A slave collar was a device forcibly worn by enslaved people in the Roman Republic. They were used to identify a person as a slave and to prevent escape, as well as to assist in identification of runaway slaves. In this way, slave collars were similar to slave brands, which were also used to identify slaves and their owners. Notable bearers of slave collars include Nasir, Naevia, Mira, Melitta, Chadara, and Saxa.
Roman slave collars served multiple purposes: to distinguish slaves from free people, normalize the idea of humans as a commodity, provide instructions as to where and to whom an escaped slave was to be returned, remind enslaved persons of their status as property, and degrade the wearer.
The most intact and complex example of a surviving collar is the Zoninus Collar, most likely discovered in Italy. This is the only example found with the pendant tag still attached to the collar ring, making it highly unique. See Trimble 2016 below for a translation of the tag. It is currently on display at the Baths of Diocletian, which house one outlet of the National Museum of Rome. Around forty-five other collars (and or pieces thereof) have been found, but their conditions and authenticity vary.
Archaeological evidence of Roman slave collars indicates that those created for the show are generally accurate. In fact, many of the slave collars shown in the series are replicas of real archaeological finds. Batiatus' messenger to Doctore in Past Transgressions is wearing an exact replica of the Zoninus Collar.
While some scholars allege that slave collars were only widely used in the late Roman Empire, mostly the Fourth-Sixth Centuries, this claim may be debatable. For example, finds from Saintes, France (Gallia) and York, England (Britannia) contained mass graves with strong evidence of arena executions. Some of these individuals were likely gladiators who died in the arena, but others appear to have been prisoners executed ad gladium, including a child at the Saintes site. Many of them wore shackles, and examples of slave collars were found on both sites. The sites were both dated around the Second Century, at least two hundred years before the Zoninus Collar and its contemporaries were forged. However, the Saintes and York examples are not known to have inscriptions, so it may be that inscribed collars were uncommon until the later Empire. It is notable that there are no textual or visual depictions of inscribed slave collars from any ancient Roman source. Some scholars interpret this to mean that slave collars only became more widely used toward the end of the Empire, but others refute this for several reasons.
Not all enslaved people wore collars, particularly if they had positions which were considered prestigious, such as Medicus or Ashur. However, most slaves did not hold these positions, mainly working in hard labor or domestic servitude. It is possible that there was no uniform policy for collaring slaves, and it varied from owner to owner.
The designs of Roman slave collars could be quite varied, depending on the enslaved person's duties and the whims of their owner. The most common style, at least in the series, is a metal ring worn around the enslaved person's neck. Some could have been inscribed with information about the wearer's owner, and/or the process by which escaped slaves were to be returned. Naevia, Sura, Thessela, Chadara, and Marcia, among others, all wore this type of collar. A similar variety of this collar was made of leather, though there likely was no embossing on the leather itself. Nasir wore a plain leather collar of this variety, as did Saxa.
The material of Nasir's collar, being weak enough for Spartacus to tear off in A Place in This World, is indicative of his status with his dominus. Since it could be cut or torn, plain leather collars like Nasir's were likely reserved for slaves in higher positions, about whom their owners were less concerned with them escaping and needing to be identified as fugitivi. The purpose of these collars, rather than for escape prevention or return, was probably more psychological than anything: to denote the wearer's status as a slave, especially one who fully submits to their dominus' control. This is consistent with Nasir's early reaction to being freed, as he had accepted and wanted to retain his relatively high position as a body slave.
Another common example were collars that included a large metal tag. This was engraved with the wearer's owner's information, which was attached to a traditional leather or metal collar. These were mostly used on less-trusted slaves to make them easier to identify if they happened to escape, and to ensure their owner could be properly located. This example is worn by Santos, Aria, Lysandros, and many of the lower-ranking, unnamed slaves of the House of Batiatus and other houses.
Others were worn around the ankle, such as the style worn by Naevia, Diona, Melitta, and Gaia's slave. They are similar in design to an anklet, but are made of thick, solid metal, often bronze. In York, one burial of a man believed to have been a gladiator was found with "leg irons" still around his ankles. These were thick iron rings with no attachments for chains as seen on shackles, and too small a circumference to be removed from the wearer's ankle at will, indicating they functioned as a slave collar.
Mira wore a relatively thin bangle-like neck collar that wrapped around about three quarters of her neck, but did not enclose. On the ends were two rounded tips and thin coils of metallic wire.
Not all gladiators wore slave collars: this may be because they were high-status within the slave hierarchy, they were public icons with distinct fabricated personas that were not consistent with the inherent uniformity and dehumanization of slave collars. Furthermore, their owners invested heavily in nurturing their flattering physiques to increase their sex appeal in the arena, which may have been impeded by a conspicuous collar. Finally, neck collars could have been hazards in combat.
None of the gladiators at Batiatus's ludus wore slave collars. If the men chosen for gladiatorial training died during, or lived through but did not pass the Test, they were either killed or sold to the mines and would not receive the Mark. Men who passed were branded, indicating their place among the Brotherhood and substituting for a slave collar.
Pietros did not wear a collar, despite his apparently low status. Yet notably, he did have the mark of the Brotherhood. This may indicate that his status as a servant to gladiators placed him within social proximity to the gladiators themselves, deserving the mark and occupying a status as a sort of honorary gladiator. It is also possible he once fought as a lightweight gladiator.
Kore did not wear a slave collar, but had a slave brand instead.
Named slaves who have worn a collar
In order of appearance:
- Trimble, J. 2016. "The Zoninus Collar and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery." American Journal of Archaeology, 120(3), 447-472.
- "An Antique Necropolis in the Western Peripheral Quarter of the City of Saintes: Several Shackled Individuals, Including One Child." Inrap News, 1 December, 2014.
- York Archaeological Trust. "Gladiators: A Cemetery of Secrets touring exhibition background." Youtube.com. video, 31:15.