The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

The regularity of manumission at Rome*

Thomas E. J. Wiedemanna1

a1 University of Bristol

The institution of slavery has served to perform different functions in different societies. The distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ slavery can be a useful one: in some societies slavery is a mechanism for the permanent exclusion of certain individuals from political and economic privileges, while in others it has served precisely to facilitate the integration of outsiders into the community. ‘The African slave, brought by a foray to the tribe, enjoys, from the beginning, the privileges and name of a child, and looks upon his master and mistress in every respect as his new parents… by care and diligence, he may soon become a master himself, and even more rich and powerful than he who led him captive.’ The model of an ‘open’ slavery implies that service as a slave is not a state to which a person is permanently, let alone ‘naturally’, assigned, but more akin to an age-grade. A parallel might be domestic or agricultural service as it was practised in much of Europe until this century — a period spent serving in another household after childhood and prior to marriage.

A Roman slave, on formal manumission, joined the community of citizens. To what extent ought we therefore to succumb to the temptation to see slavery at Rome — in contrast to the Greek world — in terms of the ideal type of a ‘process of integration’? In a noted article on ‘Die Freilassung von Sklaven und die Struktur der Sklaverei in der römischen Kaiserzeit’ (Rivista Storica dell' Antichitià 2 [1972], 97-129), G. Alföldi argued that in the Roman Empire slavery was an ‘Übergangszustand’ (p. 122), a transitional state which ultimately gave most slaves a recognised if not a fully equal place as members of the Roman citizen community.


* An earlier version of this article was delivered as a lecture at the University of Osnabrück in November 1982. I am grateful to Professors Rainer Wiegels, Detlef Liebs and Peter Brunt, and to the Editors of the Classical Quarterly for their suggestions as to improvements; the opinions, and errors, remain my own.