Ancient History & Civilisation



THE FREEDMAN, THE EX-SLAVE, is an ordinary Roman very difficult to imagine because there is not even a remotely similar category in Western societies. Freedmen have attracted a good deal of attention in Roman social history because the elite interacted with them in significant and often negative ways. Ironically, their visibility in prejudiced elites’ sources has made their actual lives quite invisible. Freedmen or freedwomen are much like other free ordinary folk, but their situation and possibilities are different enough, and the animus and misunderstandings regarding them misleading enough, to call for a separate treatment.

The animus comes out in the elite’s literary portrayal of the freedmen, a portrayal that has often been taken as a true description of freedmen in general. The treatment of such authors as Juvenal, Martial, Tacitus, and Suetonius depicts freedmen who were insulting at least and anathema at most to the ruling men of the empire, and to their literary mouthpieces. The origin of this attitude is in the dynamics of slavery and freed slaves within the elite household. I will describe in detail below the circumstances and life of freedmen; in summary here I just note that ex-slaves, like slaves, were absolutely essential to the ‘leisure class’ life of the aristocracy. And more than just a source of labor, ex-slaves in particular represented the most successful of an elite’s slaves. These were the slaves who had been put in charge of affairs in the household and on rural estates. These were the slaves who had been financed in business ventures on behalf of the master. It was only through such dependent men (and at times women) that a master could manage and control the resources to produce the wealth that produced the leisure. In return for the ‘privilege’ of being a slave or ex-slave in the master’s household, the slave or freedman owed obedience and duty to the master and his interests. As far as the master was concerned, the position was one of perpetual dominance (for a slave) and subalternship (if a freedman). If they accepted this position, then all was well. But, in fact, a man was often employed in a responsible task because he was exceptionally talented; with freedom could come an assertion of that talent for his own purposes, leading to significant or even vast wealth. With the talent and wealth came the challenge to and extreme tension for the aristocracy that always arose when ‘outsiders’ qualified by ability and money challenged the existing elite for influence and power. But with freedmen it was much worse than had the challenge come from mere nouveaux riches – these were men who had once been slaves, a condition inherently and inextinguishably degrading in the eyes of the leaders of society. It is this revulsion at status-crashing that turned what might have been mere disdain into active loathing.

And worst of all were the ex-slaves of the imperial family. I do not include these freedmen in general here as they are set apart from other ordinary freedmen by their special relationship to the imperial household, but their role in creating the perception of the elites must be noted. The imperial freedmen derived prestige from association with the ruler of the rulers. They were relied upon to run the machinery of the empire (for the empire was thought of as a great household by the emperor, to be managed like any other ‘estate’). They could take advantage of their position to assert themselves (as agents of the emperor) blatantly at the expense of the elite, who had to do as the emperor wished or suffer the consequences. So the irksomeness was doubled: the elite had to bow to the emperor, and also to his agents, who once had been slaves.

The hatred of imperial freedmen especially, but uppity freedmen in general, brought scathing opprobrium to focus on this societal group. To keep them at bay, they were disparaged as forever despised, inferior; they were marked by law and custom as unworthy of mixing with the elite in politics or marriage or anything. All this is understandable given the mentality of the elite. But what all too often happens is that this assessment of freedmen is generalized to provide the context and even details of lives of freedmen in general. I seek to retrieve the outlook of ordinary freedmen and to show how large the gulf was between their lives and negative descriptions of freedmen provided by the elite.

Alongside the alleged ancient hostility toward ordinary freedmen lies the modern misunderstanding that sees the freedmen as the bourgeoisie. Just as the ancient aristocracy limned freedmen according to their prejudices, over the past two centuries many have tried to find a ‘middle class’ in the freedmen because they were often engaged in commerce and industry. But they are no such ‘class’ in any sense that fits the actual conception of a ‘middle,’ nor do they fit the sociopolitical implications of a bourgeoisie. Fortunately, many scholars now avoid such descriptions, but they are found in older works, and in careless popular accounts.

A more pernicious nuance to the discussion of freedmen comes with racist overtones. Moderns have taken their cue from the vehement accusation of Tacitus and Juvenal about ‘Orontes flowing into Tiber.’ Starting with a conviction that peoples of the Eastern Empire (the Orontes is a river in Syria) were effeminate, intriguing, loathsome folks in general, the elite was convinced that slaves mostly came from there (or, at least, the ones who became uppity freedmen) and were displacing native-born, virile, moral Italians in Rome. This was leading to a definite decline in the quality of Romans as a whole, they thought. Early in the twentieth century the great ancient historian Tenney Frank wrote an extremely influential article in which he used epigraphic evidence from Rome to ‘prove’ the ancients right; he concluded that during the empire only 10 percent of Romans had ‘pure’ Italian blood and that fully 80 percent of the city of Rome were freedmen and their descendants from the eastern, ‘oriental’ part of the empire. Read today, his analysis is blatantly Eurocentric, racist, and a paradigm of orientalism. But his statistics and conclusions so fit the ancient elite’s own prejudiced views that they were not seriously questioned by A. M. Duff in his fundamental 1928 treatment of freedmen (‘It seems, then, that freedman and their descendants in a great measure ruined Rome … Manumission, if it has been directed aright, need not have worked with such deplorable effects upon the population … The influx of Oriental blood would not have been so overwhelming’); Frank’s premises and ‘evidence’ were influential even as late as the 1960s. It is time once and for all to eliminate such thinking from any discussion of freedmen.


