Ancient History & Civilisation


Section Four


This section wonders what Rome looked like from the point of view of ordinary Romans – from the slaves to the squaddies who patrolled Hadrian’s Wall (or, for that matter, the provincials they were trying to keep in order). What can we say about how those who were not rich, powerful or famous spent their lives?

The answer is: we can say rather more than you might think. It will come as no surprise that it is even less possible to write a biography of any ordinary Roman than of an emperor. Nonetheless, a whole variety of material survives that brings the world of the poor, the humble, and the disadvantaged back to life. Chapter 20 looks at what the bones of the victims of Pompeii can tell us about how those people lived, as well as exploring some forgotten texts that lift the lid on the day-to-day worries of the average inhabitant of the Roman empire. Pride of place must go to an ancient fortune-teller’s kit, which answered such perennial questions as ‘Am I about to be caught as an adulterer?’ or ‘Will the one who is sick survive?’ (not to mention some less perennial ones, such as ‘Am I going to be sold?’ or ‘Have I been poisoned?’). Chapter 22 celebrates the Roman letters and documents that over the last couple of decades have been discovered at the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall – from a lady’s birthday party invitation to lists of food consumed in the officers’ mess; and it wonders what they tell us about a Roman squaddie’s life in the frozen north (for one thing, it was much more ‘family friendly’ than we often suppose).

But thinking about life beyond the elite also raises big questions that are still debated about the infrastructure of the Roman world, and how it actually functioned. One of the most important, and puzzling, issues is Roman slavery (Chapter 19). Why did the Romans free so many of their slaves? What difference did it make to Roman society in general that so many free people were ex-slaves, or descended from them? And, once Rome’s major wars of conquest were over, where did all the new slaves come from to replace those that had been freed or died? Should we imagine large-scale people-trafficking on the margins of the empire?

Big questions are also raised about Roman imperialism and militarism. Chapter 21 confronts some current debates on just how keen on war Rome, or the average Roman, was. Were they really as committed to brutality as they have often been painted? And what view did people living in the generally peaceful centre of the empire have of the wars fought in their name hundreds of miles away? Chapter 22 brings some of those issues down to earth in Roman Britain, by asking how violent the Roman conquest and occupation of the province was, what the scale of casualties might have been. But it also asks, more generally, how we should understand the interactions between the invaders and the British people. How ‘Roman’ did the province ever become? Did Roman culture in some form reach down to the average ‘bloody Brits’ (Brittunculi, as the Romans sometimes called them)?

Another aspect of Roman imperialism is language – not just how far Latin wiped out the other languages it met in its path, but how communication actually took place between the Roman governors, military officials and their staff, and the provincial populations. In the eastern part of the Roman empire, that problem was less marked, as many elite Romans were fluent in Greek, which more or less acted as a lingua franca of Roman rule. But how would a Roman senator have coped when he got off the boat in Britain for a short stint governing the province? And in what language did the Roman squaddies deal with the ‘bloody Brits’? The final chapter in this section looks at bilingualism in the Roman world: not just the Greek that could be written and spoken by Romans at the top of the social spectrum, but the bits of foreign languages (the ancient equivalent of ‘holiday French’) picked up by many people in the multicultural world of the empire. We have evidence for Romans who could ‘get by’ in Carthaginian Punic, and for potters in Gaul dealing in Latin with their Roman bosses. But the most vivid and touching exhibit of all is a tombstone from Roman South Shields, put up by a man from Palmyra, in Syria, to his wife, (an ex-slave) called Regina (Fig. 12). She is commemorated on the stone, bilingually, in both Latin and Aramaic. One has to wonder how many people in Roman South Shields knew Aramaic – or much Latin, for that matter.



On a dirty patch of grass next to a tram terminus in modern Rome is one of the most intriguing monuments to have survived from the ancient world. It is the tomb of a Roman baker, Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, who died around the middle of the first century BC. Over 30 foot high, it is a visual joke. Its strange shape and decoration mimic on a grand scale the various tools of the baker’s trade, from mixing bowls to kneading machines; in a way, the whole tomb can be read as an image of a bakery, or a vast bread oven. And, just to make it explicit, around the top (originally on all four sides of the monument, but one has been lost), run detailed sculpted friezes showing different stages in the bread-making process: from the buying of the grain, through grinding, mixing and baking, to the loaves being weighed and sent out to be sold. It offers an illustrated handbook of the Roman bakery business, and a wonderful document of pride in the job (as well as – given the tomb’s size and splendour – the profits to be made from it).

