Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.15

Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. vi, 344.  ISBN 9780521856133.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Rose MacLean, Princeton University (


At a time when the most important works on Roman freedmen still refer to “the decline of the Italian stock” and “the infiltration of the Roman population by foreigners,” Mouritsen’s comprehensive study of The Freedman in the Roman World represents an invaluable contribution.1 Given the importance of manumission to the way that Romans thought about their society, as well as ex-slaves’ unique position in economic and political life, Mouritsen has built a firm foundation not just for historians interested in ancient slavery but also for those with a wide array of concerns, from the discourses of power and honor to demography and legal practice.

Taking a synchronic approach, Mouritsen divides his book into two sections – three chapters on the construction of the Roman libertus and three on the practice of manumission. Separating the ideological aspects from more technical questions creates a useful analytical boundary, but at critical points Mouritsen shows how these two sides of the problem influenced one another. In a final chapter, an attempt is made to ascertain the experiences and identities of former slaves from their own perspective.

The categories of “slave” and “free” were fundamental and inalienable in Roman juridical thought – a construct that rendered manumission problematic because it implied movement from one status to the other. By adding “freed” as a third modal category, the jurists ensured that ingenui and liberti remained essentially different, since the latter carried the stain of their past, the macula servitutis. The roots of this bias lay not in the theory of natural slavery, which most Romans rejected, but rather in the idea that people fell into slavery as a result of bad fortune. Still, an appreciation of slaves’ basic humanity did not preclude the perception of their moral and physical character as weak, childlike, cowardly, and incapable of legitimate honor.

Slavery left an indelible mark on a person’s ingenium, just as it could on his body. Such degradation was immediate and automatic but could be exacerbated or alleviated depending on how the slave was treated or on his natural aptitudes. A slave who had been beaten or tattooed had little chance of bettering his position, while an educated servant who won his master’s favor could improve in the eyes of slave-owners; he could, in essence, “grow up.” This developmental model reassured manumitters that they were releasing into the free population only those mature enough to participate in the civitas.

The patron-freedman relationship ensured the continuity of this ideal after manumission by constructing ex-slaves as their patron’s children sine natura. This fiction helped perpetuate a dynamic of authority and dependence, while at the same time integrating freedmen into the familia in a way that legitimated their proximity to power as agents of the ruling orders. Although this paradigm was not always manifest in reality, legal and social norms helped impose a standard of behavior on freedmen based on deference, industry, and fides. The distance between these qualities and those most valued by male elites – in particular, honos and virtus – fed back into the definition of the ex-slave as free but still inferior. Although one wonders how this distinction may have changed as aristocrats adapted to monarchy, it is clear that the degradation of freedmen conditioned their place in society.

Despite a long tradition of enfranchising freedmen, the Romans sought to limit this group’s political influence. The inscription of liberti in the four urban tribes and the practice of excluding ex-slaves from municipal councils may be viewed within this context. On the other hand, Mouritsen’s interpretation of the Augustan reforms aligns the laws about freedmen with other parts of the program by reading them as ideological statements. Augustus’ attempts to regulate manumission were strikingly inefficient and probably represent “official declarations which emphasized the need for proper selection and ‘quality control’ in the manumission process” (p. 84). Like the marriage laws, they articulate a self-styled return to traditional mores. Further, by limiting the number of freedmen who received the full franchise, Augustus portrayed the citizenship as a privileged status that could be coveted by provincials.

The emperor’s slaves and freedmen emerged as a central administrative body that symbolized the autocratic nature of the principate. Republican elites had employed slaves and liberti to perform public duties, but the rise of individual magnates heightened the visibility of such staff. In turn, influential members of the imperial family came to exemplify the transition from a government based on intra-elite competition to one ruled by the auctoritas of one man. Likewise, the extent to which a princeps controlled or was controlled by his freedmen became instrumental in shaping his image. Although the reliance on such personnel developed for practical reasons, the familia Caesaris (and wealthy freedmen in general) became focal points for ideological conflict about status, wealth, and political authority.

These discussions convey the full complexity of “the freedman” as a cultural construct linked to a range of other concerns. Importantly, Mouritsen maintains an awareness of the Romans’ capacity to hold contradictory views simultaneously, to see freedmen as human beings but also as inherently dishonored. As Fitzgerald did for slaves in Latin literature, Mouritsen shows how the Romans used liberti to interrogate basic boundaries and to channel anxieties about social and political change.2 Further, the Romans’ ideals about freedmen help explain why they kept manumitting slaves despite the unsettling paradoxes that arose from this change of status. We come to appreciate the intricacies of the Roman social imagination in its connection to social practice.

Mouritsen’s treatment of more technical problems is executed as masterfully as his examination of ideology. He rightly accepts that we lack sufficient documentation to establish demographic measures with any precision. The strength of his discussion is not to solve insoluble problems but to compile the evidence – most of which indicates that manumission at Rome was more common than in other slave systems, but selective on the basis of the ideal that only deserving slaves should be freed. Thankfully, the reasons for why the Romans manumitted so many slaves are easier to ascertain. On the one hand, the promise of freedom was a powerful incentive by which to inspire diligence and good behavior. But the frequency of manumission cannot be explained by this single function; and the social and economic benefits of the patron-freedman relationship were the key to sustaining the Roman system.