When I talk about freedmen I actually restrict myself to a specific group: slaves that have been freed by masters who were Roman citizens. Manumitted properly, these slaves became Roman citizens, although citizens with some disabilities, which I will discuss. Freed slaves of any other citizenship (and remember that there was no universal Roman citizenship until early in the third century AD) did not gain citizenship in either their local towns or in the Roman body politic upon gaining freedom; rather, they became just like any other noncitizens in their communities – Athens, Alexandria, Antioch – and in the empire. Of demographic necessity, therefore, freedmen were concentrated in Italy, where citizens were concentrated, and to a lesser extent in the western areas of the empire; Roman citizens and therefore Roman freedmen were rarer in the eastern regions. Moreover, it seems that most freedmen lived in urban rather than rural areas since the opportunities to gain one’s freedom were apparently more abundant in the urban household setting.

Manumission was what made a person a freedman. As I discuss in Chapter 4, manumission was always a possibility. Probably most emancipation took place for men by around age thirty and for women toward the end of their childbearing years, say their mid forties. Exceptions were always possible, of course, but relatively young men of talent would be most useful to their ex-masters and now patrons; older women might be of little economic use to the master, and could well be gotten out of the household. But there are no statistics, and clearly many slaves were never freed at any time in their lives. A master’s calculus might include personal as well as economic considerations; the matrix of decision-making is unknowable in detail.

The legal aspects of manumission can be briefly summarized. There were a number of ways to perform the act. These ranged from public and formal procedures before a magistrate to a very informal declaration of freedom in front of friends, to testamentary grants of freedom. It might have made a difference if a person were freed formally or informally, for informal manumissions did not technically carry Roman citizenship; only an inferior species of citizenship called Junian Latin status was granted. Although it might seem logical that many more slaves would be freed informally, and so with disabilities, than formally, the relative numbers are unknown; estimates have ranged as high as 40 percent or more being Latins, but it is impossible to know. Freedmen themselves do not make any distinction either in epigraphy or in fiction. No one identifies himself as a ‘Latin freedman’; Latins are almost completely absent from Roman legal documents. The absence in the evidence probably reflects a lack of concern in people’s minds to distinguish between freedmen with full citizenship and those with Latin citizenship. After all, they both had mostly the same economic, social, and legal rights. The main Latin disability was the inability to leave children an inheritance in Roman law. The only other ‘problem’ with being a Latin citizen within the Roman citizenship world was that you could not hold political office in Rome, or other place that was composed of Roman citizens. As I have repeatedly stressed, the inability to hold political office was not a worry in the minds of ordinary people, and certainly would not be in the minds of most freedmen. They had no hope, and no ambition, no thought to break into the ranks of the local, much less the imperial, elite. While occasionally the Latin status was important in an elite context, it was never so in the lives of most ordinary Romans. It is fully justifiable to treat freedmen who gained freedom formally in the same discussion as those who were informally manumitted, and the groups are conflated in the discussion below.

As I have mentioned, the elite cultural, social, and economic paradigm could only be sustained through the employment of capable, trusted slaves in positions of supervision and management. Although free labor was hired when help was needed on a seasonal or specific project, there is little evidence that free persons were hired to do the supervisory work that a slave or freedman could do, and they literally could not be a business representative. A prime example of a reliable freedman is Cicero’s indispensable Tiro, first his slave and then his freedman. Among the local elite, Lichas of Tarentum is a wealthy merchant in Petronius’ novel, who owns ships, has estates, and uses quite a number of slaves to carry out the household’s business transactions; it is these who might expect ultimately to be freed. Legal authorities Ulpian and Gaius make it clear that both male and female slaves could be used by masters as agents. This would pave the way to freedom with skills learned. And, indeed, some freedmen’s freedom comes after being witnesses or agents in their masters’ poisonings, murders, and crimes. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote of freedmen ‘who having been confidants and accomplices of their masters in poisonings, receive from them their freedom as a reward’ (Antiquities 4.24). This sort of unethical behavior should not surprise, for freedmen served their former masters, and if those were engaged in nefarious activities, it is only natural to suppose that their freedmen would have been as well.


14. Freedom at the death of a master. Frequently a master would reward faithful slaves with their freedom at his death, thereby keeping their service for his lifetime and harming only his heirs, who lost valuable property. In this relief, mourners surround the bier. Note the woman wearing a freedman’s cap at the lower right.

The same usefulness extended to more ordinary people holding slaves. Here an owner has freed a slave and set him up in the business of engraving in gold and silver:

This is dedicated to the spirits of Marcus Canuleius Zosimus, dead at age 28. His former owner set this up to a well-deserving freedman. He in his life spoke ill to no one and did everything according to his ex-master’s wishes. He always had in his possession a great amount of gold and silver, but never ever did he covet any of it. He surpassed all in the art of engraving in the Clodian technique. (CIL 6.9222 = ILS 7695, Rome)

This usefulness to the master as a slave is the formative fact of a freedman’s life. It is perfectly conceivable that a master might free a slave out of kindness and consideration for a job well done, or to demonstrate generosity, or to create free dependents who would enhance his social status, or to profit from a slave purchasing his freedom, or even just to get rid of deadwood he no longer wished to spend money on for living expenses. But the most rational progression was from selection of a young slave as especially talented and responsible (and perhaps sexually appealing, as in the case of Trimalchio), to assigning the slave duties, to promoting the slave to management of an aspect of the master’s business affairs, to freeing the slave and continuing to benefit from his services once a freedman, thus retaining economic return without the expense of maintaining a slave.