Eurysaces was both lucky and unlucky in his choice of site for his memorial. Unlucky, because he had purchased a prime and (presumably) expensive position where two main roads met, just outside the city limits. But within a few decades his monument was completely overshadowed – indeed, practically hidden – by a huge new aqueduct, which ran into the city hardly more than a few feet away from it. Lucky, because the aqueduct was later incorporated into the city wall, and eventually the fortifications of one of the city gates (the present Porta Maggiore) were built around Eurysaces’ tomb, preserving it almost perfectly until it was brought to light again in the nineteenth century – giving the baker more lasting fame than he could ever have dreamt of.


9. The idiosyncratic baker’s tomb is now overshadowed by the Roman aqueduct and later city gate.

But that fame was two-edged. Modern scholars have been very struck by the monument – and also very snobbish about it. The usual assumption is that the baker was an ex-slave (the text on the tomb does not actually state that explicitly, but at this date a Greek name such as ‘Eurysaces’ generally indicated slave origins). As such, so the familiar argument runs, he may have had plenty of money, but not much taste. However cute we may now find it, the tomb was frankly vulgar by Roman standards – ‘an egregious monument’, as one architectural historian described it.

This is, in fact, how art sponsored by ex-slaves in the Roman world is regularly judged. The wonderful paintings from the so-called House of the Vettii in Pompeii (including the famous picture-postcard cupids, playing at grape-treading, cloth-working, racing and the like) would be hailed as masterpieces if they had been found on the walls of the imperial palace in Rome. But ‘the Vettii’ were very likely a pair of ex-slaves, in a provincial backwater to boot, and their decoration tends to be sniffed at by art historians: it’s all a bit nouveau, a bit over the top.

Henrik Mouritsen develops this theme in the introduction to The Freedman in the Roman World, his wide-ranging study of ex-slaves (liberti in Latin, ‘freedmen’ in the usual modern scholarly jargon – which is taken to include ‘freedwomen’). As he points out, there is a puzzling contrast between, on the one hand, the overwhelmingly sympathetic treatment given to Roman slaves in modern writing, as innocent victims of a terrible human wrong – and, on the other, a decidedly disparaging attitude to ex-slaves, who had been granted (or bought) their freedom. No writers today quite echo the strident complaints of early twentieth-century historians who regularly decried the Roman practice of ‘manumission’ (that is, the formal process of freeing slaves) and lamented the dilution of the true Italian stock with the foreign blood of freedmen, whose origins often lay in the East. But even relatively recently, scholars have been known to hint darkly at ‘the infiltration of the Roman population by foreigners’ and to cast ex-slaves – particularly those who made money – as ‘social climbers’. And we find repeated reference to ‘undeserving’ slaves, freed by their masters for ‘trivial’ reasons. Even Jane Gardner, in an otherwise excellent chapter on ‘Slavery and Roman Law’ in The Cambridge World History of Slavery can still refer to the ‘abuse’ of manumission (by the freeing of too many, or unworthy, slaves). There is a strange illogicality here: if slavery is always a terrible injustice (as our own morality insists), then it follows that granting freedom – for whatever reason, and whatever numbers – must be a good thing. Manumission, in those terms, cannot be ‘abused’; such phrases sit very uneasily alongside the homilies about human rights that usually accompany any discussion of ancient slaves.

Of course, in treating Roman freedmen in this way, modern writers are partly (consciously or, more often, unconsciously) reflecting the prejudices of their ancient predecessors and sources. Historians in the Roman world certainly saw moral and political dangers in freeing too many slaves – most notoriously, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose history of Rome, written at the end of the first century BC, includes a rant about the slave criminals and prostitutes who used their ill-gotten gains to purchase freedom from their masters. And the most lurid caricature of a vulgar freedman comes from Petronius’ novel, the Satyrica, featuring the extravagant dinner party of the libertus Trimalchio – with its ludicrous luxury, its parodically expensive food, and hilarious discussion of proposals for a freedman’s elaborate tomb to rival that of Eurysaces. Never mind that this is an elite skit, written by a one-time friend of the Emperor Nero about a member of the aspirant underclass; that hasn’t stopped generations of modern historians writing as if Trimalchio was a ‘typical’ Roman freedman. In fact, in the eyes of many, the baker’s monument provides nice confirmation of just how true to life Petronius’ Trimalchio was.

