THE CONDITION OF THE FREEDMAN IN CLASSIC
Abstract: Many old and divers documentary sources make reference
to the phenomenon of slavery and the adjoined theme of the liberation as an
established practice in the antique societies, evidently most of them dating
back to the Roman and Greek time. Far from being systematic or specifically
focused on these aspects, they appear scattered in the writings of various
authors throughout the Antiquity, understandably more so during the classical
period and the immediately following one. The study and correlation of the
information extracted from legal, literary, philosophical or epigraphic texts
produced nevertheless a coherent and complex image of a person’s status who
transited from social dependency to social independence. Beginning with the Antiquity this theme of the
personal civic and social autonomy was always controversial, both from a
philosophical and ethical point of view. Despite a theoretical, but rarely
effective humanism encountered in some philosophical doctrines and slave
owners, the practice of slavery is intrinsically linked to the ancient world
and is not contested in principle by any author, including the Christian ones
of the first centuries A.D. The explanation is in the fact that all during the ancient
time slavery represented the exclusive basis for the development and progress
of the entire economy. The act of manumisso conferred the status of libertus,
sometimes called libertinus, and constituted the chance of gaining freedom or,
for the enslaved prisoners who had been free men in their own homelands, of
regaining it. This might even appear as a reparatory act, except for cases when
the slave owner would expect material advantages in exchange. The ending of the
ancient period and the Christian humanism did not bring about the end of the
legal or illegal slavery, which persists in manifest or dissimulated forms in
the civilisations that followed, up to the present. The transgression of the
boundaries of social dependency in ancient
Key-words: libertus, manumissio, slavery, ingenuitas, social classes, Aristotle, Horace.
Before talking about the freedmen status, I consider it useful to cast a brief look upon the social condition they have just got rid of.
The slaves, servi, represent a social class whose bitter fate did not make them less important and indispensable for the Roman society. As a class the slaves are fundamentally opposed to the class of citizens who, born as freemen, ingenui, are entitled to a freedom, ingenuitas, accurately inscribed in political, legal and social rights, but denied to the former. Initially the slave was the one from outside the city, since the prisoners of war represented the only source of slaves. The citizens of the city could not be made slave, they enjoyed rights beyond the reach of the enemies or strangers, hostes, who, once taken prisoner of war were totally subjected to the will of the conqueror.
The Greek term exodulia expresses the fact that the slaves are “necessarily” (É. Benveniste, p. 100) of foreign origin, from outside the city, exo-. The reconstruction of this social reality common to all Indo-European peoples is deducted from the literary analysis and comparison of the terms linked to slavery in all known Indo-European languages, first and foremost due to the linguist É. Benveniste.
References to Aristotle’s Politics become almost compulsory in the discussion on the philosophical or economical justification of slavery, as it is one of the ancient sources which resumes, fundaments and in a way legitimates, thanks to the name of the great philosopher, the attitude of the antiquity towards slavery and slaves. On the other hand, in the same text from Politica (1253b-1254a) we find the often quoted and evenly often criticized expression: õ doèlow kt m ti mcuxon “the slave is a living property”. Aristotle’s definition of the slave as a tool, rganon, is often considered outrageous by ill-informed moralists. In strictly linguistic terms this Aristotelian definition is not as degrading or demeaning as it might appear and actually did appear in the past, given the fact that the Greek philosopher also used it in other occasions. For instance, in the Nicomachean Ethics, 1099b-1100a, speaking about happiness and affirming that its achievement also depends on external conditions or resources, he uses the same term rgana, where he includes friends or children. Thus, although Aristotle’s position towards slaves remains unacceptable to the modern humanist thinking and was even considered unacceptable by some of his contemporaries, it is necessary to place the analysis of his statements in the appropriate argumentative, as well as historical, ideological or linguistic context. This opens the possibility for more subtle distinction and somewhat reduces the excessive interpretations concerning these fragments about slaves.
makes a distinction (Politics,
But Aristotle is not the only one to have made such statements, which taken out of context were subjected to abusive interpretations disregarding the realities of their time. In the Latin literature we find a nearly identical phrase belonging to Varro, in De re rustica, I, 17, 1, which speaks about the three necessary means for toiling the soil. Admittedly he considers them different in essence and places the slave in the category instrumentum genus vocale. An equally abusive interpretation as for Aristotle was applied to this fragment , which does not explicitly define the condition of the slaves, but tries to arrange the farming instruments in a hierarchy.
