Iron Collar from the Museo Nazionale alle Terme di Diocleziano

The Museo Nazionale alle Terme di Diocleziano is located on the site of the former Baths of Diocletian, now the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. The Baths are now only a fraction of their size in antiquity but there is no shortage of “wow factor” when you step inside. In fact, the ancient footprint of the baths incorporates several Roman city blocks and many modern buildings. It’s difficult to imagine the sheer scale of the complex in ancient Rome. Next to the archaeological site is the museum, which contains a nearly overwhelming abundance of Roman artifacts as well as a few Medieval and Renaissance objects.

I actually avoided the Roman Epigraphic exhibition at first due to general tiredness and apathy toward reading ancient inscriptions. Finally I decided to make a cursory tour through the gallery. At first glance, you might understand why this object grabbed my attention: it looks like a necklace. Upon further investigation, I realized that the “necklace” was actually a collar. The inscription apparently reads in Latin:

“I have run away; hold me. When you shall have returned me to my master, Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”

This collar did not brand a domesticated animal, rather a Roman slave. It is made of iron and originated between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Slavery was a common Roman practice from the third century BC through the 4th century AD. Most slaves were foreigners, often prisoners of war, and carried out essential daily duties in a private home, on a farm, or in the city governments helping to build infrastructure. They blended easily with the population; so much so, in fact, that owners needed to find ways to prevent their escape. At one point, the Roman Senate looked into, but eventually rejected, a plan to distinguish slaves from free citizens by making them wear certain clothing.

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