This brings us to a central observation about freedmen, long noted: Freedmen appear in business of various sorts in large numbers. Not only is this attested to in epigraphy; the phenomenon appears in elite descriptions as well as in novels and documents. The reason for this is that in the Romano-Grecian world the ability to raise capital for a new venture was extremely limited. An ordinary person could not borrow start-up funds easily on reasonable terms because of the comparatively underdeveloped banking and finance system. Incremental growth, i.e. growth funded from direct profits, was always possible, but margins did not facilitate this. On the contrary, freedmen clearly came into business in large numbers with the financial backing of their masters either in operations as a slave, or later as a freedman, or both. For the masters this made perfect sense because they needed reliable persons to act on their behalf. By using slaves, who were legally part of the master, so to speak, and freedmen, who had obligations and ties to the master, a master could be as certain as possible of good management. The legal authority Gaius affirms this: ‘A reasonable cause for freeing a slave is if he frees him for the sake of having an agent’ (Institutes 1.19). Through slaves and freedmen, an elite’s business activities could be conducted without trusting free partners or agents, and without the social reprobation of direct business dealings.

For the slave-to-become-freedman, the master held out two inducements to hard work: the promise of freedom for a job well done, and the chance to earn and keep private money, the peculium or ‘stash’ that slaves were allowed to accumulate, looking forward to the day of freedom. For a slave with ambition and talent, these inducements coupled with a future in business and hope for a decent life, possibly even wealth, were very appealing. The ongoing relationship of a freedman to his patron ranged widely. There might be none at all (if the patron was dead, or if payment for freedom had severed all important ties), or a very close one if the freedman remained physically in the patron’s household. But the origins of the freedman’s success in freedom were directly bound to his experience under his master, and to opportunities that afforded.

The Brazilian evidence gives us a striking parallel:

Slaves who handled such supervisory positions with skill and responsibility were often rewarded for faithful service. Their owners permitted them to acquire property for their own use, including land and other slaves, and eventually to earn their freedom by buying themselves. Such freedpersons often continued in a client relationship with their former owners; and thus a slave’s ownership of his or her person and of other slaves did not threaten a slave owner. Rather, the success of the slave tended to increase the slave owner’s status and position in society, since command over people was a function of high status in the society. (Karasch, Slave Life)

A freedman’s life began and was formed within the master’s household, his familia, as a slave, a nonperson. Upon manumission he was ‘born again’ and his manumitter, the master, became his ‘patron,’ a word from the same root as pater, ‘father.’ In legal texts a freedman is equated with a son. The Digest states, ‘By freedman or son the person of patron or father should always be honored and held sacred.’ In the official nomenclature of a Roman citizen, the filiation – naming the father – is replaced with libertation – naming the freeing master, the patron. The restrictions, duties, and obligations of a son were much like those owed by a freedman, although in important ways a freedman was freer than a son who was under the authority of his father. For example, although a son could not marry, or keep his earned money, or hold property in his own right, a freedman could do all these things. But a freedman could not bring lawsuits or bear witness against his patron, as a son could not against his father. Most of all, both were supposed to honor and obey the father/patron as the source of their being; indeed, obedience was the highest good in a slave-become-freedman, as it was in a son or daughter. The burial of freedmen with other family members emphasizes the close connection to the household. The epigraphic record has hundreds of examples of this habit, for example:

Sextus Rubrius Logismos, silversmith, ordered in his will that this grave monument be built for himself and Rubria Aura his freed-woman and Sextus Rubrius Saturninus his son and all his freedmen and freedwomen and their descendants. (AE 1928.77, Rome)

Eutychia his daughter set this monument up to the Spirits of the Dead and to Titus Labienus Patavinus her well-deserving father and to their freedmen and freedwomen and their descendants. (CIL 5.2970, Padua, Italy)

From the relationship in slavery and manumission sprang variations of specific obligation, going beyond whatever a possibly ersatz father–son relationship might have supposed. These were of two kinds: unwritten, open-ended ones called obsequia (loyal behavior) and officia (bounden duties), continuing the ideals of obedience and dutifulness in a slave; and specifically listed ones called operae (tasks or specified owed services). The obsequia and officia expected by the cultural norms might include, in general, anything that would contribute to positive standing in society such as loyalty in disputes with others, publicly acknowledging the social importance of the patron by being a visible client, or helping out if the patron hit a rough patch. A freedman’s owed services that he agreed to overtly upon manumission might differ quite substantially, depending on whether he stayed in the household, or operated outside it in business or other affairs. Owed services might include such things as a specified number of hours of labor in the patron’s interests or household. And it should be noted that not all slaves had any duties at all to a former master since a slave who purchased his freedom outright might have no ties beyond what he perhaps retained as a purely emotional matter as a former member of the household. In reality both formal and informal kinds of obligation could vary widely, but as they existed they fulfilled a former master’s desire to control and benefit from the existence and labor of his former slave. The direct benefit to the freedman was that performing his duties kept him in the good graces of the patron, and so assured support he might get in life (for example, help in legal troubles) and in business, such as continued capital investment by the patron. The patron benefited both socially and financially. The arrangement was mostly advantageous to both parties.

Abuses quite naturally were common in the system. The freedman might get ‘uppity,’ especially if he was successful in business, and renege on the dutifulness a patron felt was his right. Elite literature is full of railings against ungrateful freedmen, and legal decisions attempt to deal with it as well. Clearly the aristocracy of the empire perceived overpowerful freedmen to be a problem. But for ordinary freedmen the problem was abuses by patrons. One was to demand excessive operae. A patron might compel work past the agreed-upon number of years, for example. The Digest states that a freedwoman over fifty years old could not be forced to provide labor for her patron, so clearly this had happened; also, a woman who had been freed could not be forced to marry her patron (although if the woman when a slave had promised to marry him upon manumission, she was compelled to follow through on the promise).