In certain cases, under the laws of the day, the masters, and for the Greeks sometimes the state, had the right to free those slaves who stood above the others through certain qualities or merits, in a way an act of repairing or compensating the disadvantage of slavery. The liberation, manumission, took place either at the initiative of the master, in recognition of certain qualities or services rendered, or bought in exchange for a sum of money. Three legal forms of liberation are known: per vindictam, censu and testamento . However, the most frequent reasons for a master to free his slave were not magnanimity or gratitude, but rather the material pursuit, since he was entitled to receive a sum of money. Between the master, in the new situation called patronus and his old slave, now called cliente, there was a life-long cliental relationship. This was a fairly onerous relationship for the latter, as he was expected to offer a dona or munera, the value of which was not determined by law for the freedmen. But the rules did include certain obligations for the master now patronus, like the obligation to legally assist his old slave in a court of law. As for the freedman, he remained under the domestic jurisdiction of his old master, iuridicium domesticum and had to participate in the cult of his family, gens.
liberation is an old institution in
The freedmen, liberti (in Greek peleæyeroi or f¡tai) formed a heterogeneous social group and had in general a rather unsatisfactory status in the Roman (or Greek) society, because as former slaves, they entered a social underclass burdened with a range of variables about their origin, the forms of dependency they were subjected to or their possibilities of social insertion. The true freedmen were only those slaves liberated by Roman citizens. These slaves fell under the legal status expressed by the phrase ex iusta servitude and differed from the other categories of slaves able to obtain freedom, like the ones belonging to peregrins or to Latin masters. But by liberation they acquired their masters’ social status, thus becoming themselves peregrini or Latini, and had to obey to other norms than the freedmen proper. A citizen in his own right who, for various reasons, had become a slave, regained his citizenship when liberated and did not become a freedman, like the real slaves. One could observe that here the condition of the freedman seems more degrading than that of the slave. Some antique sources, tough lacking credibility in the eyes of most critics, speak about the existence of a ordo libertinus or ordo libertinorum. This “environment of the freedmen” was regarded as prejudicial to their social integration and favoured the segregation.
For most of them liberation meant shedding the slave condition, nevertheless, in the strongly hierarchic and exclusivist society of the free people this was not self-evident. The freedmen were perceived as different, as strangers, and pushed to the social periphery. In the ancient time, the freedmen had to mark in their dress-code their separate status from that of the citizens, for instance by wearing a kind of hat called pileus. As for the new names they took after liberation, towards the end of the Republic the general attitude certainly improves, since they are granted the right to tria nomina, for a long time the exclusive privilege of the citizens. The nomen, gentile, belonged to the family the freedman had served as a slave and to which he owed cliental relationship, the given name, praenomen, was often a ethnonym, indicating the homeland of the ex-slave or certain characteristics, while the cognomen, forbidden to the freedmen of the previous centuries, became common from the first century A.D. on and frequently represented the old slave name.
The civil, social and political position of the freedmen strongly resembled that of the plebeian group, whose ranks were continually enlarged thanks to the freedmen. Many of the plebeians’ claims represented civil, social and political rights equally applying to the freedmen and their descendants. Sometimes the freedmen even enjoyed rights denied to the ordinary plebeians. Both groups could enter the equestrian order if they had obtained the privilege called ius anuli auri, the distinctive mark of the free status, guaranteeing them the right to enter a municipal magistrature. But granting this privilege was exclusively linked to the imperial magnanimity.
the freedmen in lucrative professions could get financially comfortable, by
this making it possible for the next generations to transgress the social
barriers and to obtain magistratures and important positions in society. In his
biography dedicated to The Divine
Augustus Suetonius briefly mentions that “Marcus Antonius rebuked him
(Augustus) for his great-grandfather the freedman, a rope-maker from the
Somewhat different in a positive sense was the situation of the educated
freedmen or practicing liberal professions who were more than welcomed by the
aristocracy in need of secretaries, librarians, tutors or even teachers of
philosophy, as in the case of Epictet. In some cases educated slaves earned the
title of freedman thanks to the esteem or even friendship of their masters and
later on played an active intellectual role in those circles and under their
patronage. Others were successful in lucrative professions, turned into
manufacturers or businessmen and became well-established. They formed a kind of
very economically active bourgeoisie, most likely also including Horace’s
father. During the empire many of them reached very influential political
positions, even though in
The Roman history frequently mentions famous names of people born as slaves, but who managed to valorise their abilities not only for obtaining freedom, but also for playing an important cultural or historical role. This proves that, in exceptional cases, the traditionalist and conservative Roman society, though in principle opposed to upward movements on the social ladder, was inclined to forgive the humble origins of those who contributed to the public cause and to acknowledge their value. But the acknowledgement of one’s value did not grant one nobility titles. So the freedman always needed a protector, and a guarantor, to whom he remained indebted for life. The freedman was subject to important constraints regarding civil liberties on the legal and political level, including onerous regulations in the relation with his master, but he encountered no limitations of his chances to start up any kind of activity, least of all in those fields where talent and creativity mattered.
