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A Guide to Roman Freedman

Updated on December 3, 2016

Slaves in the Roman world, unlike most other slave-owning societies from ancient to early modern times, could always hope they might one day be freed. There were millions of freedmen and women in the Roman Empire, found in all provinces at all times and in all walks of life. As free people, they were entitled to the privileges of citizenship and some rose to positions of high status. The emperor Claudius notoriously relied on freedmen to run the Empire for him.

Freeing a slave A slave could be freed by his master in the master's will (the most usual) or as a gift during his master's lifetime, which meant going before a magistrate who touched the slave with a rod after his master had given him a pretend slap as a symbol of his last punishment as a slave. Slaves could even save up money from casual earnings or gifts and purchase their own freedom, but that usually meant negotiating a deal with their master to compensate him for the original purchase price.

Roman Freedman

The technical term for freeing a slave is manumission, which comes from two Latin words: manus (‘hand') and emittere (‘to let go'). Even though he was now free, a freedman had a duty of obligation to his former master and that meant becoming his client and remaining tied to him in that mutually-advantageous relationship. In fact, the new client might even carry on in his old job. Refer to the earlier section ‘Being on Top - Upper-crust Romans' for details of the patron-client relationship. The advantage to the old master is pretty clear: He no longer had to feed and clothe his former slave, who now had to deal with all that for himself. An ex- slave could vote on his old master's behalf, too. If a court case blew up, then his ex-slave could now serve as a witness on his behalf. The disincentive was the tax levied on freeing each slave at 5 per cent of his or her value. Freedmen usually took their former master's name. A centurion of the XX legion called Marcus Aufudius Maximus visited the shrine and spa centre of Bath in Britain where two of his personal freedmen, Marcus Aufidius Lemnus and Aufidius Eutuches, set up dedications on their former master's behalf as he was now their patron and they his loyal clients.

Stigma Freedmen could never become equestrians or reach senatorial rank; they suf- fered the social stigma of having been slaves, and were looked down on as coarse and vulgar. But it wasn't a prejudice many Romans could afford to have because so many people were descended from slaves at some point in their ancestries, even a few emperors. The emperor Pertinax (AD 193), for example, was the son of a freedman called Helvius Successus who had made his money in the timber trade. The most average freedmen could hope for was to serve in the administra- tion of their city or on the imperial service, or become modest businessmen like merchants. If successful enough, a freedman could afford to become a member of the seviri Augustales (‘the board of six priests in the cult of Augustus'), which was monopolised by freedmen. As Pertinax's example shows, unlike their fathers, the sons of freedmen could rise as high as any man from a free family, without any obligations to their father's old masters.


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