Another was to impose on the bonds of loyalty and demand that tasks be done that were inappropriate because of the age of the freedman, or his physical condition, or the time required to perform the task and so take the freedman away from his own gainful employment. Sometimes the master tried to control future behavior of the freedman by forcing him to accept a large loan, thus binding him to the patron through debt; he might also force him to remain unmarried so that the patron would inherit the freedman’s estate, rather than having it go to offspring. In the case of informal manumissions, the patron could and did threaten to retract the grant of freedom even though this might not be strictly legal; a simple denial that the grant took place would suffice, especially if the patron had been clever and granted the freedom without any witnesses present. The authorities were likely to side with the patron in any dispute, as evidence from Egypt shows: the prefect of Egypt informs a freedman that he will be flogged if the prefect hears any further complaints about him from his patron (P.Oxy. 4.706). In short, patrons often used whatever means they had, illegal and legal, to bind freedmen; as Artemidorus wrote,‘… many freed slaves nonetheless continue to act as slaves and to be subject to another’ (Dreams, 2.31).

Because freedmen figure so prominently in elite literature and in the legal writings, it is easy to think that they were numerous. But trying to identify just who is a freedman is a tricky business. To be sure there are some self-identified freedmen, those who announce the status on their tombstones, and some literary examples as well, most notably the cast of Trimalchio’s dinner in Petronius’ Satyricon. But taking a lead, as so often, from elite literary references to freedmen in every nook and cranny, historians have sought freedmen in large numbers. The search methodology is based upon the fact that there is a reasonable correlation between a certain set of names, mostly of Greek origin, and freedman status as overtly attested to in inscriptions. This fair correlation is then expanded into assertions based upon most if not all persons carrying such names being freedmen, and demographic statistics then follow. Without going into statistical detail, it can be said that this procedure is highly suspect. In fact, there are many apparently freeborn persons with ‘freedman’ names, and announced freedmen with names not on the ‘freedman list.’ The end result is that it cannot be known with any certainty whether a person is a freedman or not unless he tells us so, most normally by using the epigraphic formula ‘freedman of X’ to indicate he was freed by a particular owner.

The difficulty is increased because ‘freedman’ was not a category of the street; that is to say, ordinary people did not go around identifying themselves as ‘freedman,’ nor, apparently, did others so identify them, unlike the readiness to identify someone as a slave. In the New Testament, for example, there is a single possible reference to people who are freedmen (although the status of freedman is used metaphorically to describe followers of Christ); allegations that, for example, Lydia, the dealer in purple of Acts 16, was a freedwoman or that Paul was the son or grandson of a freedman have no proof in the texts themselves. In The Golden Ass a single episode in the novel (10.17) involves a person identified as a freedman, and I know of no reference in the Greek romances. People designated as freedmen are rare in the papyri. Mention of them is also rare in Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams; there is one reference, for example, to whether the dreamer will marry a freedwoman, but this is definitely an outlier. Unlike many social types such as women and slaves, ‘freedman’ is not a trigger for meaning in dreams – there is no connection made, for example, between arrogance and freedmen, or ungratefulness and freedmen; they just do not appear as meaning-carriers. Given that Artemidorus was assembling interpretations from his dossier of dreams dealt with, this means that the clients were not dreaming dreams with freedmen in them and, even more, without traits of freedmen as noted in elite literature carrying dream meaning. While a contributing factor might be that Artemidorus is writing for an audience in the Greek East, where freedmen were far fewer than in Italy. When evidence from dreams is added to other material, it is clear that people were not terribly interested in ‘freedman’ as a defining category.

This indifference starkly differed from the freedman’s own sense of accomplishment in gaining freedom. A clear indication of this is that freedmen often identified themselves as ex-slaves on their gravestones by naming their ex-master.

Freeborn: C. Cornelius Cai filius Lupulus = Gaius Cornelius Lupulus, son of Gaius.

Freedman: C. Cornelius Cai libertus Lupulus = Gaius Cornelius Lupulus, freedman of Gaius.

Gaius Lupulus the freedman could have easily omitted ‘freedman of Gaius’; there was no need to put it there, just as there was no ‘requirement’ that a filiation (‘son of Gaius’) be added. The important thing to emphasize is that a person who had won his freedom was very much aware of the feat and voluntarily wished to display the fact on his gravestone. He was proud of winning his freedom and dying a free man. But at the same time, to all appearances, other ordinary folks did not particularly care on a daily basis whether a person was a freedman or not.

How many freedmen were there? I have noted that the status is intrinsically limited because it can apply only to slaves freed by Roman citizens. These citizens accounted for just 10 to 15 percent of the total population in the empire before universal citizenship in ad 212. Their freedmen numbered perhaps half a million. Remember that freed status disappeared after the first generation; at any given time among a numerous citizen population such as in Italy or a Roman citizen colony, perhaps only one in twenty was a freedman or freedwoman; in areas with few Roman citizens, a person would probably have to meet well over a hundred people to find himself dealing with a single citizen freedperson. These numbers are of necessity very gross estimates, as demographic information is lacking. But they do give some indication of the scale of the situation. And that scale is very small indeed, especially as compared with slaves, who constituted perhaps 9 million (15 percent) of the total population, varying, of course, by time and place. There is no question of a freedman population overwhelming a free population, or even of being numerically very visible. This conclusion stands directly against the impression of ‘Orontes flowing into Tiber’ of the elite sources and the supposed evidence of the names of freedmen that I have critiqued above.