But an extra problem for modern historians is that we have no familiar category that helps us make sense of the Roman libertus. We think we know about slavery; but the ex-slave is much harder. In a desperate search for a useful equivalent, we tend to reach for the caricature of the arriviste, the stereotype of the ‘man on the make’, with more money than taste. The truth is, needless to say, that most ex-slaves in Rome didn’t have enough money to be tasteless.

It is, of course, that unfamiliarity – in particular the unique rules and conventions that produced so many ex-slaves – that makes Roman slavery so interesting. The basic point is that almost all slave-owning societies have had some mechanism for giving some slaves their freedom, but none – so far as we can tell – ever freed slaves in such large numbers as Rome. More than that, the Romans gave ex-slaves almost all the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship. In ancient Athens, a freed slave became at best a ‘resident alien’; in Rome any slave freed, according to certain legal rules, by a Roman citizen, himself became a Roman citizen, with only a few restrictions (ex-slaves could not serve in the army, for example, or hold political office); and no restrictions at all applied to the second generation. The poet Horace is just one notable example of a son of an ex-slave who lived close to the top of the Roman pecking order. On one reckoning, most domestic slaves in Roman towns would have died as free citizens (though almost certainly far fewer agricultural or industrial slaves would have been freed).

Why Roman masters, and mistresses, released so much of their human property remains disputed: sometimes affection for their domestic household (and a good number of slave women were freed in order to marry their masters); sometimes a sense of economic self-interest (it is, after all, expensive to keep an elderly slave past their prime); sometimes perhaps because manumission was a useful carrot to ensure a slave’s good behaviour; or it was simply ‘what Romans did’. But, however it is to be explained, it was probably not true to say (in Orlando Patterson’s famous phrase) that slavery in urban Rome was ‘social death’ – for many, if not most, Roman slaves, like Horace’s father, it was a finite condition, a phase of ‘temporary social paralysis’.

Mouritsen reminds us that the reality of Roman slavery and freedom was much more complicated, and uncertain, than we often like to admit. What is more, our whole understanding of Roman liberti is based on all kinds of perilous calculations and ‘guesstimates’ – many of which turn out to have a major impact on how we imagine Roman society as a whole, far beyond the issue of slavery itself. One key question is not simply how many slaves were freed, but what proportion of the ordinary free population of the city of Rome were ex-slaves or the descendants of ex-slaves. If we were to take the evidence of surviving tombstones at face value (and most are much simpler and much less loquacious than the baker’s tomb), the vast majority of the free inhabitants of the metropolis were of slave origin. Leaving aside a few aristocratic commemorations and those of slaves themselves, roughly three-quarters of the people recorded on epitaphs from Rome are almost certainly ex-slaves, and most of the rest are probably their direct descendants.

The problem here is clear – and irresolvable. Should we really imagine (as some people do) that the population of the imperial capital was overwhelmingly made up of liberti and those of ‘libertine’ origin? Or are ex-slaves for some reason over-represented in the surviving evidence? Perhaps, for example, their newly acquired status made them particularly keen to commemorate themselves. Whichever way you jump, these thousands of relatively humble epitaphs are a world away from the stereotype of the vulgar, rich arriviste symbolised by Trimalchio.

But, in fact, the more you look at it, the more the clear binary distinction between the slave and the officially freed libertus, complete with his Roman citizenship, breaks down. Increasingly, from the first century BC on, there were stringent rules governing the formal practice of manumission: no one under twenty could free a slave; no slave could be freed before the age of thirty; there were limits to the numbers of slaves that could be freed by a dead master’s will; in addition, most manumission was supposed to take place in front of a serving Roman magistrate. What is clear is that large numbers of slaves must have been freed against those stipulations. We see, for example, plenty of ex-slaves in epitaphs under the age of thirty, and although some people clearly could track down a convenient Roman magistrate (some surviving wax tablets from Herculaneum document a number who did), that cannot possibly have been feasible for all.

