BMCR 2005.11.21

Not Wholly Free: The Concept of Manumission and the Status of Manumitted Slaves in the Ancient Greek World. Mnemosyne Supplement 266

, Not wholly free : the concept of manumission and the status of manumitted slaves in the ancient Greek world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (vi, 385 pages).. ISBN 9004145850 $160.00.

Z-A’s monograph is, perhaps surprisingly, the first-ever English-language overview of manumission in the ancient Greek world.1 As such, this work will be particularly welcome to scholars and students of ancient slavery, Greek social history, and Greek law.

In the Introduction, Z-A declares three aims for her work: 1) to fill a gap in the modern scholarship on the subject of Greek manumission; 2) to clarify the status of the freed slave in ancient Greece; and 3) to shed new light on slavery by viewing the institution through a sociological lens.

Chapter 1 (“Slavery and Freedom: Definitions and Approaches”) begins with a discussion of modern and ancient definitions of slavery, in an attempt to ascertain how the Greeks thought about slaves and slavery. Setting herself apart from most modern scholars, who focus primarily on the political or economic elements of slavery, Z-A argues that the ancients also saw slavery as a social institution. Thus, after explaining the concept of philia (in her words, “a social bond involving exchange of services and loyalty,” 37), Z-A shows that philia relations could exist between parties of unequal status, including between master and slave. The main argument of this chapter might seem an obvious one — that the slave was understood simultaneously to be an object and a person — but it is a point that is often overlooked. And keeping this notion in our minds helps us understand how a slave, qua person, could be involved in a relationship of philia (Z-A offers a very good reading of Arist. NE 1161b5 in this light). The only problem with this chapter (and others that follow) is that by stressing the slave’s personhood over his object status, Z-A sometimes veers, however unintentionally, into a slightly humanitarian view of slavery, speaking of “ties of affection” between master and slave.2

In Chapter 2 (“Manumission, Diversity and Similarity”), Z-A surveys the nature of our evidence (literary, epigraphic, and papyrological), the various modes of manumission, and the terminology used for the freeing of slaves. Ultimately, she concludes that despite a diversity of practices, we can discern general features characterizing a widespread phenomenon. Z-A catalogues a number of manumission modes, including “public” manumissions (those granted by the polis); manumissions proclaimed in theatres, sanctuaries, and at altars,3 in law courts and the family circle, and in the presence of the agoranomos (the last only in Greco-Roman Egypt); manumission xenikei lysei;4 manumission through purchase by a third party ( prasis epi lysei); “mixed” manumissions, in which the polis is involved in an otherwise “private” manumission; and so-called “sacral” manumissions, which involve the fictive sales and consecrations of slaves to gods. Z-A’s conclusion is that “the multifarious and mixed nature of manumission acts defies a too-rigid taxonomy” (99), and in this she is completely right. (I might add only that any strict division of acts into “sacral” and “civic,” or “private” and “public,” would also have been meaningless to the Greeks themselves.) Next, in a section on manumission terminology, Z-A argues that the term apeleutheros refers to a freedman who has a continuing bond with — or more precisely, continuing obligations to — his former master, whereas exeleutheros denotes a manumitted slave who possesses unconditional freedom. Her evidence, particularly for the meaning of exeleutheros, does not support this conclusion, however, and this error has fairly far-reaching consequences: in the rest of the book, Z-A assumes a clear distinction between these two groups of freed slaves. But even if we dismiss this (to my mind) erroneous terminological distinction, Z-A’s broader thesis, that freed slaves in the ancient Greek world are for the most part “not wholly free,” still holds true.

Chapter 3 (“Manumittors and Manumitted Slaves”) investigates the group composition (age, gender, origin, etc.) both of those who freed their slaves and of those who were manumitted. In looking at the former, Z-A also tries to ascertain the motivations behind manumission from the perspective of masters; in the case of the latter, she speculates on the relationships these slaves must have had with their masters. Z-A’s aim in this chapter, in addition to providing a demographic background for the key players in manumission, is to foreground a point she stresses in the Introduction, namely “the double nature of slavery as both ownership and social relations” (130). That is to say, the slave was seen not merely as property, but as a person; and, as such, there were reasons apart from economic considerations — namely, personal reasons — that prompted a master to free his slaves. Unfortunately, these personal reasons are generally inaccessible to us.