Freedmen’s voices

It is time to let the freedmen speak for themselves. But before I do that, it is useful as a transition to look at the voice of an actual freedman’s son. This is Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the famous poet Horace. In his Satires (1.6.65–88), Horace tells of how his father had been a slave, probably enslaved during the civil tumults of the early first century BC. He was freed, and worked as a tax collector living in Venusia. He wanted his son to be educated. He did not send him to the local school in Venusia, however; rather, he took him to school in Rome and watched over him. According to Horace, his father just wanted him to be successful in the same frame as he himself was. But his father’s care paid off more than that. Horace’s talents landed him a place in the circle of Maecenas, patron of the arts at Rome. Horatius, therefore, is a clear example of an ambitious freedman father. There is no hint that he was ashamed of his freedman status, or of his profession – although he wanted his son to rise in society through a good education and connections. Horace stresses the general (he assumes) tendency to disparage someone whose father was a freedman. But it was only his attempting to rise that laid odium on the son at the hands of the elites he now cavorted with. And that son did not disown the father, but respected all that his freedman father did for him, raising him in a strongly moral fashion and helping him to better himself. Had Horace remained a merchant or an auctioneer, or a tax collector, Horace’s father would not have complained, he says. So in Horace’s father we have a freedman proud of who he was, eager for the betterment of his son, content in his place.

It is important to keep freedmen like Horace’s father in mind when scholars speak of freedmen belonging to a ‘marginal subcommunity’; or aver that ‘he had been a slave and neither he nor others could forget it.’ As I have shown, there is scant evidence for this, except as wealthy freedmen relate to elites. Indeed, the mere fact that there was no prohibition on intermarriage between freeborn and freedmen should be clear evidence that ordinary people didn’t care; the complementary restriction on the marriage of freedmen and members of the highest elite, the senatorial class, emphasizes that any ‘disgrace’ was in the eyes of that aristocracy alone. I can also point to the fact that freedmen were exempt from property taxes, just as freeborn citizens were; had they been second-class citizens surely this would not be the case. Nor was a freedman identifiable on the street. Upon manumission traditionally a freedman’s cap was worn, and there are illustrations of this. But this cap was a ceremonial one and not an everyday head covering. Freedmen looked and dressed just like everyone else on the street. A freedman lived as freeborn Romans did, and restrictions on his social standing were determined by economic circumstances, individual ability, and ambition, not by social restrictions.

There were legal disabilities, but these were not of much account. As I have noted, freedmen could not hold office in Rome or in municipalities, but how many would want to? They were barred from some Roman priesthoods, but how many aspired to them? They could not join the legions, although they were eligible for other military and quasi-military units. But as most male slaves were freed around age thirty, not many would have wanted to set out from there on a military career. In sum, these legal disabilities would not have touched the lives of ordinary freedmen in any significant way.

As most freedmen came to their freedom through their accomplishments under their master but, as the culture demanded, the master expected deference and material benefit from the freed slave, there were bound to be different feelings toward a master depending on the personality of the freedman, and that of the master. Some freedmen would respect and appreciate their patrons, as Hermeros says to Encolpius in Petronius:

I made every effort to please my master, a really high-class and dignified person whose little finger was worth more than your whole body and soul. (Satyricon 57)

Grave epigraphy has abundant evidence of this sort of honor given to a patron by a freedman; while it is possible to discount a few such occurrences as post-mortem sycophancy, or as required by a codicil of testamentary liberation, the frequency of positive remembrances must reflect good relations in many situations. For example:

Lucius Servilius Eugenes and Lucius Servilius Abascantus and Servilia Lais, the freedwoman of Lucius, set this up of their own free will to the best of patrons. (CIL 5.7955, Cimiez, France)

To the Spirits of Tiberius Claudius Onesimus, who lived 65 years, 6 months, and 5 days. Aurelia Dioclia his wife and Tiberius Claudius Meligerus his freedman set this up to the best of patrons. (CIL 6.15172, Rome)

To the Spirits of Quintus Fabius Theogonus, a paint dealer doing business in the Esquiline area near the statue of Plancus. Fabia Nobilis set this up to the very best and most thoughtful patron, well deserving of her greatest loyalty, and to herself. (CIL 6.9673, Rome)

Such good relations could be powerfully important to a freedman as he could derive not only material benefit from a favoring patron, but also prestige from association with him, should he be a pillar of the community.

Others might harbor resentments real or imagined against their ex-master and try, as I noted above, to avoid the formal and informal obligations owed, even to the extent of being hauled into court by a patron demanding that operae due be performed. Naturally these would not leave an epigraphic record and so remain anonymous. But there is evidence of a patron’s anger at an ungrateful freedman:

Marcus Aemilius Artema made this monument for Marcus Licinius Sucessus his well-deserving brother, and for Caecilia Modesta his wife and for himself and for his freedmen and freedwomen and their offspring EXCEPT the freedman Hermes who I forbid to have any entrance, approach or access to this monument because of his wrongs against me. (CIL 6.11027, Rome)

Legal sources list some of these ‘wrongs’ that freedmen did to their patrons: failure to carry out duties to a former master; insolent behavior; physical attack; spreading malicious rumors; inciting someone to bring legal action against them; or publicly accusing them at law.