In practice, some were probably treated as if they were ‘properly’ freed, even when they were not. But others must have fallen into a halfway category (known technically as ‘Junian Latin’), which gave them freedom, but not Roman citizenship – although they could later work up to citizenship by fulfilling certain additional criteria, such as having a surviving child. Quite how many people were in each of these categories is impossible to say (though some historians now suspect that the Junian Latins were far more numerous than we ever imagined). The important thing here is the complicated patchwork of statuses through which individuals might pass – from slaves, or even slaves of slaves (vicarii in Latin) to formally freed, citizen liberti. And it was not only upward social mobility. One Roman law ruled that a free woman having an affair with a slave, with the consent of his owner, was ‘reduced’ to the status of ex-slave; if she was acting without the owner’s consent, she became his slave.

Mouritsen is an excellent guide to the tricky social history and economics of Roman freedmen, as well as their continuing links with their former masters or mistresses. He is less adept in discussing the literary and cultural impact of the ex-slave. His attempts to read Horace’s views on liberti are rather plodding; and the fact that the assassins of Caesar could represent themselves as manumitting the state by his murder (the distinctive hat worn by newly freed slaves is featured on the assassins’ coinage, p. 98) surely tells us more about the way Romans could conceptualise the whole notion of the freedman than Mouritsen’s brief mention allows. But the most important achievement of Mouritsen’s Freedman is to make it absolutely clear that it would be impossible to understand Roman slavery without taking ex-slavery into account too.

So it is a pity that, overall, the first volume of the World History of Slavery devotes so little space to liberti (a vast category which thus falls into limbo, unless – as I very much doubt – a Cambridge World History of Freedmen is planned). In many ways this is an absolutely excellent volume, including twenty-two authoritative essays on different aspects of ancient slavery by some of the international leaders in the field: from Paul Cartledge nicely summing up the Spartan helots to Keith Bradley discussing the various forms of Roman slave resistance to their masters (much more often petty pilfering and insolence than full-scale rebellion or even running away). All the same, I missed any explicit, extended discussion of Roman manumission and its implications.

To be sure, it creeps in at the edges in relation to particular problems and questions, notably in Walter Scheidel’s fine chapter on Roman slave supply. This has recently become a fiercely contested topic. If, as is estimated, the Roman Empire as a whole needed to find between 250,000 and 400,000 new slaves per year, simply to keep the slave population steady, where on earth did they come from, once Rome’s major wars of conquest were over, and prisoners of war had dried up? Almost certainly there would have been a variety of different sources: the home-grown children of existing slaves (vernae), the slave trade which presumably engaged in people-trafficking beyond the boundaries of empire, the ‘rescuing’ of babies who had been exposed by their parents. But the proportions are crucial here, and make a huge difference to our view of Roman society more generally (if babies plucked from dung heaps were a significant element in the equation, it must be telling us something about the prevalence of child-exposure).

And rates of manumission – as well as estimates of the average age at which slaves were freed – are absolutely central to this debate. For these factors help to determine the number of slaves that would have to have been replaced (the more freed, the more needed); and they also help to fix the number of babies a female slave could have produced, as vernae for the household, before she was freed (the later her manumission, the more potential babies, the greater her contribution to slave supply). One thing that Roman slave women would not have gone without – however unwilling they, no doubt, often were – was an active sex life.

But the Roman ‘culture of manumission’ has even wider implications for how slavery was understood by the Romans themselves. The simple fact that slavery was for so many a temporary condition rather than a life sentence must have had an enormous impact on the way slavery was theorised at Rome (on this Mouritsen is absolutely correct to say that Varro never used the term ‘speaking tool’ or instrumentum vocale specifically to denote the slave, although that common myth still persists, even in the World History – Varro put free labour in that category too). And the simple fact that very many, perhaps the majority, of the free population of the metropolis were ex-slaves or closely related to them must have made a difference to the way that slaves were perceived by the ordinary man and woman in the street there.

In short, Roman slavery must have been a very different thing from slavery in the classical Greek city, where the barriers between slave and free were much more rigorously policed. Yet it is classical Greece (and its native theorists, such as Aristotle) that has tended to drive our approaches to ‘ancient slavery’.

And as for Eurysaces? He does get a brief mention in the World History’s very useful chapter by Michele George on ‘Slavery and Roman Material Culture’; but it is as much for the slaves he himself owned, and who (as we see on the sculpted friezes of his tomb) toiled away making the bread in his bakery. I suspect that he would be rather disappointed that neither he himself, nor the libertus in general, figured larger in the book.

Review of Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume One: The Ancient Mediterranean World (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

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