Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.27

Rose MacLean, Freed Slaves and Roman Imperial Culture: Social Integration and the Transformation of Values.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xi, 208.  ISBN 9781107142923.  xi, 208.  

Reviewed by Tatjana Sandon, The University of Edinburgh (


Freed Slaves and Roman Imperial Culture, the result of a doctoral thesis written by Rose MacLean at Princeton, focuses on the transformations that freed people underwent during the Principate to integrate fully in Roman society. The book advances the study of the lives of slaves and ex-slaves in the Roman world, following specifically in Weaver’s and Mouritsen’s footsteps. In particular, MacLean’s focus on wealthy and powerful freedmen and their relations with the imperial family cannot but remind us of Weaver’s study on the Familia Caesaris,1 while her approach to the ancient sources, both epigraphic and literary, resembles that of Mouritsen in his work on freedmen.2 MacLean’s study is a constructive contribution to the analysis of slavery through the words left behind by those individuals who actually experienced slavery.

The book’s first chapter begins with an exhaustive introduction to the world of liberti and the effects that manumission had on the lives of Roman ex-slaves. MacLean emphasises the importance of not considering freedpersons as an isolated group: liberti coexisted, cohabited and worked with servi as well as ingenui, inhabiting not just the same environments but also cherishing the same expectations and values. The author is well aware of the elite’s biases that permeate the ancient literary sources, hence the decision to analyse inscriptions. These texts, mainly tombstones, were commissioned by freedpersons themselves, regularly speaking to two audiences: the texts that were inward facing spoke to the familial context of the deceased; those that were public-facing addressed the passersby (p. 21).

The qualitative, rather than quantitative, study of the epigraphic evidence is supported by the analysis of literary sources that aid our understanding of the elite’s conceptualisation of freedpersons. It also helps us understand how freedpersons adapted the social expectations and strategies for advancement of the elites in early imperial society (p. 24). A good, although not new, example of how a parallel use of these two types of evidence provides a more complete understanding of slaves and ex-slaves, is the comparison between the Tomb of the Baker from Rome and some passages about Trimalchio’s life from Petronius’ Satyricon. MacLean argues in Chapter 1 that what we can extrapolate from these two contexts is how the cursus of slavery led slaves to become masters, to own slaves themselves, and to make a fortune, and that this could be achieved by foregrounding particular qualities, such as obedience, industry and honesty, that were expected from servi and liberti (p. 14).

Chapter 2 focuses on the attempt by freedmen to achieve immortality through the use of (funerary) monuments. MacLean analyses, in particular, those inscriptions that contain the word ‘fama’, a term that captures a range of different meanings and values. MacLean argues that the word was used to cover several aspects of a freedperson’s achievements—from domestic virtues and respect towards their patrons, to occupational skills and economic activity (p. 42). The freedmen’s desire to get ahead in life and to advance their social position was influenced by the changes in values and monumental practices that the elite had to face when adapting to the new form of power under imperial government and its rules. MacLean very capably illustrates the case of (Tacitus’) Agricola and his submission to the emperor, highlighting how the political transformations at the highest levels of Roman society managed to alter the entire social system, in a domino effect that moved from one group to another (p. 58). The obsequium that was expected from the ‘good’ freedman was not a prerogative of the enslaved and libertine people; rather, it became a tacit and implicit requirement for all those who wanted to advance in imperial society. Similarly, MacLean contends that obedience and humility were adopted by Paul in his vision of Christian values. Thus, Paul is presented as applying the rules of slavery and manumission to his ideology of Christianity: the slave-master and freedman-patron relationships became the models of interaction between Christians and their God, the best—if not only—way to achieve immortality through religion. According to MacLean, then, Roman social values were adopted and adapted by Paul and other Christians, marking a continuity, rather than an interruption, between Roman imperial society and Christianity (p. 62).

In Chapter 3, MacLean investigates the use and consumption of freed culture by the elite through analysing the words of several Latin authors and their points of view. MacLean contends that Petronius’ Satyricon is the most emblematic text that presents stereotyped freedmen, specifically in Trimalchio’s persona, through the lens of the Roman aristocracy. We can be fairly certain that Petronius’ text documents that the elite were well aware of the freedmen’s practices, particularly those connected to epigraphic production; the Satyricon, according to MacLean, was written by and for the elite, with whom Petronius is in dialogue about the freedmen’s culture (p. 82). At the same time, the biases that can be deduced from the Satyricon are almost completely absent in Horace’s poetry: being himself the son of a freedman, Horace presents a favourable picture of his father and, consequently, of the libertine class. Furthermore, Horace compares the “moderate libertas” of ex-slaves to that of Roman citizens during the turbulent times of late Republican Rome (p. 87). A positive appreciation of freedmen can be seen also in Seneca and Stoic philosophy: virtue is the supreme good to which all men have to aspire, irrespective of their legal and social condition. Roman aristocrats, in Seneca’s words, tend to measure personal worth according to what MacLean terms ‘externals’. Liberti could, by contrast, not rely on an ancestral heritage, and thus, they had to build their virtue by themselves (p. 94). The final author that MacLean takes into consideration is Phaedrus and his Fables. Phaedrus, whose status is commonly assumed to be that of an imperial freedman,3 provides a few general rules to follow in order to successfully integrate socially: the weak should not overcome the strong, while modesty is represented as a survival strategy. The weak can react, but their actions can be unpredictable, sometimes even self-harming, and the benefits may not be so rewarding. All these tactics, in Phaedrus’ eyes, are typical of libertine people, who accept their place in the social system and think carefully before reacting (p. 98).