Circumstances varied depending on whether the freedman remained in the patron’s household or set up in his own home and establishment. In the household, the freed slave would receive food and lodging, but would lack the freedom of action inherent in living on his own. On the other hand, being put out of the household upon gaining freedom could turn out to be much less happy than imagined. Epictetus, a freedman himself, holds up with not a little philosophical piquancy the possibility that a freed slave would find himself out in a world much less kindly than the one he left as a slave; I have quoted the passage in full in Chapter 4 (Discourses 4.1.34–7).

It is curious, and perhaps just a result of literary intent, that in almost all instances the freedmen in the ‘Trimalchio’s Dinner’ episode of the Satyricon cannot be shown to be either independent of or dependent on their patrons. The patrons are, in fact, invisible. Perhaps this is just so that the freedmen can be put on display, rather than because their patrons really did not figure in their daily lives. But at any rate, there would be freedmen who had no patron and so no patron to be involved. These would operate without the support but also without the interference of an ex-master.

Freedmen formed close relationships with other freedmen. For example:

To Aulus Memmius Clarus. Aulus Memmius Urbanus set this up to his fellow freedman and partner most dear to himself. Between me and you, O best of the best, my fellow freedman, I know in my heart there never was a hint of disagreement. And with this gravestone I bring the gods of heaven and hell to witness that you and I bought together at auction were freed together from the household, nor did anything ever come between us except your fatal day. (CIL 6.22355a = ILS 8432, Rome)

Naturally rivalries between freedmen existed at the same time as friendships. The gravestones of freedmen testify to the competition for recognition among themselves. Their very frequency coupled with an emphasis on accomplishments dear to freedmen’s hearts – success in family and business – bear witness to this. Such rivalries were normal within the context of the honor-driven culture. It seems, though, that normally freedmen associated with each other despite the competition. Freedmen at times formed their own associations, but this does not appear to have been a common phenomenon; few such groups are attested to in epigraphy. As might be expected from the fact that ordinary freedmen were not stigmatized or disabled in significant ways, they associated not only with their fellow freedmen but with freeborn as well. Thus much more commonly than ‘freedman’ associations, we find associations of mixed condition, very commonly free and freed, and often enough including slaves as well. Sometimes free, sometimes freed are leaders; there seems to be no pattern indicating that freedmen were discriminated against in any way; there is no ‘freedman milieu.’ Freedmen also mixed with slaves not only in the associations but also in other things, as can be seen in this dedication of an altar to the Lares Augusti:

When Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, and Lucius Paullus were consuls, these cult officers set up an altar to the Augustan Lares: Quintus Numisius Legio, freedman of Quintus; Lucius Safinius, freedman of Lucius; Hilarus and Sodalis, slaves of Gaius Modius Cimber; Aeschinus, slave of Octavius Marcus. (CIL 10.1582 = ILS 3611, Pozzuoli, Italy)

It is worth noting that these slaves and freedmen were not from the same owner and so had formed relationships outside their respective households.

The two most significant social accomplishments of freedmen were freedom itself and family. Although fictional, and buried in a narrative of an outrageously excessive freedmen’s dinner, Petronius’ Hermeros offers a defense of the dignity and pride in winning his freedom in his speech to Encolpius:

We only seem ridiculous to you. Behold your school master, an older man: We are pleasing to him. You are a child fresh off your mother’s breast, hardly able to utter ‘mu’ or ‘ma,’ a clay vessel, a soaking leather strap, softer, not better. You think you are better off? Then eat two breakfasts, dine twice a day. I prefer my good name to gold. And I might add, who has ever had to ask anything of me more than once? I was in bondage for forty years. Through it all, no one knew whether I was slave or free. I was a boy with long hair when I came to this town – they hadn’t even built the town hall yet. But I really worked to keep my master satisfied – a much-respected man and full of dignity, whose little finger was worth more than our whole being. There were, of course, those in the house who now and again tried to trip me up. Nevertheless – thanks be to the master! – I won through. These are the real accomplishments, for being born free makes life as easy as snapping your finger. (Satyricon 57)

Probably the first deed on the part of a newly freed slave was to try to free in turn the woman he had been living with in slavery and any children they might have had; as Hermeros states, ‘I bought out of slavery my slave wife, so that no one could wipe his hands on her bosom.’ Of course, not all freedmen would have had such a relationship in slavery, but if it did exist, freeing wife and offspring must have been of paramount importance. Otherwise, a freedman might marry after gaining his or her freedom. There were some disabilities for the wealthiest freedmen, especially relating to the prohibition against marrying into the senatorial class, but ordinary freedmen had the right to marry whom they pleased; if they had children, these possessed the same testamentary rights as freeborn. And there could still be some children for a freedman’s family even if, as is likely, freedom came for a man about age thirty and for a woman even somewhat later in life. In either case – children freed from slavery or children had later in life – a freedman’s family was far less taken for granted than a freeborn person’s might have been. The clearest evidence of families’ importance comes from freedmen’s gravestone inscriptions and, especially, relief sculptures. On these reliefs are found not the mythological themes and heroized portraiture familiar from grave reliefs of the elite. Rather we have ordinary people staring out from the grave, proudly dressed in the citizen garb of the toga and stola and often with a child between or beside the parents.

