BMCR 2023.01.33

Slaves of the people: a political and social history of Roman public slavery

, Slaves of the people: a political and social history of Roman public slavery. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2022. Pp. 489. ISBN 9783515131407

While in recent years the debate on Roman slavery has experienced a modest revival, the analysis of public slavery, despite its importance, continues to occupy a marginal position. Through this monograph, as through some of his previous works, Franco Luciani is one of the main voices that have tried to reverse the situation of oblivion to which the servitus publica seemed condemned. The brief historiographical sketch that the author includes in his Introduction is enough to convince the reader of the relevance of an update on the subject such as the one this volume undertakes. In this first section, Luciani anticipates what will be the main objective of the work: to provide a “holistic view” of public slavery in the Roman West, as well as to construct a catalogue of all the primary sources regarding Roman public slavery, whether in the city of Rome itself, in Italy or in the western provinces. The aim is to complement prior contributions such as those of Halkin,  Eder, or Weiß.[1] The 170 pages of appendices that the author includes at the end of his monograph are more than evident proof of both author’s meticulous treatment of these sources (mainly epigraphic, but also literary and, to a lesser extent, iconographic) and of the fulfilment of this central objective.

After the introduction, Luciani starts his study with  Chapter 1, “Being a Public Slave. Framing the Issue,” specifically dedicated to delimiting the study’s framework, and he does so by proposing a definition of the public slave (or, as the author himself puts it, “a slave of the people”) based on three pillars: 1) ownership by a plural entity; 2) employment, potentially or de facto, for the common interest of that plural entity; 3) a prospect of being manumitted through an official procedure. While this initial definitional effort is helpful for the author, it is accompanied by a disclaimer against generalisation, as well as by an invitation to assume a kaleidoscopic perspective that considers the important chronological, spatial, and functional nuances of public slavery. Chapter 2, “Public Slaves Across Time,” introduces the reader to the time variable, with the Republic-Empire axis always present. Similarly, the long Chapter 3, “Serving the State,” and Chapter 4, “Serving the Cities,” underline the importance of spatial nuance by separately analysing public slavery in the Urbs and in the cities of Italy and the provinces, once again demonstrating the author’s desire to offer a global overview of public slavery, superior in this respect to the works of Eder (focused exclusively on Rome) and Weiß (devoted to the rest of the cities of the Empire). Both chapters present a complex internal structure that deals with the multiple roles of the public slave in the administrative, religious, and logistical fabric of Roman society, thus anticipating what will be one of the main conclusions of the volume: there is not one, but multiple realities within public slavery. Chapter 5, “Being Freed by the Community,” deals with one of the indispensable themes in any monograph on Roman slavery, be it public or private: manumission, focusing on the procedures and the expectations of freedom for public slaves, and, after that, dealing with the question of public freedmen both in the city of Rome and in the rest of the cities of the Empire. Finally, both Chapter 6, “’The Lowly Hands of Public Slaves’?,” and the Conclusions that bring Luciani’s treatise to a close (“Roman Public Slaves: Distinctive, not Necessarily Advantaged) canalise the vast documentation analysed in the previous chapters towards a single task: to situate the public slave within the highly complex canvas of Roman social hierarchy.

As I have already pointed out, the real crowning point of this volume is constituted by six complete appendices that compile all the direct or indirect references to public slaves in the epigraphic documentation and in the literary sources, again differentiating the framework of the Urbs (Appendix 1), the Italic cities (Appendix 2), the western provinces of the Empire (Appendix 3) and individualising the cases of Incerti (Appendix 4), the provincial slaves and freedmen (Appendix 5) and the slaves and freedmen of societates and collegia (Appendix 6). since the latter fit into the author’s definition of “slaves of the people”, insofar as they are slaves of a collectivity. All this constitutes a robust corpus of 751 items of information on public slaves.  The monograph is rounded off with a solid bibliographical list, an always useful Index Locorum and a general index. In his effort to compile and analyse the elusive documentation on public slaves, especially through the central chapters of the volume and its appendices, Luciani more than succeeds. Undoubtedly, Slaves of the People will henceforth be a useful must-have reference for any researcher seeking to delve into the study of Roman public slavery.

It is perhaps in the conclusions to which this analysis leads that the reader is left somewhat empty-handed, for the final chapters limit themselves to a brief enumeration of the material conditions and life expectations of the slaves and freedmen, and then hastily discard the traditional thesis that the servi publici had a position of privilege only immediately inferior to that of the Familia Caesaris (Weiß 2004, p. 177), setting out Luciani’s position in a final argument that evokes the author’s previous work[2]. The heterogeneous reality of public slaves, as presented by Luciani throughout the monograph, makes it impossible to situate these individuals in unique coordinates within the Roman social pyramid. Thus, rather than one public slavery, it is convenient to speak of several types of public slavery, cohesive not around a common privileged status but around a distinctive and specific legal position. Luciani’s proposal is solid and convincing since it is based on the detailed study of this internal variety, but, as I say, his final exposition seems hasty, as he hardly enters into dialogue with the opposing theories or with those that are in tune with his argument.