This emphasis on patronage leads Mouritsen to downplay the importance of self-purchase, which some others have placed in the foreground. Roman manumission did not necessitate a replacement of services lost, because freedmen remained tied to the familia. Nor can the peculium be linked unequivocally with self-purchase; it rather served as a general indicator of the slave’s status within the household. Similarly, testamentary manumission may not have been as appealing to slave-owners as is often assumed, because masters were more likely to see the benefits of capitalizing on freedmen’s continued service during their lifetime. Although it is impossible to pinpoint the frequency with which these types of manumission were used, Mouritsen makes a convincing case that the patron-freedman relationship was a determining factor.

Understanding the practice of manumission requires asking who was freed and for what reasons. Epigraphic evidence suggests that children were manumitted in exceptional circumstances but that slaves in their late teens and twenties had a decent chance of receiving their freedom. Such a pattern implies a shortfall of home-born slaves, but Roman elites did not manage their households in strictly rational terms. In fact, the reasons for manumission were highly subjective, relying above all on familiarity and trust. As a result, we rarely hear of Roman masters freeing agricultural slaves, with whom they would have had little contact; and patterns within the familia Caesaris usually followed an impersonal standard. Again, the ideological foundations of Roman manumission – namely, that enslavement was caused by misfortune and that slaves of good character could earn their libertas – reinforced actual practice.

A continued focus on the patron-freedman relationship guides Mouritsen’s discussion of ex-slaves in the Roman economy. While not a bourgeoisie, freedmen were uniquely positioned to succeed economically because of their integration into the familia. Unlike freeborn clients, liberti had a quasi-familial bond with their ex- master that made them prime candidates for posts in the family business and provided a source of start-up capital. This model casts doubt on the category of the “independent freedman,” the ex-slave whose patron had died and who therefore could become rich beyond normally acceptable levels. In fact, we know of many wealthy freedmen whose fortunes grew with the active support of their patrons, and ex-slaves emerge as a social group that was subject to stigmatization but also intimately involved with the freeborn ruling orders, so in some senses a group of insiders.

Freedmen’s role in political life is interpreted along similar lines. The Augustales, for instance, represent a locally specific phenomenon whose unifying function was to allow ex-slaves to participate in civic society through acts of euergetism. Moreover, the sons of freedmen who entered politics – often held up as icons of economically driven upward mobility – were not seen as essentially different from other ingenui. They faced hurdles similar to those encountered by any “new man,” though more extreme because they started at a lower rung of the social ladder. Rather than cast first-generation ingenui as social upstarts who bought their way into the elite, Mouritsen invites us to contextualize their success in an environment where newcomers joined the public sphere with the support of powerful patrons.

Given Mouritsen’s sensitivity to the patron-freedman relationship, which was by nature two-sided, it is surprising that he relegates his discussion of the freedman’s perspective to a brief final chapter. He correctly observes, as have others, that Petronius’ caricature of the wealthy freedman has exerted undue influence on historians.3 In particular, interpretations of ex-slaves’ funerary commemorations have overwhelmingly focused on the desire to advertise status. By contrast, Mouritsen stresses the importance of the nuclear family, to which manumission granted a newfound stability.4 Trimalchio’s grip on the historical imagination weakens as we come to appreciate the degrees to which freeborn society ostracized or integrated liberti; one could praise a freedman in one breath and deride the infimus ordo in the next, depending on social or rhetorical context. Nevertheless, the views of freeborn Romans are imperfect measures of how freedmen constructed their own communities. Mouritsen brings us closer to an authentically freed perspective when, in closing, he points out that the vast majority of former slaves married individuals of the same status. Again, the valuation of family emerges as a cultural product of freedmen’s common experience of having endured enslavement and achieved at least a limited freedom.

Filling an obvious gap in the scholarship, Mouritsen offers historians the opportunity to comprehend manumission in its ideological and practical aspects, as well as in the correspondences between the two. In the process, he sheds light not just on how the Romans approached this institution, but also on how manumission interacted with other areas of discourse, with social structure more broadly, and with political and economic developments. Mouritsen’s depth of insight and breadth of knowledge have, at last, produced an overarching account of manumission in the Roman world that will be an essential point of departure for future work on this topic, as well as an invaluable resource for teaching.


1.   E.g., Duff, A. M. (1958), Freedmen in the early Roman Empire (New York); Treggiari, S. (1969), Roman Freedmen during the Late Republic (Oxford), 231–2.
2.   Fitzgerald, W. (2000), Slavery and the Roman literary imagination (Cambridge).
3.   Petersen, L. H. (2003), ‘The baker, his tomb, his wife, and her breadbasket: the monument of Eurysaces in Rome’, The Art Bulletin 85: 230–57; and (2006), The freedman in Roman art and art history (Cambridge).
4.   See his article on the same topic: Mouritsen, H. (2005), ‘Freedmen and decurions: epitaphs and social history in imperial Italy’, JRS 95: 38–63; and (2011), ‘The families of Roman slaves and freedmen,’ in B. Rawson (ed.), A companion to families in the Greek and Roman worlds (Malden, MA), 141–3.

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