Chapter 4 (“The Act of Manumission”) addresses the details of the practice of manumission. The first section looks at the publicity afforded to manumissions performed (or proclaimed) in law courts, theaters, the Council, and the Assembly; the use of witnesses and guarantors; payment to the polis for the registration of manumissions; and the consent of the ex-master and others to the act. The next section looks at the conditions of freedom: there is first a discussion of how slaves paid for their freedom (a problem, since slaves could not legally earn or possess money; here Z-A should perhaps have discussed the resort to fictive sale as a way of getting around this thorny legal issue). Z-A then looks at the subject of “deferred manumission,” that is to say, when a master frees his slave but with certain conditions, often that the latter stay and serve his manumittor ( paramone). Z-A is completely right to point out that “whatever we choose to call them — half-free, half-slave, both free and slave — it is obvious that slaves with deferred manumission were in a state of servile dependence on their manumittors” (244). That is, legally they were not slaves, but socially they were. This is an important distinction, and Z-A’s formulation is one of the best I have seen (cf. other scholars’ “limited slavery,” “limited freedom,” “half freedom,” etc.). (Although she does not explicitly expound upon this, the dual status of freedmen surely has broader implications for the complex nature of Greek status.) Next, Z-A turns to the evidence for prostatai (patrons), which is scanty at best. The chapter ends with a look at the “protection clauses” we find in manumission inscriptions, which serve to safeguard the freed slave’s newfound freedoms.

In Chapter 5 (“Laws and Legal Actions”), Z-A looks at the (primarily Athenian) evidence for laws regulating the status of freed slaves. She begins by summarizing the scholarly debate on the dike apostasiou, “a civil action allowed to manumittors against their freedmen, if they stand apart from them, or enroll another as prostates, or fail to do the other things required by the laws” (Harpocration s.v. apostasiou). The main epigraphic evidence for manumission in classical Athens consists of a series of inscriptions recording dedications of silver phialai, most likely by freed slaves after acquittal in dikai apostasiou. Scholars debate whether these were real trials or some sort of collusive fiction whereby slaves with deferred manumission were released from their remaining obligations. One reason for the latter interpretation is that there are “too many” records listed under one date (in IG II2 1578) to represent a reasonable number of cases for a court to handle in one day. Z-A’s novel approach to this “problem” is to suggest that the dike apostasiou was one of a category of monthly trials ( dikai emmenoi). I think she makes her case well — especially since, as she points out, dikai emmenoi include charges concerning eranoi (loan associations) and slaves (according to Ath. Pol. 52.2) and were relatively speedy cases (thus explaining how so many could take place on a given day). The next section of the chapter looks at a legal procedure called aphairesis eis eleutherian, whereby a freedman who was unjustly claimed as a slave could be vindicated as free. Until now, no one has surveyed the evidence for this practice or discussed it in detail; and not only does this discussion clarify a particular legal procedure, but it also points to the very precariousness of the freed slave’s new status. In the final section, Z-A reviews the limited evidence for “freedman laws,” the details of which are never spelled out in our sources, but which usually appear in inscriptions in which a manumission is said to have been conducted “in accordance with the law(s).”

Chapter 6 (“The Reality of Freedom”) tries to answer the fundamental question of this book: Were freedmen in ancient Greece really free? Z-A begins by looking at the obligations and rights of freed slaves. Among other things, she discusses the two main ways in which metics and freedmen differ legally, at least in classical Athens: freedmen were required to register their former masters as prostatai, whereas metics had free choice; and freedmen were obligated to pay a three-obol tax in addition to the metic tax. (She neglects to mention one other obligation differentiating the two groups: if a freedman died childless, all of his property reverted to his former master, whereas this does not appear to have been the case for metics.) Z-A’s discussion here is a much-needed corrective to conventional scholarly wisdom, which lumps freedmen into the category of metic. The second half of this chapter examines the social status of freedmen, reviewing the evidence for individual freed slaves from Rhodopis and Aesop, to Pasion and Phormion, to characters in Menander. Discerning a social prejudice against manumitted slaves, Z-A rightly argues that even if they managed to advance socially and economically in society, freedmen “always remained ‘the manumitted slave of’ someone” (333).

A relatively brief Conclusion summarizes the work’s findings. While many of Z-A’s conclusions are valid, and in fact innovative, I find questionable her statement that “the fact that the same terms and their related verbs” for freedmen and manumission “were used in the same sense in different places, from the classical to the Roman periods, proves the uniformity of the Greek concept of manumission” (338). I would agree with Z-A that we can in fact discern a relative consistency of manumission practice over a large geographic and temporal range, but I do not think that the persistent use of the words apeleutheros/oun and exeleutheros/oun proves this point. As such, I find dubious Z-A’s concluding sentence: “The terminology of manumission…perfectly reflects the reality and the concept of manumission, and these were shared by all Greeks at all times” (344).