The beginnings and most important texts in the Latin literature are due to writers in this kind of servile relationship, many of them even foreigners. Livius Andronicus, founder of the cultivated literature, used to be a Greek slave in Tarentum, as well as Plautus. And in the next generation, we have Terentius, playwright whose comedies promote a vision of the interhuman relations based on the philosophical concept of humanitas. The best-known freedman of the Latin literature is Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon. But he is a caricature which reunites all the wrongs the imagination of the society attributed to his social category.
cultural and social history of
However, Horace was not a freedma; he was after all born free, ingenuus, but as a son of a freedman. His entire life he would feel, nevertheless, a certain discomfort at the memory of his origin, subject he mentions otherwise without hesitation. In Satyricon, with its enormous influence on our image about freedmen, we come across one common feature for the many examples of freed slaves, namely that they don’t renegade their origins, but talk luxuriously about their life as slaves, despite the fact that normally speaking one would expect them to try and forget that life once accepted as Roman citizens. They remain suspended in a social intermundium, but their initial condition is indelibly encrusted in their self-image. On the other hand by blatantly cultivating former status, they want to show their superiority towards those who inherited their natural freedom and did not have to earn it by merit or effort. Thus by their own doing their image of otherness is maintained, placing them in a separate category in society, a category which could become rich or influential through opportunistic personal relationships, but is excluded from social ascension by lack of noble titles, like in other societies. Only after several generations the traces of the original servitude could be effaced. The rich freedmen have the advantage that they can be absorbed by the “capitalist bourgeoisie”, similar to the plebeian class.
Horace’s father understood only too well that the social origins cannot be whipped out within one generation and that the most valuable investment of his modest capital was his son’s education. To this purpose he did everything in order to offer his son the best conditions for an education which would put him on equal foot with the aristocracy, and subsequently talent and Fortune’s intervention went even farther: Horace surpassed the aristocracy. Maecenas’ noble and prestigious birth would not have brought him such long lasting posterity without the verses wrote for him by Horace: “[…] Horace’s verses […] dedicated to Maecenas […] gave the latter immortality caught in an abstract noun . Horace always manifested reservation to and stayed away from social competition, an attitude common in freedmen, who were convinced that chance or fate, Fortuna, can change the social roles at a whim, offering them everything or robbing them of everything. This idea of the changing fate is present in many of Horace’s poems. But he is quite happy that fate compensates him for his rather tainted beginning in life by endowing him with talent, which he could cultivate thanks to his friendship to influential people.
By openly assuming his origin, Horace pre-emptively adopts a defensive strategy, thus reducing the chances of it being misused for negative discrimination. In this he acts similarly to the freedmen placed in the same situation. The difference in social origins does not form a basis for any objective comparison, because it results from circumstances independent of the individual, while an objective comparison should be exclusively based on personal merits. It is on this terrain that Horace feels safe, there where his superiority is his own and obvious achievement.
The freedmen bring an important contribution to the economical and cultural flourishing of the empire. Permanently in search of new opportunities, they form a dynamic and upwardly mobile segment of the Roman society, itself open to change. Together with the plebeians, they represent the main vectors of the capital and finance in Antiquity.
Aristotel, Politica, Editie bilingva, Traducere, comentarii si index de Alexander Baumgarten, cu un studiu introductiv de Vasile Musca, Edoitura IRI, Bucuresti, 2001.
Aristotel, Etica Nicomahica, Introducere, traducere, comentarii si index de Stella Petecel, Editia a II-a, Editura IRI, Bucuresti, 1998.
Benveniste, Émile, Vocabularul institutiilor indo-europene, Cartea a III-a, Statutele sociale, Traducere din limba franceza, note suplimentare si Postfata de Dan Slusanschi, Bucuresti, Paideia, 2005.
Carlsen, Jesper, Vilici and Roman Estate Managers Until A..D 284, L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1995.
Calinescu.G., Horatiu, fiul libertului, in Scriitori straini, Antologie si text ingrijit de Vasile Nicolescu si Adrian Marino, Prefata de Adrian Marino, Editura pentru Literatura Universala, Bucuresti, 1967.
Ch. Daremberg et Edm. Saglio, (sous la direction de), Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines (DAGR), 1877-1919, Tom. III, vol. 2, articolele Libertus si Manumissio de Ch. Lécrivain.
Giardina, Andrea, coordonator, Omul roman, Traducere de Dragos
Cojocaru, Editura Polirom,
Mihailescu-Birliba, Lucretiu, Les affranchis dans les provinces romaines de l’Illyricum, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.
A more recent and well-documented work on freedmen is the thesis of Lucretiu Mihailescu-Birliba, Les affranchis dans les provinces romaines de l’Illyricum, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006. The first part makes an inventory of these aspects, chapters I and II, p. 1-34 and reviews the historiography, accompanying it by short comments.
Émile Benveniste, The Vocabulary of the Indo-European Institutions, book III, The Social Statuses, Translation from French, additional notes and Foreword by Dan Slusanschi, Bucharest, Paideia, 2005, p. 100-109; Aristotle calls the prisoners of war „lawful slaves' kat nñmon doèlow, Politica, Bilingual edition. Translation, commentary and index by Alexander Baumgarten, and introductory study by Vasile Musca., 2000, 1255a.
Nunc dicam agri quibus rebus colantur. Quas res alii dividunt in duas partes, in homines et adminicula hominum, sive quibus rebus colere non possunt; alii in tres partes, instrumenti genus vocale et semivocale et mutum, vocale, in quo sunt servi, semivocale, in quosunt boves, mutum, in quo sunt plaustra.
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