Dear bonds between freedman husband and wife are illustrated by the famous gravestone of Aurelius Hermia and his wife, Aurelia Philematio, quoted also in Chapter 4:

I am Lucius Aurelius Hermia, freedman of Lucius, a butcher working on the Vinimal Hill. This woman, Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius, who went before me in death, my one and only wife, chaste of body, faithfully loving a faithful husband, lived equal in devotion with no selfishness taking her from her duty. [Image of Philematio looking lovingly at Hermia.] This is Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius. I alive was called Aurelia Philematio, chaste, modest, ignorant of the foul ways of the crowd, faithful to my husband. He was my fellow freedman, the same now torn from me – alas! He was in truth and indeed like and more than a father to me. He took me on his lap a mere seven years old – now after forty years I am dead. He flourished in all his doings among men on account of my faithful and firm devotion. (CIL 6.9499 = ILS 7472, Rome)

Many other inscriptions, while brief, express a respect for a lost spouse:

For the Spirits of Gaius Octavius Trypho, freedman of Marcella.

Aelia Musa set up this monument to her well-deserving husband. (CIL 6.23324, Rome)

Another shows the respect a son had for the wish of his parents to be united in death as in life:

Marcus Volcius Euhemerus, freedman of Marcus, requests that after his death his remains along with those of Volcia Chreste, his wife, be placed in a single burial urn. Marcus Volcius Cerdo, Marcus’ son, did as his father asked. (CIL 6.29460 = ILS 8466, Rome)

These expressions of love and memory mirror similar declarations of fidelity, loyalty, and so forth commonly found on free persons’ grave markers.

In the Satyricon we have an example of a proud father ambitious for his children, much as Horace’s father was for him. Echion, a rag dealer, has two sons. One is of an intellectual bent and he is engaged in preliminary studies of Greek and literature. The other has completed his preliminary studies and now masters a bit of law and is being trained to take over Echion’s business, or to embark on another one such as law, or barbering, or auctioneering. An inscription gives another case of parental devotion. This time, a mother grieves for her daughter:

Posilla Senenia, daughter of Quartus, lies here. Quarta Senenia, freedwoman of Gaius, also. Passerby, stop, read what is written. A mother was not permitted to enjoy her only daughter. Some god – I do not know which one – envied her and made it not to be. Since it was not possible that she while living be dressed by her mother, after death her mother did this properly when her time on earth was up. She has clothed her finely with this tomb, she whom she loved all through her life. (CIL 9.4933, Monteleone Sabino, Italy)

Parents grieve for their children. Here a parent bemoans the fact that the child will never enjoy the parent’s hard-won freedom:

Sacred to the Spirits. I do not say his name, nor how many years he lived, lest the grief be alive in our hearts when we read this. You were a sweet little baby but death shortly took your life. You never enjoyed freedom. Alas, alas! Is it not grievous that he whom you love perish? Now death everlasting gave the only freedom he will know. (CIL8.25006, Carthage)

How many children freedmen had is impossible to say. I might speculate that many children born in slavery were not redeemed, that the freed slaves were too old to have large families. But it is simply impossible to know. Nor can it be known what happened in the next generation, for the marker of freed status, the ‘patronymic’ giving the name of the patron in place of the biological father, disappears, of course, in the nomenclature of the offspring of a freedman. This inscription illustrates how a couple, Atticus and Salviola, identify themselves as having emerged from slavery with the notation ‘freedperson of Eros,’ while they give their son, a child of now-free parents, the traditional filiation of a freeborn person, ‘son of Atticus’:

Gaius Julius Atticus, freedman of Eros, while living set up this monument. Julia Salviola, freedwoman of Eros, deceased, and Gaius Julius Victor, son of Atticus, dead at age 18, lie buried here. (CIL 13.275, St-Bertrand-de-Comminges, France)

As I have noted before, freedmen found their identity not only in their freedom and families, but in their work. Although there would naturally have been stratification within the category of freedman according to the success of work – the difference between a shopkeeper and a grand international trader – the focus on work and on fellows who made a living working is remarkable; perhaps half of all inscriptions of freedmen mention a craft or profession, a much higher percentage than on the epitaphs of freeborn and remarkably different from the focus of the elite on a life of leisure, avoiding notice of actual work as much as possible and competing for public office and recognition. At the very top of freedmen were the Augustales, in origin priests of the imperial cult, but whose office opened the way to active participation in a range of local duties and so to some extent substituted for the municipal offices freedmen were ineligible for. As the equivalent of the local freeborn elite, sharing their ambitions, these men are of no concern here. I mention them only to indicate that for a small subset of freedmen there was the local recognition that the elite in general craved as part of their raison d’être. Almost all freedmen, like almost all freeborn, cared not at all for office-holding and public life beyond neighborhood offices in professional and social clubs and associations, and found their satisfaction in their work, families, and friends.


15. A freedman family. The couple holds hands in the symbol of legitimate marriage; their two children are in the background.

A freedman coming out of slavery most often had a trade or occupation that he had learned or trained in as part of his slave experience. A good example of the process is the slave baker and cook in Apuleius’ Golden Ass (10.13–16). These brothers had been set up by a wealthy master in an establishment away from the slave household and operated independently. Although we do not know the end of their story, it is likely that they were eventually freed and went on to run food services as freedmen. Such was the normal pattern that found so many freedmen in business of one sort or another. The variety of this work was extensive. Trade and industry were primary foci since these businesses would be logical ones for masters to put their slaves to work at. Echion’s aspirations for his sons list occupations as barber, auctioneer, lawyer; Horace’s father listed merchant, auctioneer, or trader. The friends of Trimalchio at the dinner have the following occupations: porter, undertaker, petty trader, clothes dealer, huckster (or porter, again), pleader, innkeeper, state performer, stonemason/monument maker, perfume dealer, barber, auctioneer, muleteer, itinerant hawker or performer, cobbler, cook, and baker. Other sources note freedmen who were gladiators, actors, lawyers, doctors, artists, and architects. So they were active in a wide range of occupations. I would suppose that the higher mortality rate of towns and cities, where most freedmen lived, combined with smaller families to start with, probably meant that the constant replenishment of freedmen through manumission did not produce more merchants, artisans, and small-time professionals than the economy could bear.

