most likely not local—one from Africa and the others from the Alps and Apennines. They concluded that four others were likely not from Rome, though they were not certain on their origins.

“Given what we know from history, it is not surprising to find migrants among these skeletons, but it is a little surprising that we found so few,” Dr. Killgrove wrote in an article for Mental Floss. “The scale of slavery and migration to Rome during the Empire means we should expect more people to be migrants. However, isotope analysis cannot distinguish among people who were born in Rome and people who were born in another, isotopically similar location. We may be missing some migrants who are hidden within the data.”

Some people moved to Rome to find work, education or a better life, she wrote, but many were forced to come and work as slaves. “We know from historical records that the scale of slavery in the Roman Empire dwarfed the amount of voluntary migration. Still, slavery in ancient Rome was often a temporary legal status, and manumission of slaves was common”

Live Science reports that Killgrove believes that having a better understanding of migration will deepen the knowledge on ancient Rome’s culture, Imperial Roman slavery, and even disease transmission. For these reasons she is continuing her work in another cemetery near Rome.

Featured image: Skull of a child around the age of seven from a Roman cemetery studied by Killgrove and Montgomery. Source: Kristina Killgrove

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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