Z-A’s bibliography omits two recent works on Greek manumission: H. Klees’ Sklavenleben im klassischen Griechenland (Stuttgart 1998) (see esp. his chapter on manumission);5 and L. Darmezin’s Les affranchissements par consecration en Béotie et dans le monde grec hellénistique (Paris 1999).6 There are a few specific instances in which citations of scholarship are conspicuously absent. For instance, Z-A does not mention that the status of certain inscriptions as manumissions is contested: e.g. the 2nd to 4th-c. CE inscriptions from Leucopetra and the 5th-c. BCE Tainaron inscriptions.7 Moreover, when Z-A makes statements like “The manumitted slave’s protracted dependence on his or her manumittor constructed the latter’s superior social position as both the former master and the full eleutheros — a citizen with a defined bundle of rights and privileges” (302), she ought to cite modern scholarship both on the notion of “constructed identity” (from Althusser to gender/postcolonial theory) and on the concept of “bundle of rights and privileges.”8

I have a few minor quibbles with Z-A’s style: she frequently uses the adjective “interesting” without qualification, to which the reader is left to wonder, “interesting how ?” Her use of the terms “sale-manumission” and “consecration-manumission” — direct translations of the German Sklavenfreikauf and Weihefreilassung — is a bit awkward in English. Throughout the book, relatively little Greek is quoted, apart from select phrases; particularly helpful would have been full quotation of at least some of the manumission inscriptions. Finally, the rigidity of the book’s structure — essentially a fleshed-out outline, with headings like “4.2.2. Deferred Manumission” and numerous cross references — makes a straight read-through somewhat difficult; however, if the reader approaches Not Wholly Free primarily as a handbook, the style is actually quite appropriate.

While Z-A does not entirely succeed in sustaining her argument for manumission as based on ” philia relations,” this book nonetheless fills a huge void in the scholarship on ancient slavery and also makes significant headway toward defining the status of the freedman in ancient Greece. These contributions should not be underappreciated.


1. The only comprehensive treatments of manumission in the ancient Greek world are A. Calderini’s La manomissione e la condizione dei liberti in Grecia (Milan 1908) and H. Rädle’s dissertation Untersuchungen zum griechischen Freilassungswesen (Munich 1969). Elizabeth Meyer is currently compiling a complete on-line corpus of manumission inscriptions.

2. So, e.g., Z-A says that in cases where masters free their slaves without asking for recompense, “it is revealing that slave-owners saw it necessary to emphasize their generosity; in such cases, ties of affection seem to have overridden economic considerations” (208). Cf. other instances passim.

3. Z-A says that “evidently here the altar was a convenient public venue and served no religious function” (72). This seems to me far from “evident”: I see no reason to dismiss the role of gods in facilitating or protecting manumissions, as Z-A tends to do.

4. Z-A argues that xenikei lysei is actually not a mode of manumission but that the phrase refers to a release ( apolusis) “from foreigners’ tax.” But if this were the case, why would the phrase be in the dative? I think, rather, that it refers to a mode of manumission (thus an instrumental dative).

5. Klees 1998 ought to be cited (e.g.) for his innovative interpretation of Harpocration s.v. apostasiou on the basis of [Plut.] Mor. 841F-42A: namely, that ex-slaves convicted in these dikai were sold through the state.

6. Darmezin 1999 ought to be cited (e.g.) in Z-A’s chapters 3.1 (Darmezin 1999: 195-206), 3.2 (207-231), 4.3 (228-231), and 4.4 (187-191).

7. On Leucopetra: that the inscriptions represent real consecrations, see P. M. Petsas et al. (eds.), Inscriptions du sanctuaire de la Mère des Dieux autochtone de Leukopétra (Macédoine) (Athens 2000); M. Ricl Tekmeria (2000) 5: 155-60; D. Mulliez Topoi (2000) 10: 448; cf. E.A. Meyer AJP (2002) 123: 136-40. On Tainaron: see, e.g., M. Bloch, Die Freilassungsbedingungen der delphischen Freilassungsinschriften (Strassburg 1914) 7n.1; Rädle 1969: 26-34.

8. See, e.g., M. I. Finley, “The Servile Statuses of Ancient Greece.” In B. D. Shaw and R. P. Saller (eds.), Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (London 1981) 148.