In their social and economic world beneath that of the elite, freedmen had a rich religious life. Traditionally discussion of this focuses on the Seviri Augustales, the six-man board charged with the worship of the emperor mentioned briefly above. But all the others turned their attention to mundane religious activities in their daily lives too. Many, both men and women, were involved in religious associations in common with slaves and free men, especially in households as in this example:

Dedicated to Scribonia Helice, freedwoman, by the worshipers of the Household Gods and Fortune of Lucius Caedius Cordus. (AE 1992.334, Castelvecchio Subequo, Italy)

While the early Christian communities composed of a cross-section of ordinary people have been seen as, if not unique, at least extraordinary in the Romano-Grecian world, in fact that world was heavily populated with similar associations meeting social needs in various contexts – household, vocational, ethnic, locational, and, especially, religious. Freedmen were full participants. Freedmen even figured in the priesthoods of traditional Roman deities. Contrary to the usual assumption that only one, the Bona Dea, was open to freedmen, epigraphy shows activity and even leadership involving much other cultic activity. Indeed, priests of the Bona Dea do appear:

Maenalus, attendant official, dedicates this to Philematio, freedman of the emperor, priest of the Bona Dea (CIL 6.2240, Rome)

Gaius Avillius December, contractor of marble, rightly fulfilled his vow to the Bona Dea along with his wife Vellia Cinnamis. Erected when Claudius Philadespotus, imperial freedman, was priest and Quintus Iunius Marullus was consul, the sixth day before the Kalends of November. (CIL 10.1549, Pozzuoli, Italy)

But priests of other divinities do as well. For example, from Chieti comes a dedication of a freedman priest of Venus:

Gaius Decius Bitus, the freedman of Gaius, priest of Venus, dedicated this to Peticia Polumnia, freedwoman. (AE 1980.374)

While elsewhere we find freedmen related to the cult of the Vestal Virgins:

Decimus Licinius Astragalus, freedman of Decimus, priest of the Vestal Virgins [dedicated this]. (CIL 6.2150, Rome)

And to Ceres:

Publius Valerius Alexa, freedman of Publius, lived piously 70 years, a priest of Ceres; he lies here. (ILTun 1063, Carthage)

Helvia Quarta, freedwoman, priestess of Ceres and Venus while alive set up this monument for herself. (CIL 9.3089, Sulmona, Italy)

Thus freedmen were active in many cults. Of the approximately 250 Latin inscriptions indicating vows to gods I examined, over half, leaving aside clearly local divinities, are to gods of Roman religion: Jupiter in his many guises, Hercules, Mercury, Silvanus, Juno, Diana, Apollo, and Fortuna. Isis is the only ‘foreign’ religion represented, although other evidence makes it clear that another ‘foreign’ cult, that of the Phrygian Great Mother (Magna Mater), was also much used by freedmen, some of whom are attested as priests. This spread of traditional and newer gods is typical of the record of devotion for the population in general. Once again, freedmen do not stand out from their free counterparts in the religious aspect of their social and cultural lives.

Nor do they in death. There is a cemetery filled with the graves of ordinary Romans at Isola Sacra between Rome and Ostia. In this cemetery the graves of freedmen and freeborn Romans are indistinguishable and are intermixed. There is neither ‘freedman art’ nor ‘freedman habit’ nor a ‘freedman section’ which would separate freedman’s tombs from others. As in other aspects of religion, honoring the dead was done in conformity with general standards and habits of the population. Freedmen single themselves out on grave monuments in being especially proud of their families and their freedom, but otherwise they acted just like those they had associated with while living.


A freedman lived with the constant incubus of a previous servile existence hovering over him. Or so we are told: The general view is that they lived under a stigmatic cloud because of their formerly servile status, and that this stigma stayed with them for life, no matter how successful. To the elite, fixated on a ‘free’ life as the only one worth living – i.e. a life ideally, if not really, free from subjection to another – the mere fact of servile origin seemed an ineradicable mark of Cain, one that doomed the bearer to a life of angst and insecurity, if not self-loathing. But the evidence does not indicate that this was, in fact, the case at all. Freedmen seemingly without blush and often with evident pride declare themselves ‘ex-slaves’ on their tombstones. While the elite might emphasize the servile origins, the freedman rather would find pride in his success as a good slave that had earned him his freedom. He had, in fact, in most cases been promoted (i.e. freed) because he was good at what his master wanted done. His previous servile condition was no fault of his, and his progression out of it a sure sign of his qualities as a human being, for he had made the most of the situation. His servile life had been his home; he normally retained good feelings for his former slave community after ‘promotion’ and once free moved easily between the two worlds, a liminal figure but not a conflicted one. Likewise, as presumably his freedom owed some if not all to a good relationship with his owner, he could also navigate in the world of the masters, knowing when to be obsequious, when to offer advice, when to hold back, and when/how to push, whether in relations with elites or subelites, or merely with powerful freeborn foremen or other freedmen. Selected for a variety of survival and success skills, the typical freedman was multifaceted, socially savvy, and economically prepared. He was a dynamic player in the world of ordinary Romans.

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