Perhaps this concision is the result of caution, a virtue invoked by the author on many occasions throughout the monograph, especially when it comes to going a step further in the interpretation of the sources (p. 212; p. 219). It is when this excess of prudence is shaken off, although still furnished with due rigour, that Luciani’s proposal becomes more stimulating for the reader. As an example, the author’s reconstruction of the case of the sceleratissimus servus publicus mentioned in CIL XI, 4639 (p. 237–240; no. 412 in the Appendices) has an audacious point that makes it particularly useful for historical debate, as it allows the introduction of an important feature: although the sources tend to reproduce an image of the public slave and freedman completely satisfied with the values of the local elites, the world of slavery, be it public or private, is always a scene of violence and tension. In the same way, the author’s description, present throughout the book, of the republican political system’s use of public slaves as a powerful political-cultural symbol with which to emphasise the public character of the actions of magistrates and priests, and with which to carry out a sort of “nationalisation” of certain public acts by assigning them directly to servi publici populi Romani (p. 46; p. 256), is also suggestive. Finally, Luciani’s depiction of the role of the servae publicae within the Roman system of public slavery, centred on the internal reproduction of the different familiae publicae and on functions that the author labels under the diffuse term of “household management” (pp. 126–127; pp. 223–225; p. 254), is also challenging, although I venture that it will arouse controversy. Although epigraphy is certainly silent on the tasks carried out by public slaves in Italic and provincial cities (since in Rome there is no trace of servae publicae), I believe that the information we have on the distribution of tasks by sex in the field of private slavery allows us to deduce a more varied functionality, beyond the obvious veto of activities linked to the public sphere (which are precisely those that leave the greatest trace in epigraphy and literary sources). All in all, I believe that Luciani’s proposal achieves what any scientific publication should aspire to: it opens a fertile field for debate and discussion.

Some minor elements of the monograph require critical comment. On p. 259 (and partially also on p. 29), it seems to be stated that the Senatus Consultum Claudianum was abolished in Hadrian’s time; actually, Hadrian’s modification of was limited to the “inelegant rule” according to which a free woman could agree with the slave’s master to preserve her freedom, but not that of the children resulting from this mixed union (Gai. Inst. 1.84). I am sure that this is indeed the author’s interpretation (as it is so reproduced in Luciani 2020, p. 375), for it is the one that affects his interpretation of the senatus consultum as a regular source of obtaining new public slaves, but the way in which this fact is stated in the book is somewhat confusing to the reader who is not familiar with these regulations. It is also worth noting certain reiterations in the use and analysis of literary sources (especially between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.1) which are at times somewhat irritating, but are perhaps unintended consequences of the monograph’s complex internal structure; it does not elude me that it is these very reiterations that enhance the usefulness of Slaves of the People as a companion volume. As is evident, the superficiality of these minimal amendments speaks well for the quality of the author’s work, which in every case uses literary and legal sources pertinently and aptly to reinforce his central arguments.

Finally, I am not entirely convinced of the integration of the slaves of the societates or collegia into the very concept of servus publicus (or, if preferred, “slave of the people”), as is defended on pp. 35–40. The author bases his argument primarily on his own three-stage definition of the public slave and on the way in which the jurists Gaius and Ulpian tended to analyse the slaves of these associations in parallel to the slaves of the municipia. The first argument comes dangerously close to circular reasoning since, in any case, a definition that identifies as public slaves individuals who may not be such, might not be a valid tool; secondly, Gaius’ and Ulpian’s expressions evoke a legal equivalence with the slaves of the municipia based on the collective (not necessarily public) character of the property, without implying an equivalence in nature between the two groups of slaves. In any case, this question once again offers a stimulating subject for debate.

To conclude, Slaves of the People. A Political and Social History of Roman Public Slavery notably fulfils the objectives set out by the author in his introduction: it is, indeed, a holistic approach to Roman public slavery that successfully updates and completes previous works thanks to its excellent annex catalogue and the good analysis of the data carried out, especially throughout the central chapters of the volume. At the same time, Slaves of the People contains interesting interpretative proposals that will undoubtedly stimulate the discussion on Roman public slavery. In such a debate, the author’s authoritative voice will surely continue to have much to say.



[1] A. Weiss, Sklaven der Stadt: Untersuchungen zur öffentlichen Sklaverei in den Städten des römischen Reiches (Stuttgart, 2004).

[2] F. Luciani, “Public slaves in Rome: « privileged » or not ?”, Classical Quarterly, N. S., 70.1 (2020), p. 368-384.