Slavery in Rome: A Badge of Honor?

In what scenario might former slave status be a badge of honor? An epitaph of a middle-aged man from a prominent Jewish family near Jericho suggests that a slave’s service in Rome’s imperial palace may have conferred special honors following his manumission and return to Judea.

“Goliath” in More Ways than One
In the mid-1970s, excavators discovered a hillside necropolis in Jericho dating to the 1st century CE. This large cemetery contained over 120 burial chambers hewn into seven rocky hillsides.1 The tombs were family tombs, each containing related family members over several generations. One monumental tomb from this necropolis was of particular interest.

Ancient tombs carved into a Jericho hillside.2

The tomb itself was enormous–its perimeter measured 42.7 feet × 42.7!–and so, too, were the 32 related individuals interred inside.3 At a time when the average adult male stood 5’5” tall, four men from this family were over 6’1” tall.4 Three of the limestone ossuaries5 also bore the moniker “Goliath,” a family nickname alluding to the young King David’s towering adversary.6

Fresco depicting vines and flowers from the Goliath family tomb.7

This family was distinctive not only in their physical size but also in their social stature. The “Goliath” family tomb is both the largest in the Jericho necropolis and the richest in decoration. The rock walls were plastered and decorated with frescoes of bright floral motifs.8 Two Jewish ritual bathing pools (miqvaoth) suggest that the “Goliath” family belonged to the priestly class, and the splendor of the tomb shows that the family must have been extraordinarily wealthy.9

“Goliath” Captured
The names inscribed on the individual ossuaries inside the “Goliath” family tomb are all traditionally Jewish, with one remarkable exception:

The ossuary of Theodotos, freedman of Queen Αgrippina (jeri0007)10

What are we to make of such an inscription, and what can these five short words in Greek tell us about Theodotos’ world? The word “freedman” recognizes Theodotos’ former slave status and manumission. It is significant that the relatives in charge of burying their kinsman chose this epithet above all other possibilities.

The reference to a “Queen Agrippina” is the only epigraphic mention of Agrippina the Younger, (15 – 59 CE), who married her uncle, the Roman emperor Claudius, in 49 CE. Claudius and Agrippina lived together in Rome in a palace on the Palatine Hill. In order to serve “Queen” Agrippina’s household, Theodotos must have made the trip from Judea to Rome, a 30+ day journey of approximately 3,000 kilometers. Already, a fascinating story of displacement, long-distance travel, servitude, and subsequent homecoming begins to take shape.

What’s in a name?
What can we learn from Theodotus’ name? “Theodotos” is actually the Greek translation of the Jewish name Nathaniel. Many slaves were given Greek names during their captivity in the Roman Empire. Greek was the language of trade, scholarship, and aristocracy in Rome and abroad, while Hebrew was traditional, familial, and endemic to the region of Judea. Servitude in Roman society often led to slaves’ “social death”–cultural isolation resulting from stripped ethnic identity and broken family ties. Therefore, it’s striking that Theodotos kept his Greek name after his manumission and return to Judea.

Perhaps Theodotos no longer identified with the “Nathaniel” of his youth. Maybe his time in Rome contributed to a loss of ethnic identity, or perhaps life alongside the imperial family caused Theodotos to develop a more cosmopolitan worldview. In any case, slavery abroad impacted Theodotos and his image within his family. He was an anomaly in his own community

Limestone ossuary with typical six-petaled rosettes.11

for the rest of this life. The “Goliath” family often inscribed their relatives’ ossuaries with genealogical information: “Salome wife of Judah” (jeru0390) or “Yehoezer son of Eleazar (jeri0016).”12 Theodotos had no such familial information. For whatever reason, the fact that Theodotos was a manumitted slave of the imperial family took precedence over the details of his ties to immediate relatives.

From Silver Spoon to Servitude
In the first century CE, the political discourse of Rome and Judea was inextricably linked. Judean king Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, became involved in the succession battle of Claudius, the Praetorian Guard, and the Roman Senate after the assassination of Caligula in 41 CE. As a boy, Agrippa had been educated in Rome alongside Claudius. As an adult ruler, he wanted to see his friend Claudius seize power. After becoming Emperor of Rome in 41 CE, Claudius handed control of the Roman province of Judea over to Agrippa in recognition of his loyalty.

