Freedom and Freedmen in Rome
by: P. Flavius Brutus
The Liberation (Manumissio)

For a lot of slaves, it was a positive perspective that their master would, after a given amount of years, grant them their freedom. This liberation was encased in a set of legal procedures, that I will try to explain briefly and simply.

A master who wished to free a slave had to be at least twenty years of age. This had to happen by means of a vindicta (cermonial procedure, cf. Infra), if someone of a younger age wanted to do this. This was to happen before a council, which had to approve of the reasons of liberation. Rightful grounds for premature relase could have been when someone wanted to release his father, mother, teacher or adoptive relative. Such rules were also in force for the slave, who had to be at least thirty years, but who could be given freedom for the same reasons.

The lex Aelia Sentia, however, later determined that someone younger than twenty years – although one could already make a legal testimony at that age – could not grant a slave freedom. In case the young master wished to make the slave to Latrinus (cf.2. The Freedmen), this could happen before the same council that also approved vindictae.

The number of slaves that could be given freedom, was regulated by the lex Fufia Carninia. It limited the number of liberations through a testimony. A master who possessed more than two but less than ten slaves, could liberate half of them. If he possessed between ten and thirty slaves, only one third could be liberated. Between thirty and hundred only a fourth. A master with more than hundred slaves, but less than five hundred, could liberate one fifth, and if the number exceeded five hundred, only a maximum of one hundred slaves could be liberated. Who only possessed two (or less) slaves, was able to set all of them free.

According to Gaius, however, the regulation was more specific: who had three or four slaves, could set two of them free; who had six of them, three, who had eight, four and who had ten to seventeen, five. ook vijf. When the number of slaves was eightteen, six could be released. According to him, it was good to release one third above the number of eightteen. (E. G. II: Constitum est…liceat).

Every form of law-breaking nullified liberations-to-be. When, for example, the names of the slaves were written with a circle drawn around them (and the allowed number was exceeded), and a hierarchy could not be properly discerned in the familia, no one was released, not even if it was attempted only to release the most important slaves, with respect to the legal number. This was only valid for liberations through testimonies, and was not the case for vindictae, adoption in the census or in case of liberation in presence of friends. These methods allowed to free all slaves. (G. I 42-46). When, however, liberation was made to disadvantage a patronus or creditors, it was declared invalid by the lex Aelia Sentia (G. I 37).

Dositheus said that a slave freed by a master who was forced, was not legally free, because the master had not wanted it. The slave then had to turn to a Praetor or Consul, who would then take care of the case. A slave in possession of several masters could not be fully released if only one master gave his approval; he would still be in possession of the other masters. This was the same case if the slave was freed in presence of friends. Also, a peregrinus could not make a slave Latinus, because the lex Iunia (that specifically treated the Latinitias), had no bearing on peregrini (D. I 6-12).

The Freedmen (Liberti)

The population was divided into two categories: free men and serfs. In former group, another distinction was made between free born and freed men, id est those who had been released from a legal slavery. That class was divided into three subgroups: Roman citizens, Latini and dediticii (G. I 10-12). Latter group had been granted the lowest form of liberation. The lex Aerlia Sentia stipulated that slaves who had committed a crime, had the same status of peregrini dediticii, a category to which those belonged who had fought against Rome, but had surrendered. Slaves who had this status could never become Latinus or Roman citizen. It was even prohibited for them to enter Rome, or to stay within a zone of hundred miles distance from the city (G. I 13-16, 27, U. I 5-11). Becoming a Roman citizen could happen in three ways: by a vindicta, by registration in the census (a master that would have the slave registered as citizen), or by being freed by means of a testimony.

If not one of these three conditions was met, the slave would become a Latinus, which was a free person, but without the juridic and social advantages citizenship granted (G. I 17). A Latinus was able, however, to get the Roman citizenship, if he married someone with Roman citizenship, a Latinus coloniaria or a person of the same rank, declared this in front of seven adult Roman witnesses, and had a son or daughter that was at least one year of age. Then, the lex Aelia Sentia discerned that all of them would become Roman cives. This law was only valid for Latini liberated before their thirtieth birthday, but this was overruled by a Senatus Consultum in 73 AD, that also made this valid for freed Latini older than thirty. It was possible for parnters of already deceased Latini to get citizenship through this means if they could prove it (G. I 28-32a).

Another way for the Latinus to get the ius Quiritium (id est the Roman civil rights), was to spend three years in military service (decided through a Senatus Consultum). Claudius applied this rule when he built ships that could transport huge amounts of grain, in a period lasting six years, to provide Rome with grain. Nero further stipulated that a Latinus with a fortune of at least two hundred thousand sestertii, and who built a house in Rome with no more than half of his possessions could also acquire citizenship. Eventually Traianus discerned that this was also valid if said citizen-to-be had been miller for three years in Rome, and did not exceed a given amount of grain being grinded. On a last note, we should say that a Latinus could get Roman civil rights through means of an iteratio, that repeated the liberation, but this time meeting one of the three former requirements (G. I 32b-35, U. III 1-6).

All of this makes the image of Roman slavery considerably less negative, because for many, freedom was a realistic option. Still, we cannot forget the at times horrible fate of some slaves before they were freed.

© Publius Flavius Brutus
© 2001-2018 Societas Via Romana