Chapter 4 analyses imperial freedmen and the Familia Caesaris, and how their influence and power grew to the point that they became a fundamental instrument for the emperors’ political propaganda. By citing a few examples, like the case of Claudius’ freedman Pallas, who was given a public monument by the Senate in order to celebrate his actions and person, MacLean investigates how the role of the members of the Familia Caesaris shaped a new owner–slave and patron–freedman model in which the owner/patron was the emperor himself. This model soon became a paradigm to which aristocrats had to respond, MacLean argues, and some imperial freedmen were such important figures on the political scene that even freeborn Roman citizens had to show respect towards them in order to gain the emperor’s favour (p. 119). Through the analysis of elements that characterised the epigraphic production of the Familia Caesaris, MacLean highlights how the connection with the Emperor, which could be very personal and direct for some freedmen, allowed imperial liberti to reach exceptional social standing that was no longer dependent on a single particular ruler but on the imperial system (p. 124).

The final chapter takes a practical approach to the epigraphic evidence, focusing on how manumission was perceived by freedmen. MacLean looks in particular for elements of continuity, i.e., for elements that persisted beyond the transition from slavery to freedom. While manumission created the new social entity of the freedperson, the stain of the previous servile condition never left an ex-slave, and sometimes even affected the next freeborn generation. The best type of evidence for investigating the life narratives that freedmen considered important enough to be shared with others, including (other) citizens, is represented by inscriptions, especially those on funerary monuments. On their tombstones, freedpersons commemorated their own persona by recalling specific moments, achievements and relationships that influenced their life. MacLean, by analysing several epigraphic texts, highlights how the patron-freedman relationship, economic and civic achievements, and the continuity of personal relationships with former fellow slaves, were for many freed commissioners fundamental elements in the celebration of their new life. A key example for the transition from being an enslaved person to a freed person marshalled by MacLean is the (inscriptional) formula servus vovit, liber solvit, which closes many votive inscriptions. This formula underlines both the continuity and the discontinuity between the two statuses: a vow that was undertaken by a slave, was fulfilled afterwards by a free person (p. 150). The end of the chapter returns to the question of the role of the slave-owner relationship and the language of slavery in the formation of Stoic thought, as well as in Christian thought, reading the transition that a person experienced from slave to free from an eschatological point of view.

Freed Slaves and Roman Imperial Culture tackles various issues connected to slavery and its perception in both antiquity and today. An important aspect that this book brings to light is how the onset of imperial power provoked a profound change in Roman society to which the elite could not but adapt, sometimes by adopting the approaches and tactics of the freed. In this study, then, the cultural and social practices that moved from one group to another are considered from a fresh direction, challenging the usual and commonly accepted movement from the top to the lower strata; it is clear from the sources analysed that the libertine group influenced the elite as much as the elite influenced liberti, proving that the interaction between different strata was not one-directional. There are to my mind, however, a couple of drawbacks to MacLean’s thesis and approach. First, although it is said in the first chapter that the epigraphic evidence has been chosen to provide the reader with the most reliable and authentic voices of freedpersons, the epigraphy is not given the prominence that one would expect, lingering often merely in the background compared to the literary sources, thereby actually privileging the elite. Second, although this study makes reference to the experiences of both freed men and women, the latter are almost invisible in the analysis, and when they are called upon, their lives are subordinated to the study of their male relatives. These criticisms aside, MacLean’s book deserves credit for seeking to understand the dynamics of Roman slavery by studying the lives and experiences of the individuals who were actually subjected to the institution: slaves and ex-slaves.


1.   P. R. C. Weaver, Familia Caesaris: a Social Study of the Emperor's Freedmen and Slaves, (Cambridge 1972).
2.   H. Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World, (Cambridge 2011).
3.   Phaedrus’ legal status is arguable; he is considered by some scholars to have been a freeborn Roman citizen; MacLean, however, inclines towards the libertine option (p. 97).

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