A Roman emperor’s control over an outlying territory often coincided with physical control over parts of the local population. Slaves in the Roman Empire were almost all captives taken as spoils of war or as political prisoners from outlying territories. Theodotos was most likely sent to Rome as a political prisoner, though there is no conclusive evidence for this presumption.13 Perhaps Theodotus became the property of Claudius’ wife Agrippina after he or his family had some falling-out with Agrippa, Claudius’ ally.

Queen Agrippina14

Although the circumstances of Theodotus’ servitude remain uncertain, we can determine the time period of his enslavement with some certainty. The ossuary inscription refers to Agrippina as “queen”: Agrippina married emperor Claudius in 49 CE but died in 59 CE. Theodotos must have served in Agrippina’s household for part or all of this 10 year period.

Manumission and Return
A large internal hierarchy existed among Roman slaves. Slaves who were well-educated, attractive, athletic, and / or from privileged backgrounds were in high demand and difficult to replace. Such slaves were able to attain specialized and high-status positions.15 Theodotos’ physical stature and privileged family background may have won him a coveted position directly serving the imperial family. One scholar has suggested that Theodotos was manumitted only because of Agrippina’s fondness for the Judean Jews and the imperial family’s ties to Agrippa, ruler of Judea.16

After manumission, Theodotos’ status as a freedman from Agrippina’s household conferred Roman citizenship.17 After Theodotos returned home, he retained marks of the identity he had been given in Rome. What we don’t know is how Theodotos’ ties to Rome interacted with the Jewish identity of his family and community. The ossuary inscription from the “Goliath” tomb suggests that Theodotos’ service in the imperial household was valued by his family — Theodotos’ former slave status became the final summation of his life.


Hachlili, Rachel. “The Goliath Family in Jericho: Funerary Inscriptions from a First Century A. D. Jewish Monumental Tomb.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 235 (1979): 31–66.

Hachlili, Rachel. “A Second Temple Period Jewish Necropolis in Jericho.” The Biblical Archaeologist 43, no. 4 (1980): 235–40.

Hachlili, Rachel, Baruch Arensburg, Patricia Smith, and Ann Killebrew. “The Jewish Necropolis at Jericho.” Current Anthropology 22, no. 6 (1981): 701–2.

Hachlili, Rachel, and Ann Killebrew. “The Saga of the Goliath Family—As Revealed in Their Newly Discovered 2,000-Year-Old Tomb.” Biblical Archaeology Review 9, no. 1 (Jan. – Feb. 1983): 44–53.

Macfarlane, Roger T. “Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: Languages of New Testament Judea.” Brigham Young University Studies 36, no. 3 (1996): 228–38.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Rodgers, Zuleika, Margaret Daly-Denton, and Anne Fitzpatrick Mckinley. A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne. BRILL, 2009.

  1. Hachlili, “A Second Temple Period Jewish Necropolis in Jericho,” 235. 
  2. By James Emery from Douglasville, United States (Jericho hill_1521) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
  3. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 44, 48. 
  4. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 50. 
  5. An ossuary is a limestone chest in which the dry bones of one or more individuals are deposited. Most of the ossuaries found in the Jericho necropolis measure 50-60 cm long, 25 cm wide, 30 cm high and are incised with two or three geometric 6-pointed rosettes. One to three closely related individuals may be interred in the same ossuary box. See Hachlili, “A Second Temple Period Jewish Necropolis in Jericho,” 237. 
  6. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 49. 
  7. By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
  8. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 47. 
  9. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 46, 52. 
  10. Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho,” 33. 
  11. By Ricardo Tulio Gandelman from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (P1130180) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
  12. Hachlili and Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family,” 48, 50. 
  13. Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho,” 234. 
  14. By Anonymous (Rome) (Own work (BurgererSF)) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons 
  15. Consider the fictional example of Ben-Hur, the wealthy prince from Jerusalem to Rome as a galley slave. With time Ben-Hur becomes a prized athlete, regains his freedom and fortune, and becomes the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. See Rodgers, A Wandering Galilean, 129. 
  16. Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho,” 235. 
  17. Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho,” 235. 

Relevant Inscription(s):


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Ἐν[θ]άδε κ[ῖ]τε
Ἰσακις πρεσ-
βύτερος τῆς
ν Ταρσοῦ λι-
Here lies Isakis, elder of the (synagogue of) the Cappadocians, from Tarsus, linen merchant.
Languages: Greek
Date: 301CE to 600CE
Dimension: H: 26 cm.; W: 17.5 cm.; D: 3.2 cm. Letter Height: 2-2.5 cm.

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